Food + Mood Connection

By Trish Jonker, MA, LCPC

Food can represent many different things to different people. 

For some it is comfort, for some it is a task, for some it is community, for others it can become complicated with issues of control.

I want to start off first by setting some expectations for this blog.  Food can be powerful.  So above all else, when you are working with your children around issues with food, let’s start with the objective that we want a healthy relationship with food.  Choose your battles!  If you find your personal emotions are getting too wrapped up around snacks & meals, it might be time to take a step back.  If your kiddos are struggling to control their food intake, it might be time to pause.  I am going to throw out some tips & strategies, but if food is becoming a personal or family battle, you might want to seek out professional support first.  A therapist will be able to help you navigate these struggles and get you on a more balanced path.

Also, as many of us have experienced, food can be comforting.  So if you have just met the kiddos in your home recently, this might not be a change you want to make in the house.  You might want to continue to offer comforting foods for them while they are still transitioning and healing.

That being said, here are some fun & practical ideas you might find helpful.  Are you or the kids in your home struggling to manage their mood?  Are they stressed, irritable, anxious or depressed?

“The food you eat can be either the safest & most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”

-Ann Wigmor

Therapy can help. 

But sometimes our next appointment is a few days away, or you might have kiddos refusing to engage in talk therapy.  So one trick you can try is some food substitutions to help support their brain activity.


L-tryptophan is an amino acid that’s found in high protein foods (not just turkey!)  Your body uses tryptophan to create… Serotonin!  Serotonin is a chemical believed to produce healthy sleeping patterns as well as boost your mood.  You may have heard of antidepressants aimed at supporting serotonin production.  Well, you can also support this through food!  So increasing your L-tryptophan intake would be a good place to start to improve your food + mood connection.

High Protein Foods:

  • Fish & Meat
  • Greek Yogurt: go for the full fat option to get some healthy fats, but choose ones low in added sugar
  • Cheese: especially cottage cheese
  • Eggs
  • Protein Powders
  • Nuts:  especially almonds, peanuts & pumpkin seeds
  • Milk: dairy has higher protein levels (8g/serving), but if you prefer a dairy alternative, then oat milk would be the best (4g/serving)
  • Beans:  hummus is a good option

Increasing your family’s intake of high protein, healthy foods can help boost everyone’s moods.

But there is more…

Healthy Carbs speed up and boost L-tryptophan to the brain, and Healthy Fats help the brain absorb the nutrients.  So… Protein + Carb + Fat = Improved Serotonin Production.  Are there some snacks or meals you could change up so your family is getting a bit more brain support?  Here are some of the top choices in each category that you can combine together to make some new options for your family.

Healthy Carbs:

  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Bananas, Blueberries, Grapefruit, Apples & Oranges
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Whole grains

Healthy Fats:

  • Avocado
  • Cheese
  • Dark Chocolate:  Look for ones that contain 70%+ cocoa
  • Eggs
  • Salmon
  • Nuts
  • Chia Seeds
  • Oils: Extra Virgin Olive Oil & Avocado Oil
  • Full Fat Yogurt:  As mentioned above, going lower in fat with yogurt doesn’t show significant health gains – just look for yogurt that is lower in sugar

Take a moment and look at those three categories. 

  • Which items in each list does your family like?
  • Can you figure out some snack or meal options that would include items from each grouping?
  • Making some small, subtle changes can make a difference.

So now that you have some snacks, what about some drinks? 

This one might even save you some money… Water.  When we are dehydrated it can impact our brain function so encouraging your family to decrease their intake of caffeine, sugary and aspartame filled beverages and increase their water, could be a healthy switch you might want to try.  The goal for water intake is to drink half of your weight in oz.  So if your child weighed 100 pounds, then ideally they would drink 50 ounces of water each day.  I know that might seem like a lot.  But I have found that doing water challenges, placing water bottles with straws around the house and modeling my intake of water can be helpful.  When you are getting in the car, just grab some reusable bottles and put them by everyone’s seat.  A little more than yesterday is a great start!

One of the reasons the food + mood connection is so important is because we have to give our brains the support needed to function well.  If we are filling our bodies with ingredients like trans fats & sugars, our brains will not have what they need for us to feel and act at our best.  But another important piece to consider is digestion.  You can eat all the organic, healthy foods you want, but if your gut is not healthy, your body will struggle to absorb the nutrients you are giving it.

As best as you can, try to be aware of how your family is feeling after they eat.  Do they struggle with diarrhea, constipation, abdominal discomfort or gas?  That might be a sign that they are not absorbing the nutrients well.  Check in with your physician for support but in the meantime think about adding some pre/probiotics.  About 90% of your serotonin production takes place in your gut so let’s make sure it is as healthy as possible. You can drink it in Kombucha or Kefir, or eat it in some yogurts (even dairy free.) Pre/probiotics also come as chewables and drops as well as powdered formulas that you can drink or add to breakfast smoothies.

And what to avoid?

I would recommend limiting or avoiding Trans fats which may actually reduce serotonin production.  Trans fatty acids are formed when a liquid fat is converted to solid fat through a process called hydrogenation.  It might be tough at first to eliminate them from your house, but consider decreasing or substituting these types of fats.  Check the labels for trans fats that are often found in…

  • Store bought, packaged cakes, cookies and pies
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Frozen pizza
  • Refrigerated dough (biscuits and rolls)
  • Fried foods (French fries, doughnuts and fried chicken)
  • Non-dairy coffee creamer
  • Margarine
So this is a good start!  Taking some time to make some small changes is a great way to support the mood & behaviors in your house… by snacking!

Trish Jonker has a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and is currently a licensed counselor in 11 states and is certified in Integrative Medicine for Mental Health. But she’s not just a counselor, for the past 10yrs she has also been a foster mom / legal guardian to 8 kiddos (who are now ages 10 – 24). So taking her academic & professional work and combining it with her personal experience, she has created a counseling practice specializing in supporting foster & adoptive families through telehealth & in person sessions.   You can learn more about their story in her book, The Call to Love (available on Audible, Amazon & iTunes or at Trish is available for telehealth services and is a valued contributor to both blogs, podcasts, and hopefully future virtual trainings with Help One Child.

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