My mother always told me, "Food is love". Although I hate to admit it, she was right. It's not just food though; it's the act of giving it that's also valuable. With Valentine's Day, what better way to show love than with the gift of healthy foods!

We've always known that healthy foods promote healthy development; the recent policy statement  by the American Academy of Pediatrics highlights this by clarifying the importance of the first 1000 days of life to brain development and physical and mental health.  It's this early time period that sets kids' brains up for the rest of their lives!

Just as behavior plans can promote good behavioral skills, healthy food can promote healthy cognitive skills. In general, rewards can increase positive behaviors. And even though food rewards and gifts have gotten a bad rap over the years, offering healthy options can provide the same increases—perhaps without the guilt.

The food we eat turns into chemicals that our brains use to respond to the world. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin are essential to creating positive feelings. For example:

  • Serotonin is responsible for an overall happy mood and the desire to make others happy.
  • Dopamine fosters satisfaction and is stimulated when kids get something they want.
  • Oxytocin promotes trust, love, and bonding. Although this particular neurotransmitter may not be directly stimulated by what we eat, sharing a meal or the hug you might get for providing a fun meal will increase its availability in the brain.

So, what are some healthy ways to show your kids love with food this Valentine's Day?

Well, in the first two years of life, follow the AAP's recommendations and give your kids the gift of healthy snacks. Provide meals that include brain-building nutrients like protein, zinc, iron, choline, folate, iodine, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamins A, D, B6, and B12, according to the AAP's report. If you're breastfeeding, be sure your own diet includes foods with those nutrients so that your baby can reap those rewards. The process of giving and receiving food can further bond you to your children and lead to an increase in feelings of love and trust.

The best gifts for Valentine's Day include healthy options that make kids happy. Foods high in protein like hard cheeses, milk, turkey, walnuts, and tomatoes will help them feel happy and think happy thoughts. Even fruits like bananas, watermelon, grapefruit, pineapple, or kiwi can help to improve mood. Adding blueberries, yogurt, almonds, or legumes will also help kids feel satisfied. Finally, dark chocolate can actually stimulate all these feeling as well as promote cognitive skills like learning and memory.

So, to show your love this Valentine's Day, consider giving your child the gift of a healthy, brain-boosting breakfast of fruit and yogurt, and follow it up with a big, oxytocin-producing hug. If you pack a lunch, offer them a dark-chocolate-covered banana for an added memory boost during the school day.

While the AAP recommends advocacy for improving nutrition from conception through age 2, it shouldn't stop there. Improved nutrition is important for children of all ages and it's never too late to promote a healthy diet as well as access to high-quality nutrition.