Want to Start Eating for Better Brain Health? Here's How to Stock Your Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer

Experts share the simple strategies that can lead to a sharper, happier, healthier future.

REAL SIMPLE - May 2022 - Food/Health Hybrid Feature: Brain Food - Opener: Overhead of nuts
Photo: Victor Protasio

Eating well can help build muscle, strengthen bones, and protect the heart. But food also plays a major role in mental wellness. "If you make eating for brain health part of your lifestyle, you'll be well positioned to sharpen your memory, help keep depression at bay, and stave off cognitive decline," says Drew Ramsey, MD, founder of the Brain Food Clinic and author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety. The basics of eating for brain health aren't complicated, he notes. You want more vegetables (especially leafy greens) and fruits (especially berries). You also want to work in seafood, fermented foods, nuts, herbs, and—your old friend—dark chocolate.

Granted, knowing what to eat and actually doing it are two very different things. Happily, small tweaks to your kitchen environment can nudge you toward meaningful changes. These seven strategies will help you build brain-boosting habits and enjoy your time in the kitchen more, which Ramsey says is just as important. "Sure, eating for brain health is about consuming the right foods to feed your brain cells and help prevent inflammation. But it's also about engaging with food and cooking in a joyful way."

01 of 08

Stock Up on Nuts and Dark Chocolate

You don't need to banish your favorite chips or never eat ice cream again. But if you make brain-healthy snacks accessible, you'll be more likely to incorporate them into your nibbling routine. At the top of the list are nuts, says Annie Fenn, MD, founder of Brain Health Kitchen, an online resource that focuses on using food to help prevent dementia. "They're an ideal combination of protein, nutrients like vitamin E, and brain-friendly fats," she says. "In a study of healthy women, eating nuts was consistently associated with better performance on cognitive tests."

To make grabbing them automatic, place the brain-healthiest nuts—almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts—in clear containers in the front of your pantry. Surround them with other healthy, tasty options, like seeds, dried fruit, roasted chickpeas, and dark chocolate (that's at least 70 percent cacao). "Dark chocolate is a powerful tool in our eating-for-mental-wellness arsenal," Dr. Ramsey says. "In one small study, regular dark chocolate eaters were 70 percent less likely to report depression." Stash individually wrapped squares in a jar for a sweet snack.

02 of 08

Keep Plenty of Olive Oil On Hand

When it comes to oils, olive is best. "Extra-virgin olive oil provides two nutrients your brain needs every day: healthy fats and polyphenols, like oleocanthal, which gives the oil its peppery bite and is a potent reducer of brain inflammation," Dr. Fenn says. "About three tablespoons of high-quality olive oil daily can improve memory problems in people with mild cognitive impairment."

Make it a pleasure to use olive oil for the majority of your cooking by decanting it into a pretty ceramic or tinted glass bottle and keeping it on the counter. (Store it out of direct sunlight, which causes degradation, and avoid clear containers.) Don't be shy about taking a bottle of E.V.O.O. to the table and drizzling it on dinner. "Olive oil helps your body absorb the nutrients in the other brain-friendly foods on your plate," Dr. Fenn says.

03 of 08

Primp and Prep Your Produce

When you go to a store, everything looks so good—colorful, neat, appealing—thanks to merchandising. In her cookbook Super Natural Simple, Heidi Swanson recommends approaching your fridge like it's a window display: If the healthy stuff is more convenient and looks extra enticing, you'll be more likely to reach for it. Start by excavating the crisper drawers and composting anything past its prime. Wash, dry, and chop the remaining veggies and place them in clear containers front and center so they're ready when it's time to prep dinner. Place colorful fruit in bowls. "This allows me to see my cooking palette with a glance and helps me feel bright, excited, and optimistic about our next meal," Swanson writes. "This little practice also makes a big impact, dramatically reducing food waste."

RELATED: 7 Strategies to Form Healthy Eating Habits, According to RDs

04 of 08

Grow Fresh Herbs (Even on Your Windowsill!)

Fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, and cilantro can seem like afterthoughts in recipes, but when it comes to brain health, they should be top of mind. Like many plants, these herbs contain compounds that can help prevent cell damage, ward off disease, and promote healthy aging. "Fresh herbs can also make brain-boosting foods like vegetables and seafood more appealing. It's a win-win," says Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, cohost of the Happy Eating Podcast. Growing your own herbs means you can pick just as much as you need. Plus, they're a pretty and fragrant addition to your kitchen. If you cultivate only one herb, Dr. Ramsey suggests rosemary, which may help improve memory. Chop it and dust it on vegetables or meats before roasting, or add it to soups.

05 of 08

Gather Gut-Friendly Foods

"Research continues to suggest that gut health is more important for brain health than we ever imagined," Williams says. The gut's good flora help us break down and absorb brain-boosting nutrients, like folate and thiamine. "A healthy gut can also help counter inflammation, which can worsen depression and anxiety," she adds. To keep your gut in fighting shape, eat more fermented foods, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kombucha, and kimchi. They're filled with probiotics, which your microbiome needs to thrive.

RELATED: How to Start Eating More Anti-Inflammatory Foods—and Why It's So Important

Little jars and packages of fermented foods can get lost in your fridge, though, and it can be a challenge to figure out how to use them in everyday meals. To keep them handy, designate one shelf on the door as a spot for all your fermented products. Label it, and make a point to consume at least one of those foods daily. "Try stirring chopped kimchi into rice, adding kefir or yogurt to a smoothie, and mixing kombucha into cocktails or mocktails," says Brierley Horton, RD, cohost of the Happy Eating Podcast.

06 of 08

Fill Up Your Freezer

Jewel-tone berries are little miracle workers. Get this: The flavonoids in blueberries and blackberries may help improve blood pressure, boost mood, and decrease brain fog. Since fresh berries can go bad faster than you can say "antioxidant," keep them stocked in your freezer, alongside seafood (like selenium-rich shrimp and omega-3-packed salmon) and green veggies (like spinach, broccoli, and kale). Not only do they last longer, frozen foods are often less expensive than fresh. Plus, "frozen produce and seafood are often harvested at their peak, so they're sometimes even more nutritious than their fresh counterparts," Horton says.

To make sure the good stuff doesn't get buried, Laura Fenton, an organizing expert and the author of The Little Book of Living Small, suggests designating a bin for each category: one for produce, one for seafood and lean meats, for example. "You can always add bins if your freezer doesn't have any," she says. "Any plastic ones will work, including large food-storage containers without the tops."

07 of 08

Simplify Your Expectations

The nutrition and wellness worlds have made eating healthy seem way too complicated, coming up with one new strategy after another, Dr. Ramsey says. Make a fresh start by saying "see ya" to the detritus of diets past, the ones that set you up for quick fixes but aren't sustainable. So ta-ta to keto "candy bars," packets of dehydrated bone broth, and highly processed, low-cal frozen dinners. Then fill your kitchen with the building blocks of brain-healthy eating, including produce, nuts, beans, and seafood.

08 of 08

Clean Your Environment to Make Food Prep More Pleasant

While you're in reassessment mode, declutter counters as well. "Put away appliances you never use, clear away papers, and remove extraneous decorative items. The more physical space you have to chop vegetables and put together simple meals, the easier cooking will feel," Fenton says. Even if you aren't a regular cook, strive to make the kitchen a welcoming place you'll actually enjoy spending time in. Consider adding a vase of flowers, a pretty fruit bowl, or a brightly colored cutting board.

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