How Food Can Help the Defiant Child

By JoAnn Ridout, MPH, RD, LD
January 20, 2015


Does your child act out? Do you hear more negative feedback from your child’s teacher than you would like? Have you ever wondered if healthier food choices would help to change your child’s behavior?

It always surprises me when working on meal plans with school-aged children or teens that many go 4-5 hours without a break at school. When your child goes for long periods of time without eating, increased anxiety, irritability, or even a panic attack can occur. You can’t change the school schedule, but you can make sure you send the best foods possible to help your kids get through the day on their best behavior.

Start at home with a good breakfast

DefiantChild_DeviledEggs.jpgBe sure to start your kids off with a high-protein breakfast. Here are some healthy breakfast ideas:

  1. Start out the day with scrambled eggs (protein) cooked in butter (fat) and a serving of hash browns (carb) or you could make deviled eggs the night before to make the morning rush a little easier.
  2. Try a Protein Shake. Whey protein powder is a great way to increase happy, calm moods, before heading out the door or on the drive to school.
  3. Make an egg bake: Simply substitute hash brown potatoes for the bread that is usually in an egg bake recipe. That meal will include eggs and sausage (proteins), potato and veggies (carbs), and cream (healthy fat).

Keep the good-behavior-momentum going with a balanced lunch

At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we recommend eating PFC (protein, fats and carbs) in balance. That is exactly what is needed to de-escalate any defiant behavior your child is exhibiting. Some lunch ideas your child may enjoy are these:

  1. A turkey roll-up: 3-4 oz. nitrate-free deli turkey (protein) with cream cheese (fat) and a pickle (carb). Add pea pods, sliced carrots, cucumbers and a sliced apple (carbs) and peanut butter or almond butter (fat) on the side.
  2. Wild Rice Meatballs: 3-4 oz. of meatballs (protein) served with cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and celery (carbs), and a small banana (carb) with peanut or almond butter (fat).
  3. DefiantChild_MakingChickenNuggets.jpgHomemade chicken nuggets (protein) served with raw broccoli, cauliflower, baby carrots (carbs) and Lil Dipper (fat).

Healthy fats and carbohydrates help to stabilize blood sugar, and the protein will help the carbohydrates digest more slowly to have longer lasting positive moods. Whatever combination you send to school with your child, always be sure to include all three elements of a balanced lunch: protein, carbohydrates and fat. (Want more ideas? Check out these 3 Easy School Lunch Ideas).

DefiantChild_HealthySnack.jpgSnacks will help, too

Send your child to school with snacks that include protein, along with carbohydrates and healthy fats. Here are some healthy snack ideas:

  1. A nitrate-free beef stick (protein), a clementine (carb) and nuts (fat).
  2. A hard-boiled egg (protein) and a small apple (carb) with nut butter (fat).
  3. A cheese stick (protein), carrot sticks (carb) and olives (fat).
  4. A quality protein bar can be a good snack. Be sure to avoid bars with soy protein and artificial sweeteners.
  5. Any of the lunch suggestions in a small portion work for snacks, too.

A lunch bag with a freezer pack may be required for some of these ideas.

Other ways you can help improve your child’s behavior:

  • Stay away from candy, pastries, and high-sugar snacks with artificial flavors and food dyes.
  • Avoid convenience foods made with nitrates, nitrites and MSG.
  • Avoid juice and energy drinks which often contain sugar, caffeine, aspartame and sucralose.

Often the convenience foods we grab contain sugar and gluten which are stressful for the brain. These simple carbohydrate foods raise the blood glucose quickly, followed by a quick blood sugar drop that can cause anxiety and depression and can exacerbate behavior. Energy drinks are also bad for the brain and can lead to anxiety, a lack of focus and acting out.

Do your best to have your child avoid eating foods containing these ingredients, and you’ll be amazed at the changes you’ll see in behavior.

Need more help?

If you are struggling with your child’s behavior, consider making an appointment with a nutrition counselor to help you with a customized plan for meals, snacks and supplements to help you and your child get the most out of the school day!

For more information on this topic, listen to our January 17 podcast: How Food Can Help the Defiant Child.

About the author

JoAnn has always appreciated the value of good nutrition because diabetes and cancer run in her family. Not only does JoAnn understand chronic diseases, but also she has taken on challenging and complex health conditions when she worked as a registered dietitian at Courage Center for 25 years. JoAnn brings extensive experience, along with compassion and understanding to your health concerns. JoAnn graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor of science in nutrition and dietetics and a master of science in public health. As a registered dietitian and nutrition educator, she has experience in therapeutic nutrition counseling, weight management, and nutrition education.

View all posts by JoAnn Ridout, MPH, RD, LD

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