Foundations of Appetite Training: 12 Ways children learn to like or dislike healthy eating

Oct 18, 2011 by

My son, Alex, helping cook in 1995.


“L’appetit est la conscience du corps” (The appetite is the conscience of the body).

— Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo

Marissa and Jeremy were each born with an appetite — thank goodness! How else would we get babies to eat and thereby stay alive? Each baby cried for milk every few hours and latched on eagerly anytime they got something in their mouths, especially if it turned out to involve milk. They each certainly had a taste for what’s good for them. Each baby thrived.

As Marissa got older, she kept wanting the foods that were good for her. She would eat vegetables, fruit, fish, anything that came her way.

Jeremy, however, though he also kept getting hungry, developed the taste for french fries and candy and began to refuse to eat those good things Marissa continued to like. What happened to Jeremy’s appetite? It started leading him astray. As can happen with the conscience, something went wrong and the appetite quit working the way it should.

With temptations all around — cartoon characters singing the praises of  junk food, bad fats, sugar, salt and starch, artificial colors and flavors, decorations and promises of fun all appealing relentlessly to your child’s tender emotions, naiveté and vulnerable appetite — how can we protect their innocence, that first perfectly functioning appetite for real nourishment?

Training a child’s appetite in favor of healthy foods begins with building a strong foundation on positive feelings.

12 Ways that children develop negative feelings about healthy eating

  1. Chaotic meals.
  2. Being over-controlled, with pressure, scrutiny and hovering at the table.
  3. Conflict at mealtime, or being scolded at the table
  4. Being forced to eat.
  5. Random snacking that causes them not to feel hungry for meals.
  6. Being allowed to eat junk food and acquiring a taste for it.
  7. Having to eat healthy food to get something they want, such as dessert. Studies show that getting a reward or bribe for doing something lessens the desire to do it, and decreases the chances of ever doing it without the reward. In other words, if you get a reward for eating broccoli, you will eat it that time, but you’ll like it even less and be less likely than ever to eat it if there’s no reward offered.
  8. Food used as punishment or being punished for not eating.
  9. Getting lots of attention and reaction for being a picky eater, and being allowed to misbehave because of it.
  10. Being served by a cook who is reluctant or resentful about having to cook.
  11. Exposure to junk food ads.
  12. Celebrations being all about junk food.

12 Ways children develop positive feelings about healthy eating

  1. Orderliness and good habits, including manners, for meals.
  2. Expecting enjoyable meals at around the same time every day.
  3. Coming to the table hungry and seeing and smelling attractive dishes.
  4. Feeling cared for through food.
  5. Being cooked for by someone who enjoys cooking.
  6. Learning interesting facts about food — where it comes from, what it’s like and how it affects the body.
  7. Getting to try a wide variety of foods that taste great.
  8. Being involved in choosing, buying, cooking or growing the food.
  9. A safe environment at the table, where no one is allowed to misbehave or be obnoxious.
  10. Enjoyable conversation, positive attention and good humor at mealtime.
  11. Having free choices about what and how much they eat.
  12. Celebrations around special dishes of healthy, homemade real food.