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Bribing Children to Eat Right? Science Says OK

Bribing Children to Eat Right? Science Says OK

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Updated on Jun 22, 2012

If your child wrinkles her nose at peas and won't come within ten feet of broccoli, recent science shows that offering these veggies with a reward on the side may be your relief from power struggles at the dinner table.

Researchers working on a 2011 study from University College London served up carrots, celery, peppers, sugar snap peas, cabbages and cucumbers to a group of 3- to 4-year-olds, and tempted them into tasting the veggies with tangible rewards. One group was given a "real" prize, such as a small toy or sticker; another group was given praise and positive reinforcement, and another batch of kids was simply exposed—in a neutral way—to the vegetables. The last group was a control group, with no intervention.

After three months, the kids who were rewarded for their taste-testing ate more vegetables, with no reward present, than those who didn't. The little eaters who were exposed to veggies with no reward increased their "liking" for the foods, but the effects tended to fade over time. All groups that were exposed to the healthy items liked and ate more of them than the control group.

The study suggests that, when used wisely, bribes don't always have the disastrous effect that parents fear. One of the study's authors, Dr. Jane Wardle says, "My gut feeling is that parents often use rewards for behavior change in children and when the rewards are very small and only given for a brief period (10 days in our study) I cannot think that they are hazardous. I'm not even necessarily against bribes if they help someone get over reluctance to do something."

So at mealtimes, try rewards and reinforcement for positive health results, instead of nagging and negativity. Experiment with these simple techniques:

  • Small but significant. Veggie bribes don't have to be big—small and consistent rewards seem to work just as well. Wardle and her research colleagues doled out simple stickers as a reward; a nudge to get the children to try something new. Many fast-food places run on a similar principle—trinkets are given away with meals to entice children into developing a taste for hamburgers and french fries. Since tiny toys work for junk food, then there's no reason they can't be used to foster healthy eating habits too.
  • Sunny side up. Kids pay close attention to the tone of your voice and your expression when they're introduced to new things. If you say things like, "I know it's awful but you have to eat it," or "Be brave and eat your carrots," your budding gourmand will associate healthy veggies with "yucky" things, such as medicine. Dr Wardle says of her study, "We wondered if the reward added a positive emotional tone to the interaction, [and] hence reduced negative emotions and allowed the exposure to have its full beneficial effect". So even if you don't like brussels sprouts, stay positive and polish them off with a grin—your child's sure to follow suit.
  • Lead by example. Clean your plate without fuss or fanfare, and be sure you don't separate the healthy stuff from the rest of the meal. Vegetables are only a big deal if you make them a big deal, so play it cool. Regardless of whether you prefer corn or kale, don't pull a face when you nosh on something you're not particularly fond of. Your baby wants to do exactly what you do, so if you push away your peas, she'll follow your example. Making nutrition an everyday part of family meals will help "normalize" eating healthy fare, reduce resistance to specific foods, and show your child that not eating his greens won't get him any extra attention from you.
  • The great unknown. Simply exposing your child to vegetables, with or without a bribe, will prompt your little foodie to eat—and like—more of them than kids who are unfamiliar with healthy grub. This may be explained by young children's natural fear of the unknown. To overcome reluctance around strange foods, offer a range of healthy choices to your child over time until she gets used to them. Start small with 2-3 options at every meal. Have patience and don't push it; let your child's palate develop at her own pace.
  • Pick (up) your poison. Make it easy for your child to sample, taste and reject new foods by creating a "monkey platter" for her to graze on at her leisure. Cut a rainbow of vegetables, such as bell peppers, snap peas and steamed sweet potatoes, into little pieces so that your baby can play and experiment with new shapes, flavors and textures. Don't plead with her to taste—simply set out the food and move on to something else. The less "forced" she feels, the more likely it is that she'll choose something and develop a taste for it over time.
  • Parental importance. The study found that children responded better to the researchers' encouragement than they did to praise from their parents. The exact reasons for this are unknown, but some parents reported finding it hard to give praise "just for eating" and that it was difficult to keep up the kudos over time. Pick a plan, stick with it and be sincere in your praise—it'll make a difference.

With rewards, you can stop hiding the veggies—just let them all hang out! Swap the scolding and nagging for positive thinking and real-time perks. It takes time and a lot of patience, but the health benefits for your baby might just be worth it.

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