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Does the food you eat make you happy and healthy? The volunteers who work for our food services often develop a keen interest in nutrition and healthy eating as they see the impact of our work. Volunteer Isabel took it one step further, however, when some research she undertook while volunteering for our food programmes led to a personal quest to find out what makes for feel-good food. 

Food plays a crucial role in our lives. We all know that it fuels our energy reserves to help us be active and healthy but studies have also shown that there is a connection between the food we eat and our mental wellbeing.

I am sure everyone can identify with this – whether it is returning from a hard day’s work and eating a meal you have craved all the way home or enjoying snacks while watching your favourite film to try and imitate that “cinema-feeling”.

The studies show that several foods may naturally boost your mood. These include protein-containing foods like eggs and beans, high-fibre foods such as oats, wholegrains and fruits as well as vegetables and oily fish. Naturally, the opposite is also true, with poor diet possibly leading to low moods and depression.

I was fascinated by these “mood foods” and quickly realized that some of the meals that made me feel the best were among them – such as rice paper vegetable spring rolls with a spicy chilli sauce, which I love.

Soon I became so interested I started asking around random people I met as a sort of experiment, and it confirmed what I’d found out about my favourite dishes: that they consisted of at least one of the mood foods.

A student told me that her feel-good dish was potato dumplings and that one of the reasons was because it made her feel nostalgic, reminding her of visits to her grandparents. From a healthy eating standpoint, however, we know that potatoes are a source of vitamins and nutrients, supplementing our bodies with the right components to make us feel happy.

The potato seems to be a happy-making vegetable – an elderly pensioner said that her favourite dish was a jacket potato topped with butter and a sprinkle of cheese or, on some days, topped with chilli con carne. One of the reasons why this was such a popular dish she would eat every few days was because it was so easy and simple to make.

However, not everybody had such simple tastes!

Another lady told me that her favourite dish was a classic roast dinner with all the trimmings, which reminded her of family meals in childhood. This makes perfect sense as a roast dinner is a meal often enjoyed in the company of family and/or friends – which means it doubles as a social event that improves your wellbeing.

Alongside eating in the company of others, some people also find that preparing meals with others makes them happy. Another student told me that her favourite dishes were created alongside someone else – for example, making a well-thought-out smoothie bowl with lots of fruits, vegetables and grains or preparing a nice picnic.

Sometimes a feel-good meal is all about the details. One man told me that his ideal food was a cheese sandwich and that he often craves it when travelling back from work. Although this sounds a bit ordinary it’s VERY important that this particular sandwich is served on a slice of wholegrain bread with a cheese slice and hot mustard spread on top. After that the cheese is layered with horseradish and cloves of garlic and onion slices. Finally, as a grand finale, chilli flakes are sprinkled on top.

It was fascinating to hear all the different answers people gave regarding their favourite dishes and I was surprised how often these were linked to nostalgia or social activities. It’s clear that just the act of preparing a meal and the memories that doing so brings about can be enough to boost a person’s mood. However, even though all these dishes are so different from one another, I have noticed that all these meals also contain some of the mood-enhancing foods mentioned in my initial research. I look forward to more research in this area so that we can put it to work helping the families working with Family Action to change their mood through food.

If you’re fascinated by how food is linked to wellbeing why not take a look at our Food Programmes page where you can find recipes and links to our services supporting families with their health and nutrition.