Many parents struggle with getting their kids to eat veggies. A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tests a new tactic to getting those veggies in and shows that rewarding kids for tasting a disliked veggie increased both its intake and liking.
I was surprised when I read the title of the study – prizes for healthy eating run contrary to the advice generally dispensed to concerned parents – so let’s read through the study and see what we can learn from it.
Rewards and praise for trying veggies
The study, led by Anna Remington, was conducted in North London, UK, and recruited 3-4-year-olds.
The 149 kids who completed the study were randomly divided into 3 groups:
- Tangible rewards - parents offer their kid a small piece of the target veggie for 12 days, and if the kid tastes the piece of veggie he’s rewarded with a sticker.
- Social rewards - parents offer their kid a small piece of the target veggie for 12 days, and if the kid tastes the piece of veggie he’s rewarded with praise, such as “brilliant, you’re a great vegetable taster”.
- Control group - no daily tasting and no rewards.
The target veggie was picked according to the kid’s initial reaction. The families were presented with 6 veggie options: carrot, cucumber, white cabbage, red pepper, celery and sugar snap peas. After the kid had a taste he ranked the veggies from 1 (most liked) to 6 (least liked). The target veggie for the experiment was each kid’s “4”, giving this veggie an opportunity to either rise or fall in fondness.
And the result: the kids who received the prize ate more of the target veggie and reported liking it better than the controls. This increase in intake and liking persisted over the 3 months of follow-up. The praise group also increased its intake and liking, but less so than the reward group.
Give veggies a chance
This study, and many others, capitalizes on the well-known fact that repeated tasting works. We are creatures of habit, and people -- especially kids -- like what they know. The way to know a veggie is to see it often, know its name, and give it a taste – many times. Studies show that it might take 10 taste exposures to get kids to accept a new food.
Young faces will light up with pleasure when tasting a sweet food for the first time, but foods that are out of the realm of sweet, fatty and salty can be an acquired taste, if given the chance.
To know is to like; to like is to eat. In that respect we parents can really make a huge difference in our kids’ food preferences and habits.
Anything to get a kid eating
So how far would you go to get your kids eating healthy? The issue of rewards for eating is a controversial one, with many experts arguing that rewards -- or any kind of pressure for that matter -- are counterproductive in the long run.
This study suggests that rewards do work, at least for 3 months, and the reward was small enough to perhaps make parents deem it a non-issue.
But whether large or small, is a reward worth considering?
I personally believe that eating behavior shouldn’t be punished or rewarded. After all, eating isn’t a good deed or an achievement. Eating, whether healthful or not, is something one does to fulfill a basic self-interested need.
Kids, I think, are not supposed to be eating for their parent’s satisfaction or praise.
How did we even get to accept that “like” is a requirement for eating good food when hungry? Have marketers convinced us that “lovin it” is a prerequisite?
Family dinner should be simple: Serve a healthy meal, don't serve anything that you don't want your kids to eat, no fuss, no electronics, no need to clean the plate, but a taste is much appreciated. Except it isn't, and many families struggle with how to best feed their kids peacefully and healthfully.
Regardless, the person to be thanked and praised is the provider of the meal – praise the cook, not the eater!
What do you think? Would you try prizes to get your kids eating their veggies?