When the topic of healthy eating is brought up these days, most people associate it with its impact on physical health. And it is true: healthy eating does contribute to better physical health. But what most people overlook is another, very important benefit of healthy eating, which is its impact on mental health.

Good nutrition, used in conjunction with other healthy practices, can help improve one’s mood, mental clarity, and focus. When the body is fueled with nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods, it is better for both the body and the mind. Creating a habit of healthy eating can help to improve one’s mood on bad days. Certain fruits and vegetables trigger serotonin release, the hormone that stabilizes your mood and induces happy feelings. Tryptophan, which is used by the body to help make melatonin and serotonin, is an essential amino acid. This means that the body does not produce it, and you need to include it in your diet. You can find high levels of tryptophan in pineapple, bananas, kiwi fruit, plums, and tomatoes.

Preparing nutritious food isn’t only beneficial for children. According to registered dieticians at Have A Plant, “some studies indicate that adults who prepare their own meals may have greater feelings of self worth and confidence in their kitchen abilities. This is likely due in part to feeling better about preparing, and consuming, nutritious meals. Those who enjoy cooking may even view the process as a form of self-care.” Early participation in choosing and preparing a healthy meal can instill healthy habits in children that will last a lifetime.

Children are more likely to try new food if they are part of the food preparation process. Work together to create no-bake blueberry treats, or get creative with animal toast faces. Make your vegetable snacks more appealing with an easy peanut butter dip. Adding vegetables to familiar entrees can also be beneficial. Consider adding peas to mac and cheese, grated zucchini and carrots to pasta and mashed potatoes, or trying a cauliflower pizza crust. Over time, try transitioning to a healthier diet by switching out unhealthy foods for nutritious alternatives.

Mixing healthy food into children’s regular diet can help form a foundation of healthy habits for the rest of their life. A balanced diet can be achieved with simple snacks and small adjustments to foods you already eat. Explore time saving ideas on making healthy meals for kids, or discover fun ways to teach children about nutrition. For child care providers, the 4-C food program helps support serving nutritious meals and snacks to children in care.