5 Mood-Boosting Recipes To Help Mental Health

By Rachel Kelly

So we are edging gingerly back to a new normal, holding on tight to whatever keeps us calm in a world that is anything but. For many — judging by our social media feeds — that has involved baking and cooking.

But the power of food to affect our mood is about much more than the soothing effects of cooking itself. In fact, the importance of diet for our psychological health — or nutritional psychiatry — is finally being taken seriously by mainstream psychiatrists; never more so than now as we face a tsunami of anxiety as lockdown lifts. Microorganisms in our digestive system, which are affected by our diet, both secrete and react to serotonin and dopamine, our ‘happy hormones’. In fact, around 90 per cent of our serotonin is made in the gut — there is more serotonin in the gut microbiome than in our brains.

As someone with a history of depression, using food to boost mood has become an important tool in my own wellbeing kit, so much so that I co-wrote a book, The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food with nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh. The book summarises the research in this important new field of wellbeing, as well as sharing recipes to put the theory into practice.

Here are five recipes which I hope will help your mental wellbeing.

Steak salad

© Photography Laura Edwards

Fatigue can be one of the most potent side-effects of antidepressants. Alice says that before dealing with anxiety, our best bet is to boost energy levels: “Once you feel more energetic, you will in turn exercise more and sleep better, both key for mental wellbeing,” she says. Iron is fundamental to our energy levels and essential for keeping our blood oxygenated.

The marriage between the iron-rich steak, colourful salad, zingy horseradish and creamy feta is perfect. Be sure not to buy artichokes soaked in vinegar as the flavour will overpower the salad. If possible, use grass-fed steak, which contains more nutrients than intensively farmed beef.

If you’re vegetarian, swap the steak for dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and watercress, as well as edamame beans — all great sources of iron. Ideally, have this recipe with a glass of orange juice as vitamin C aids iron absorption.

Serves two

What you’ll need:

2 x 250g rump steaks, ideally around 3cm thick

For the dressing:

1 tbsp of Worcestershire sauce

1 tbsp of crème fraîche

1 tsp of horseradish sauce

1 tsp of cider vinegar

1 tsp of honey

1 tsp of olive oil

For the marinade:

1 handful of parsley, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

6 tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil

Juice and zest of ½ lemon

4 drops of Tabasco (optional)

For the salad:

80g of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

6 sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 artichoke hearts, quartered

100g of rocket, washed and drained

8 red radishes, thinly sliced

70g of feta cheese, crumbled

4 tbsp of pomegranate seeds (optional)

2 tbsp of toasted pine nuts (optional)

How to prepare:

1. Make the dressing by combining all the ingredients and shaking them together in a jar.

2. Trim the harder fat off the steaks, brush with oil and season both sides with salt.

3. Heat a griddle or heavy-based pan and add the meat. Cook for 4 minutes on each side. If you prefer your steak well done, then leave for another 1 to 2 minutes on each side.

4. Meanwhile, make the marinade. Whisk together all the ingredients in a dish big enough to accommodate the steaks.

5. Place the steaks in the marinade for 8 minutes, turning them halfway through. Then remove them to a board and slice them thinly on the diagonal.

6. While the meat rests, combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Pour over three-quarters of the dressing and toss everything together.

7. To serve, place the sliced steak on a bed of the salad and pour over the rest of the dressing.

Chicken pie

© Photography Laura Edwards

Many of us continue to grieve in some way for the loss of loved ones or for a future which now looks very different. Rather than feel like you must stop comfort eating, Alice taught me to redefine what comfort food is, substituting healthy substitutions for less healthy ones. Classic comfort foods tend to be high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, creating the kind of sugar highs and lows that play havoc with mood. Our chicken pie is a healthy twist on a familiar favourite. Chicken is rich in protein, as well as zinc and B vitamins, and sweet potatoes are a great source of fibre and beta carotene. If you prefer white potatoes, leave the skin on to retain the fibre.

Serves two

What you’ll need:

500g of sweet or white potatoes

5 tbsp of olive oil

300g of chicken thighs or breasts (skinless and boneless), chopped into 2cm chunks

1 leek, cut into slices

10 brown mushrooms, diced

Zest of 1 lemon

2 tbsp of wholegrain flour

50ml of water

Juice of ½ lemon

3 tbsp of crème fraîche

½ to 1 tsp of wholegrain mustard

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C / gas mark 4.

2. If using white potatoes, leave the skin on and chop them into small chunks. Boil them in a pan of salted water until soft. The time will depend on the size of the chunks but it should take no more than 15 to 20 minutes.

3. If using sweet potatoes, peel and chop them into chunks, toss in 1 tbsp of the olive oil and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until soft (they absorb too much water if boiled).

4. In a pan, fry the chicken with the leek in 2 tbsp of the olive oil for 3 minutes, then add the mushrooms and lemon zest and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes. The chicken pieces should be around 80 per cent cooked by this point.

5. Add the flour to thicken the sauce, stirring for around 2 minutes.

6. Add the water and stir in the lemon juice, crème fraîche and mustard, then take off the heat.

7. Once the potatoes are cooked, mash them with the remaining olive oil.

8. Spoon the chicken mixture into a small baking dish or two individual ramekins and spread the mashed potato over the top.

9. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in the oven. If you wish, you can place them under the grill to brown the mash before serving.

Cecilia’s purple risotto with goat’s cheese and beetroot

© Photography Laura Edwards

Mental clarity can be a casualty of worry. Our purple risotto with goat’s cheese and beetroot is designed to boost clear thinking. Purple foods may clear our minds, their pigment indicating that they contain a lot of antioxidants. These help the body produce nitric oxide, a compound that improves blood flow by relaxing blood vessels. The walnuts provide omega-3s, a source of healthy fats linked to improving immunity.

This risotto recipe was given to us by Cecilia, a friend and an accomplished cook, who helps develop healthy recipes for mothers with small children.

Serves two

What you’ll need:

300g of cooked beetroot (raw or pre-cooked)

2 tbsp of olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 to 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

200g of risotto (or brown) rice

600ml vegetable stock, heated up

60g of soft goat’s cheese

100g of walnuts, chopped

How to prepare:

1. If you are using fresh beetroot, wash and trim them but don’t peel. Place them in a large saucepan and completely cover with water. Bring the water to the boil then reduce the heat, put the lid on and simmer until they’re just tender. This should take around 30 to 40 minutes depending on size.

2. Leave the beetroot to cool and then peel and dice them. If you are using pre-cooked beetroot, simply dice them into small chunks.

3. Heat the oil in a medium-sized saucepan and sauté the onion and garlic until softened, then stir in the rice and cook for a further 2 to 3 minutes. The grains should go slightly translucent.

4. Add a splash of water to the pan and stir, then turn the heat down and add the hot stock, ladle by ladle, stirring the rice regularly to ensure it doesn’t stick — a lovely soothing process, I find. This is what releases the starch and gives the risotto its creamy consistency.

5. When the stock is almost used up and the rice is cooked — this should take 15 to 20 minutes — stir the diced beetroot and half the goat’s cheese in. Leave for about 5 minutes before switching the heat off.

6. Toast the walnuts in a frying pan over a moderate heat for 2 to 4 minutes, tossing regularly to prevent burning.

7. Serve the risotto with a scattering of chopped toasted walnuts, the remaining goat’s cheese and a crisp green salad.

Best-ever red cabbage

© Photography Laura Edwards

This recipe makes the most of red cabbage’s virtues: it’s packed with anthocyanin, an antioxidant which, as mentioned earlier, may have a positive effect on mental agility. Have it as part of a roast dinner, or with a sandwich.

Serves up to eight as a side dish

What you’ll need:

1 medium-sized red cabbage, outer leaves and stalk removed (approximately 800g)

1 tbsp of salted butter

2 cooking apples, peeled, cored and grated or cut into small chunks

2 red onions, cut into small chunks

2 tbsp of blackberry jam

1 tsp of ground cinnamon

1 tbsp of maple syrup

2 tbsp of cider vinegar

1 glass of red wine (optional)

How to prepare:

1. Finely shred the red cabbage, removing all the thick stalks.

2. Heat the butter in a large saucepan and sauté the onions for 2 minutes, then add the cabbage and apples.

3. Cover with a lid and cook on a low heat for 30 minutes.

4. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for a further 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Dark chocolate Brazil nut brownies

© Photography Laura Edwards

We spent ages perfecting our brownies, ensuring they were soft, rich and gooey in the centre. Though they’re still a treat, you have more control over the ingredients as you’re making them yourself. Spelt flour is wholegrain, meaning it won’t lead to a sugar spike as white flour does, and Brazil nuts contain selenium, which plays an important role in the immune system. Cacao is a rich source of magnesium and antioxidants which reduce anxiety.

Makes about 15 squares

What you’ll need:

10 Brazil nuts

125g of dark chocolate (ideally 100 per cent cocoa)

100ml of almond milk

150g of coconut oil, plus extra for greasing the tin

250ml of maple syrup

Seeds from vanilla pod or 1 tbsp of vanilla extract

50g of raw cacao powder, sieved

3 eggs

130g of spelt flour

1 tsp of baking powder

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 190°C / gas mark 5. Grease a 30cm x 20cm brownie tin and line with baking parchment. Leave the paper sticking up at the sides to make it easier to lift the brownies out when they’re cooked.

2. Roast the Brazil nuts in the oven for 15 minutes, turning them once halfway through. They should be slightly browned. Leave them to cool, then chop coarsely.

3. Put the chocolate, almond milk, coconut oil, maple syrup and vanilla seeds or extract in a saucepan over a very gentle heat, stirring regularly, until everything has melted and you have a rich, glossy-looking batter.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cacao powder.

5. Allow the mixture to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, then beat in the eggs. Add the flour, baking powder and chopped Brazil nuts.

6. Pour the mixture into the pre-prepared tin and bake in the oven for about 12 minutes. Insert a cocktail stick — it should come out with a little chocolate residue. If you like your brownies less gooey, put the tin back in the oven for a further 3 to 5 minutes but take it out before the top starts to crack, otherwise the consistency will be more like cake.

7. Remove the tin from the oven and use the baking parchment to help you slide the whole brownie on to a cooling rack. Cut into squares once it’s cooled completely.


Cover Photo