My Happy Kitchen – Sarah O’Connor

A while ago I was having a coffee with my sister and she told me of a Listener article about a British woman called Rachel Kelly who decided to use nutrition to support herself through depression and anxiety. Rachel, a successful journalist and mother of five, spent five years working with nutritionist Alice MacKintosh to develop the cookbook The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food. There’s a website as well The Happy Kitchen.

Straight after the coffee I bought the Listener, read the article and ordered the book online from Fishpond. You can buy it from your local bookstore or from FishPond.

Happy Kitchen Author

Rachel Kelly, Alice MacKintosh and the cover of The Happy Kitchen

What interested me about looking into it further is that Rachel has her own experience with low mood, anxiety and fatigue. As someone who has been dealing with these things for many years, and having been recently diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, I am interested in looking at how nutrition can help. At the moment it seems like the market is saturated with recipe books and new diets to try but I can’t relate to a twentysomething, size 2, childfree, paleo princess who recommends cutting out everything palatable! I wanted to try something by a person I could actually relate to. The Happy Kitchen I can relate to!

I knew it was good the moment I opened the cover. Having researched the role of nutrition and mood for a number of years, Rachel presents information in a simple and engaging way. An example is when she discusses how scientists have advanced our understanding of the gut, which is responsible for a large proportion of the neurotransmitters that affect our mood (such as dopamine and serotonin). The gut hosts the enteric nervous system and it contains as many neurotransmitters as our brain.

What I like about Rachel’s approach is that she doesn’t advocate eliminating things when most of the advice I have looked into suggests cutting out all caffeine, sugar and gluten. Instead Rachel suggests there is nothing wrong with having good quality bread, a few cups of coffee a day and dark chocolate. For sweeteners she tends to go for honey, maple syrup or fruit.

The Happy Kitchen is divided into chapters like Beating the Blues, Balanced Energy, Nice and Calm, Mental Clarity, Hormonal Peace and Sweet Dreams. The recipes are designed with these goals in mind, and I found it helpful to be able to look at certain chapters when I wanted to eat food that supported me and my energy at that time.

I love how she suggest simple recipes to try if you are not in a good space, like her  Feeling Fragile Dark Chocolate Brazil Nut Brownies. Sometimes you just have to have chocolate to cheer you up and nothing else will do.

Happy Kitchen Brownie

The Feeling Fragile Dark Chocolate Brazil Nut Brownies tasted as good as the sound!

Let’s face it, it is really hard to cook when you are feeling low in spirit, mood, and motivation. The temptation to grab whatever’s convenient, fast and sugary can be great, but when you are feeling rubbish eating rubbish just isn’t going to make you feel energised, or less low and agitated.

I have been trying the recipes out over the past month. They have all been meals without red meat or chicken (although she has some great looking chicken and lamb dishes). The recipes in The Happy Kitchen worked for me because I need recipes that are not too complicated, too time consuming or with ingredients that I have to hunt all over town for.

Some of Rachel’s recipes I have tried so far have been eaten and liked by my 7 year old son and my fish eating, but not red meat eating, husband. I’m not a natural cook and I like to cook when I’m not too distracted and can concentrate (so I find it easier to cook by myself). On those days when the fatigue is really bad I find cooking gives me a sense of achievement when I’m not achieving much else.

Here are some Rachel’s recipes that I have tried:

From the Sweet Dreams chapter (to help you sleep better) I made the Warming Sweet Potato and Chickpea Curry which was delicious and easy to cook. All up it took about an hour to make. It got the thumbs up from the husband and made enough for 2 meals.

The Butternut Squash, Sundried Tomato and Feta Frittata is my favourite so far – it’s easy, tasty, and inexpensive to make, and it has made an appearance at a potluck lunch.

From Beating The Blues the Omega 3 Kedgeree was a good recipe for me and my non-red meat eating husband, and anything natural that you can eat to lift your spirits has got to be a winner. And you have enough left over for lunch the next day. There is evidence that Omega 3 can improve your mood and I have been taking supplements on and off for years.

The Overnight Bircher is super easy, delicious and because you fix it the night before I woke up feeling happy about having breakfast already sorted. One less thing to do before the school run! I had it with berries, chia seeds and yoghurt.

Happy Kitchen Bircher

Overnight Bircher served with berries

From the For Comfort chapter I tried Peanut Butter and Cranberry Protein Balls and the Dairy-free Ginger, Coconut and Banana Ice Cream. As any mother knows, it is always exciting when your child actually eats something you make and gives it the thumbs up. You don’t have to cook either of these, just blitz them in the blender and then chill or freeze and serve. They are a filling snack for afternoon tea, lunch boxes and work snacks.

I made the Uplifting Spiced Saffron Tea from the Nice and Calm chapter and making this tea was a relaxing process in itself. This has no caffeine and just requires the ingredients to be boiled up together. You can use a cinnamon stick or ground cinnamon and saffron is added as a nice touch. Saffron can be a little expensive and the first time I made it without, so it’s not essential. This tea is one to sip throughout the evening before bed.

Like any new recipe, it takes a few goes to get it right and I have had a few misses, but there’s some great recipes if you want to work on your mood with food and create your own happy kitchen. You can find out a bit more about Rachel Kelly and The Happy Kitchen by watching this video of Rachel and Alice discussing what you can you eat to boost your wellbeing and mental health in these winter months. It also includes a recipe to get you started!


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