The Best Way to a Kid’s Stomach is Through the Heart: How to Use Kids’ Emotions to Form or Deform the Appetite

Oct 10, 2011 by

CHILDREN WILL PUT ANYTHING in their mouths if they expect to enjoy the experience. Photo by Anna Migeon

“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

If “the appetite is the conscience of the body,” a child’s appetite is, in theory, able to lead him to eat what is good and avoid what is bad.

The problem is that kids are born with raw, unformed appetites along with immature, uninstructed consciences.

A child “is born to love the good and to hate the evil, but he has no real knowledge of what is good and what is evil, . . . but yields himself to the steering of others,”  states educational reformer Charlotte Mason.

Kids are like freshly hatched ducklings; they follow the first moving object they see. They accept as good whatever they’re given or whatever is presented as good. Then they start deciding what is good based on past experience. They learn to listen to or to disregard their inborn consciences or appetites according to how those forces are developed.  Both kinds of conscience begin to be informed or malformed from our first moments.

From the first time a baby’s appetite leads him to latch onto the breast, with no training at all, his impressions of happiness and satisfaction and desirability are being shaped.

Babies will put anything in their mouth, from poison berries, bugs and dirt to the dog’s tail to their own feet. It’s our job to help them learn from their experiences and to come to know the good from the bad, to avoid eating the rocks and other hazards that will be presented as food along the way.

So how can we develop the potential of a child’s appetite?  Apparently it is an extremely simple matter. 

In a Dateline show sometime back, children of about four years of age were presented with various pairs of choices of what they would prefer for breakfast or in their lunchbox.

Beginning with the choice between a plain cupcake or one with an American flag up against a cupcake with spiderman’s or cookie monster’s face on it, children almost invariably choose the option with cartoon characters.

The chocolate cupcake with the cartoon face was “better than” the chocolate cupcake without.

When a banana with Scooby Doo stickers was introduced up against a cupcake,  bananas were suddenly “my favorite.”

Even when the choices was between a rock with Nemo stickers on it or a plain banana for breakfast or in their lunchbox, the children chose the rock.

See how easily kids are led? They’re so easy to trick and sway and take advantage of. Marketers know that. So do Scandinavians, whose laws forbid marketing to children.

Kids respond to offers with their own brand of logic, reacting emotionally to what they know and like, whether it has anything to do with food or not. They aren’t very analytical. They don’t care what’s better for them or whether it actually would taste better because of the character’s face on it or even if it’s edible. Open-minded to a fault, their tastes are far from discriminating. They couldn’t explain how a character’s face makes food taste better, but for them, it does. They form their opinions of what’s good based on what has given them happiness in the past.

A child’s appetite is so easily taught to value certain foods, though the emotions, the most basic way that a child develops her conscience or appetite.

So why is it such a struggle for parents to get kids to eat what we want them to eat? That we are up against junk food with cartoon characters on it is one reason. That does make things hard.

When our society finally becomes civilized, making junk food attractive to children will be outlawed. Or maybe before that, people will wise up sufficiently about the ill effects of junk food that the market will dry up and manufacturers will go out of business. Parents in the meantime have the option to shelter their children from exposure to advertising by restricting TV time and keep them away from foods that are packaged with cartoon images.

But we also have yet another option. Why not use the qualities of enjoyment and fun to sell our kids on good food?

Why should we hesitate to leverage the simplicity of children’s minds in ways that that will benefit them? I’m not proposing making salad into the shape of Sponge Bob, which is unnecessary, contrived, silly, and way too much work.

I’m talking about using other things kids enjoy: warm attention from their parents and siblings, stories, conversation, being listened to, satisfying their hunger, orderliness and comforting routine balanced with variety and novelty, having autonomy and being respected, also colors and shapes, good smells, good tastes.

See how easy it is? If we can even get kids to eat a rock if it’s just presented as fun and we give them experiences of enjoyment around the rock, surely we can get them to eat actual tasty food when they’re hungry if presented in a pleasant atmosphere.


Coming next: “Ways children learn to associate healthy eating with positive or negative emotions.”