The Happiness Diet: Food for a Happy, Resilient Child

The Happiness Diet: Food for a Happy, Resilient Child

When our kids are cranky, irritable, aggressive or exhausted, the culprit may not be too little sleep or even a bad day at school. The real problem may be lurking in plain sight – on the dinner table.

The typical U.S. diet leaves children overfed and undernourished, a recipe that can leave them tired and moody, according to psychiatrist and farmer Drew Ramsey, MD, co-author of The Happiness Diet and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s school of medicine.

Even more alarmingly, Ramsey points to growing research suggesting that a diet of nutrient-poor processed foods can lead to increased levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental and emotional disorders.

One study Ramsey cites found that teenagers with “low-quality junk food diets” are 79% more likely to suffer from depression. He proposes “food interventions,” or changing diets to help treat and prevent such disorders.

Since such mental health problems are more common in children with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), it’s especially important that kids dealing with tough circumstances eat healthy, nutritious foods. The good news for parents is that you can help break the cycle. “At the end of your fork is a decision greater than your own happiness,” Ramsey says in his book. “We should all want to give our children foods that grow brains ready to engage with the world.”

Here are some of Ramsey’s science-based tips:

  1. Avoid processed foods. All those store-bought cookies, chips, microwave meals and Lunchables? They’re full of empty calories that cause blood sugar to spike and crash, Ramsey says. Replace them with whole foods such as whole grains and nuts, lean meats, fish, and fruits and veggies such as leafy greens, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. These are among the best foods for brain health, according to Ramsey.
  2. Buy organic. It’s a little more expensive than regular produce, but you’ll have some extra money from ditching all those processed foods. Start by buying organic versions of the fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, cherries, peaches and pears.  
  3. Use good fats. You should avoid the hazardous trans fats found in many processed foods (you can find out whether a processed food contains trans fat by reading the food label on the package or wrapping.) On the other hand, “good fats” are crucial for a healthy brain, Ramsey points out. Among them are omega-3 fats called DHA and EPA (found in seafood and walnuts, among other sources) and a cancer-fighting fat called CLA (found in eggs, milk, meat and seafood).
  4. Be a role model. “Eat the foods you want your kids to eat and let them see you enjoy it,” says Samantha Elkrief, LMSW, a therapist, health coach and chef at Drew Ramsey’s clinic. “Keep offering new foods to your kids, even if they spurn vegetables at first. Roasted vegetables are a great way to add some sweetness, which we all love.”
  5. Cook with your kids. “If your children help you make a smoothie by picking out the ingredients in the store, then choosing which ingredients go in the blender, they will be more likely to taste it,” says Elkrief. (You can even blend veggies like spinach into fruit smoothies). “Kids who are involved with their food feel more agency and curiosity and are more likely to try new things.”
  6. Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

    Eat for happiness. Aim for a tasty variety of food groups and colors, since plant colors represent different vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting plant chemicals. Start by seeing what leafy greens your kids are willing to try, suggests Elkrief. Leafy greens like spinach help combat inflammation, which is linked to depression, according to Ramsey; so do seafoods, nuts and berries. In fact, berries pack one of the most powerful punchs of antioxidants of any food except herbs and spices. Try them in smoothies, sprinkled on yogurt or cereal or just straight out of the carton.

  7. Get to know your local farmer. It’s important for kids to know where real food comes from. Look for events held at local farms, visit the farmers’ market or join a Community-Supported Agriculture group, which will deliver fresh, local produce to your door. “It’s also great for kids to get involved with growing plants, in schools, community gardens, pots in the house — it adds a lot of magic and wonder,” says Elkrief.



 “One expression we love is ‘don’t yuck someone else’s yum,’”  says Elkrief. “So even if kids don’t like a food, they can respect that someone else does. It’s a fun and non-threatening way to start teaching respect around food and other people’s preferences in general.”


Graham, T, and Ramsey, D, MD. (2018). The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.

The Dirty Dozen.  (2018). The Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Retrieved from