In a hyper-stressed world filled with work, school, extra activities and more, we’re all looking for the secret of how to relax and unwind — especially before bed. In addition to your favorite family activities — taking a walk, enjoying a good show or film, reading together or playing a game — could you promote relaxation by making great food choices?
It’s possible, says Jodi Nemeth, mom of four kids and a metro Detroit-area Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist. While there are some foods and everyday rituals that offer that extra feel-good factor and promote relaxation, just knowing you are providing your kids with a balanced diet can help you, as a parent, relax.
“To feel content that you are providing your body and your child’s with all the nutrients they need each day, focus on variety and try to include all the recommended serving sizes of each food group,” Nemeth says. She suggests checking out myplate.gov to learn more about how vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins and dairy can all play a role in providing a balanced diet.
Here, Nemeth offers more information — and food for thought — about the relationship between healthy eating and relaxation for you and your family, and some great recipes selected with relaxation in mind.
Warm milk before bed?
It’s a time-honored tradition that a cup of warm milk before bed can help provide a relaxing path to a restful sleep, but is that actually true? There is some science behind granny’s advice, Nemeth says.
“Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan that plays a role in the production of melatonin,” she says. “Melatonin is the hormone associated with your circadian rhythm and sleep cycle.” What’s not clear is if the quantity found in a cup of warm milk is enough to produce the desired effect.
“What is true is that having a ritual at night is a healthy habit to help you fall asleep,” Nemeth adds. “Maybe the ritual of a warm glass of milk puts your mind at ease. It can be a ritual you can enjoy with your kids, too.”
The benefits of milk before bed can be a whole package because the added nutrition milk provides peace of mind. You can rest easy knowing you’ve given your body and your kids’ bodies what they need to thrive.
“Knowing that a glass of milk before bed is providing your body with protein that helps muscles recover while you sleep, Vitamin A and Vitamin D plus Zinc to boost our immune system may just give you that content feeling that you are ending the day by providing your body with that goodness,” Nemeth says
If thinking ahead to tomorrow’s breakfast is part of your nighttime ritual, here’s a bonus. Check out this simple recipe for Overnight Oats with Apples and Peanut Butter. Prepare this as you gently warm your before-bed milk, and you’ll rest easier knowing your family’s morning meal is already prepared.
So, in addition to often-quoted advice of avoiding screens close to bedtime, taking a warm bath and winding down with a book, a cup of warm milk can contribute to a healthy pre-bed ritual for your kids, and even for you.
Gut health is a real thing
There is a lot of talk about gut health these days, but what does a healthy gut mean for the rest of your body? More than you might think.
“You may have heard of the gut-brain axis,” says Nemeth. “Your gut contains millions of neurons, which are connected to your brain through your nervous system.”
Here’s where that gut-brain connection comes into play, she adds. “Improvements in gut health can lead to improved mood, and the reverse is true, too. Techniques to improve your mood through relaxation can improve your gut health.”
Beneficial probiotics in dairy foods like yogurt and kefir, which is a type of fermented milk, can actually support gut health.
“Maybe warm milk doesn’t appeal to you, but a snack of yogurt in the evening could give you those same nutrients as well as some beneficial probiotics. Probiotics are the good bacteria you will see on the yogurt label as ‘live and active cultures.’ These friendly bacteria promote a healthy digestive tract,” Nemeth says.
Kid feeling stressed? Maybe it’s hunger
Hunger may not be an obvious feeling and we all experience hunger differently. But we may feel irritable when we’re running on empty, and our kids can feel this way, too.
“I think we all know that ‘hangry’ feeling,” Nemeth says. “This is another example of how food can affect mood.” Having nutritious snacks on hand can help parents keep hunger-induced irritability at bay.
“Also, younger children require snacks to help meet their nutrition needs. Their tiny tummies can’t fit all the nutrition that they need in a day into three meals. They need those extra nutrients in a healthy snack,” Nemeth says.
Nemeth says she recommends that kids and adults alike who are seeking a good snack should choose a combination of carbohydrate and protein.
“Dairy can be a good source of both or can combine well with other foods to give you a nutritious balanced snack,” she says. “Some examples that I give my patients — and eat myself — are apple slices with a cheese stick, whole grain crackers with cheese, a banana with a glass of chocolate milk or a yogurt parfait.”
Learn more about how dairy foods contribute to a healthy diet at milkmeansmore.org.