Could Mealtime Stress be Holding Your Child Back?

August 26, 2017

As parents, I am sure we have all come across the term ‘play-based learning’ at some point.  When writing ‘Broccoli Trees’, I was constantly reminded of the notion of ‘play-based learning’ due to the adventurous and playful nature of the book.  I began looking at studies and research articles that were written on the topic and soon realised that my humble book had the potential to be more of an influential and positive educational experience than I had ever dreamed possible.


One such paper, out of Harvard University was a real eye opener for me.  The paper is titled:  “Persistent Fear and Anxiety can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development”.*

I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute.  How many parents reading this can say that there is an element of fear surrounding meal times?  I know for friends of mine who have children that are fussy eaters, the answer is a resounding ‘yes, there is!’ - whether there is more fear from the parents or the child at this point remains to be seen, but I digress.  Fussy eating can become a very stressful and vicious cycle at meal times.  The parents have anxiety about what to make for dinner that everyone will enjoy, or at least try.  Not only do they want everyone to eat it, but they want the meal to contain plenty of nutritional value for their young children’s growing bodies.  How many people do you know, actively hide veggies in bolognese sauce?  Whilst it’s a great way to get some extra vegetables in, the whole premise of this technique is to hide the vegetables so the children won’t see them and complain.  So the parents are stressed, trying to hide vegetables in the most inconspicuous of places, and fearing that yet another meal they’ve spent so much time preparing will go to waste.  The children sense meal time is approaching, and fear the ordeal that follows.  Whether we perceive this fear to be founded or not, it is still a genuine emotion that the child is feeling.  They know they don’t want to eat the meal that is being prepared, but they also know their parents will try to ‘force’ them to eat the meal.  So long before everyone is even sat at the table, the fear can set in.  


What about anxiety?  This one is huge for families struggling with fussy eaters.  The anxiety felt by the child at meal times can be extreme.  I have heard countless tales from parents who have told me “Dinner ended in tears again tonight”.  A common theme is “I’d spent all day searching for recipes that he/she might like, that I could sneak some extra vegetables and protein into.  I spent a fortune on ingredients, hours slaving away in the kitchen and then he/she refused to even try it.  I made him/her sit at the table for hours before we both ended up in tears and went through a drive-through for some chicken nuggets”.  That right there, is a tale fraught with stress and anxiety, and it is far more common than you might think. 


Now imagine if, the very thing you are trying to work so hard towards - helping your child to become healthy and nourish their body, was doing the complete opposite.  I want you to take a minute to read and digest a paragraph taken from the above-mentioned Harvard paper: 

 “Science shows that exposure to circumstances that produce persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain.”

This statement, for me, was really quite confronting.  See, it doesn’t focus on what circumstances need to occur in order to disrupt the developing brain, it simply says that it is the exposure to persistent fear and chronic anxiety, that in itself, can cause these disruptions.

I am a firm believer that all parents only want the best for their children.  This is why we try to make sure our children are eating an array of fresh fruits and vegetables at meal times.  This is why we sit at the table for hours crying with them when they are refusing to eat.  And this is why we hide the minuscule shavings of vegetables in the darn bolognese sauce!


But what if there was a better way? A way to engage at meal times that has the potential to lower those stress, fear, and anxiety levels.  A way for children to truly, learn through play.  

I once read a wonderful quote by Dianne Krizan who is President of the Minnesota Children’s Museum, that says “Play may seem simple, yet it is profound to a child’s development. Play makes learning something that happens naturally and joyfully, when a child laughs and wonders, explores and imagines.”  This sums up the ambition behind my book perfectly.  I absolutely do want children to explore their palates, and try new foods organically, with joy, laughter, wonder, exploration and imagination.  It may take time, repetition is key, but eventually it would be my hope that you could start breaking down those barriers that have been built by stress and anxiety, and pave the way for an exciting and enjoyable new experience at meal times.  You never know, perhaps the new skills learned through the book will be relatable to other challenging issues that you may face in your child’s life.  I find, as a mother, that my ‘box of strategies’ can never be too full, and it often surprises me how relatable and interchangeable various techniques can be.  Given imagination-based play can build skills across many different and essential developmental areas, it stands to reason that the approach used in ‘Broccoli Trees’ may just provide the relief you have been searching for.




Melissa Kent










*National Scientific Council on the Developing Child - Harvard University



The content in this blog is not intended to replace medical advice.  If you are concerned about your child’s emotional needs, or your own, please seek guidance from a  Health Professional.

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