Healthy Eating Programs

Healthy eating is important in supporting our overall physical and mental health. When combined with physical activity, eating well can reduce the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, some cancers and heart disease. Increased energy, a healthy body weight, stronger bones and better mood can also all be enhanced by making healthy food choices.

Eating well can be challenging for many of us at the best of times. For people with a mental illness, food security, social isolation and metabolic complications may be added hurdles.

Healthy eating is something we can all learn to do. Knowing how to cook, shop, read labels and portion food and beverages are all part of developing and maintaining a healthy diet.

There are many ways to introduce and support healthy eating and healthy living behaviours. Having a good understanding of the needs of your group will help to ensure that you choose the right type (or combination) of programs available.

Healthy eating programs can take many forms and be delivered in many different settings. Following is an overview of the most common types of healthy eating programs.

Types of Healthy Eating Programs

Educational Programs

Educational programs focus on healthy eating knowledge, skills and behaviours. Topics may include nutrition basics, food budgeting, healthy food purchasing, menu planning, cooking skills and understanding the relationships between healthy eating and mental illness. Educational programs can be provided in a community mental health agency, community centre, hospital, a place of worship or even in someone's home. You need a space large enough to comfortably accommodate the group. Keep in mind that your program should be physically accessible for participants requiring physical accommodations.

Community Kitchens

Community kitchens are places where people gather together to cook and share the food they’ve created. They may be developed to meet the needs of groups based on geographic location, age, mental health status, socioeconomic status and/or culture. For community mental health groups, community kitchens can provide a great space for ongoing peer support. A wealth of resources exists to help you create, manage and sustain a community kitchen.

Community Gardens

Community gardens come in many different shapes and sizes. They can be developed in rural or urban settings and take form in a plot of land or in a planter. With social isolation and food insecurity common among people living with mental illness, community gardens can be a great way to bring people together while providing sustainable food sources.

Good Food Box Programs

Good Food Box programs provide an alternative way to distribute fresh, nutritious and affordable food to people in the community they serve. Participants pay for and receive boxes of nutritious foods that are generally bought in bulk, boxed and distributed to those participating. Good Food Box programs require a large enough space to safely house food bought in bulk, as well as the resources to have the food boxed and delivered. They may require the capacity found in large organizations.

Hospital-Based Programs

Hospital-based programs provide participants with a variety of benefits, including skills in food preparation, shopping, label reading and menu planning. Hospitals are well positioned to provide in- and out-patient education and skill-development programs.

In outpatient mental health and addiction programs, registered dietitians often work with multidisciplinary teams that may include a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, pharmacist and an occupational therapist. The complementary nature of the disciplines can provide patients with a well-rounded program that includes nutrition information, drug interactions, cognitive-behavioural strategies, food preparation skills and budgeting. Peer support gained through shared experiences can enhance group members’ learning and confidence.

Humber River Regional Hospital in Toronto, for example, has a weekly class for out-patients that is facilitated by a registered dietitian. The class integrates healthy eating lessons and basic food skills into a multidisciplinary life skills program. For information on this program contact Donna Sansano, RD, CDE, by calling 416-658-2103 or by e-mailing dsansano [at] hrrh [dot] on [dot] ca.

Chronic Disease Nutrition Information Programs

Chronic disease nutrition information programs can be offered through disease-related community organizations such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Diabetes Association. In addition to these types of programs, Community Health Centres, Family Health Teams and community organizations can provide specific chronic disease prevention programming. These community-based programs can provide a good opportunity to integrate information that may be unique to groups with mental health issues.

Charitable Meal Programs

Charitable meal programs offer subsidized or free breakfast, lunches, or dinners, or keep emergency food cupboards for clients.