Getting your child to gladly eat healthy food isn't mission impossible

16 April 2017 - 02:00
By Daniel Jardim
A child's world centres on learning through play, and yet at meal times they are expected to behave like serious adults.
Image: Supplied A child's world centres on learning through play, and yet at meal times they are expected to behave like serious adults.

In an ideal world meal times are a harmonious gathering where children wolf down their greens with glee before asking for seconds.

In real life, the dinner table is often more akin to a battlefield where stealth tactics and bribery are deployed just to get a couple of peas down the hatch.

While all parents would like their children to eat healthier foods, many throw up their hands at what seems like a mission impossible.

"There is hope," says Mia Von Scha, a life coach who works with parents to steer them on their child-rearing adventure, "and it starts with parents becoming aware of the messages they convey to their kids about food."


Von Scha works with the parents of "picky eaters" and her first task is to assure them that they have done nothing wrong. "It has more to do with understanding how the mind of a child works. My job is to look at ways in which parents can present food as a natural part of everyday life." A crucial step is to introduce children to the process of preparing meals.

"Start them young. Even toddlers can be present when meals are prepared. This is an excellent way of demonstrating that food preparation is a normal part of the day, even if they are not actively involved."

As children get older they can help with basic tasks. "You are not testing their culinary skills - they can simply wash veggies or set the table. For the child, this creates a sense of being able to contribute, and they are more likely to take an interest in the finished meal."

According to Von Scha, playing with your food is acceptable too. "A child's world centres on learning through play, and yet at meal times they are expected to behave like serious adults. Let them explore their creativity at meal times, even if it may not be considered grown-up behaviour." Creating fun names for vegetables can make them more appealing. "In our house broccoli was never popular, but 'dinosaur trees' have become a firm favourite."

At the same time, Von Scha warns against the trend of making all meals look like a novelty display at a kiddies party. "Children grow up believing that food presented without a gimmick is somehow inferior, and it is a mentality that is easily carried beyond childhood."

This goes hand-in-hand with parents being mindful of how they respond to their own food. "If the child sees that a parent is getting great enjoyment out of eating wholesome food, they are more likely to want to eat it too.


"In other words, think twice before grimacing at the broccoli on your own plate - impressionable minds may be watching.

Above all, exercise patience. "Likes and dislikes can change, and it can take several tries before something new is embraced. If at first you don't succeed, try the same ingredient in a different form. A vegetable that is rejected as a side dish might be lapped up as a soup. Keep presenting the options, in time more will be deemed delicious."

The value of cultivating positive eating habits extends beyond bringing peace to the dinner table. Children who enjoy meals in a contented environment are learning how to make better food choices in the future.

Von Scha explains: "The first seven years of a child's development are crucial. Instilling healthy habits is not just about better nutrition, it is a gift that parents can give their kids in helping them grow up with a better relationship to food and cooking. What they learn in those formative years they keep for life."