Parent Feeding Practices: Rewarding Kids for Eating

Welcome to the last installment of our Parent Feeding Practices series, where we look at the tactics parents use to get their kids to eat and how they effect your child’s eating.

We’ve covered prompting/pressuring and restricting, and are now winding down with the ever-controversial rewarding kids for eating topic. The truth is, we’ve all probably succumbed to rewarding our kids for eating, whether we like to admit it or not. It’s a prevalent practice, and sometimes we do it without thinking.

Today I’m taking a different approach and sharing a conversation I had with my 15 year old daughter, G.

We don’t talk too much about nutrition (unless she brings it up) but somehow we got on the topic of rewarding children for their eating behavior (eating all their food or eating a specific food).  I was mentioning the results from a 2010 study published in Appetite, which was being discussed on another blog, about rewarding preschool children for trying new fruits and vegetables (the results showed that preschoolers ate more fruits and vegetables when presented with a reward, and this carried over to meals without a reward, and 6 months later effects were still seen). I was interested in G’s opinion about using rewards to get kids to eat.

Me: “What do you think about rewarding kids with dessert, stickers or presents for eating vegetables?”

She snorted or chuckled, I’m not sure what it was exactly. But I thought, here we go, she’s going to give a read on this that only a teen could give, filled with cynicism and clarity. Her response was emphatic.

G: “That doesn’t work! When kids get older there’s not going to be anyone to bribe them with food, prizes, or stars. So kids will just not care about vegetables, because they won’t mean anything to them anymore.  And vegetables will be just on the list of things kids don’t like (and never did like) anyway.”

She’s got a point.

Rewarding children may get them to eat more, or get them to eat period, but does it get them to like what they eat?

According to G, rewarding is a lot of work for little pay off in the long run. After all, what you choose to eat as you age reflects what you like.

Take, for example, Father of the Year. He still doesn’t like many cooked vegetables, but there are enough that he will eat. And guess what?  The vegetables he eats are the ones that he likes! No more, no less.

Some people will eat vegetables for their health properties (me), but not all people roll that way. And in my experience, kids are more like Father of the Year than they are like health-conscious adults.

For more insight, I turned to a 2011 research review on this topic in Appetite, where researchers concluded that rewards may be effective in getting kids to eat healthier as long as they are used “judiciously.”

In getting kids to eat vegetables, a reward may be effective. But using a reward to get kids to like vegetables can have a negative effect, especially if the food is already liked. While researchers agreed that offering ice cream (food) as the reward for eating vegetables is a big no-no, using stickers or praise can be effective in encouraging kids to taste new (or less liked) foods, capitalizing on food exposure as a route for eventual acceptance.

This topic got me thinking about several things. First, rewarding mostly comes from a good place: parents want to build more variety and have their kids eat well. Parents hear the message: Increase exposure to vegetables and you’ll get your child eating them before you know it. I think the word ‘exposure’ has been misinterpreted to mean”get them to eat it.”

Second, my daughter’s perspective reminded me that we disregard how kids might feel and the long term consequences when rewarding is used. Kids may feel good initially (rewards generally elicit that kind of response), but their “scooby-sense” may go on high alert and they may look for a way out of the food game, or up the ante.

What G was getting at is this: if you want kids to eat something, they need to like it. When you like something, you will eat it on your own, without reward. And liking what you eat helps your satisfaction level after eating (more on that in my interview with Brian Wansink, MD).

Are you using rewards so your child will eat vegetables?

Or are you taking a different route and working for the long term payoff of having your child like vegetables?

There are many routes to getting a child to like vegetables. Patience, understanding that it takes time to like vegetables, repeated and neutral exposures, role modeling, enhancing flavor, varied preparation methods, and so on can get your child on the road to a wide variety of liked vegetables, eventually.

I’m not sure yet if rewarding is a short-term fix or a long-term solution.

What do you think? Does rewarding your child for eating work for you (and your child) or not? Share your experiences, we’d love to hear.

References:

Horne PJ et al. Increasing pre-school children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables. A modeling and rewards intervention. Appetite. 2011: (56) 375-385.

Cooke LJ et al. Facilitating or undermining? The effect of reward on food acceptance. A narrative review. Appetite. 2011: (57) 493-497.

Comments

  1. Meredith Alley says

    We don’t directly reward our daughter for trying new food. We put the new food on her plate, and if she eats all of the other food first and wants more, she has to try the new food. I never make her a separate meal–she eats the same dinner my husband and I eat. I am also learning to eat different vegetables, so it helps for me to say, “You know, I don’t think I like brussels sprouts either, but I’m going to try them. We have to try them many times before we really know whether we like them.”

  2. says

    Thanks for your detailed and evidence-backed discussion Jill!

    I agree entirely that parents need to realize what they accomplish by using rewards to get more veggies into kids (or other adults!). If short term consumption is the goal, then it works – and probably makes parents feel better! I believe that it is much more important to focus on the long term, and to raise children who will independently choose a diet that is healthy when they are given the freedom to do so.

    As you said, kids can “smell a bribe” a mile away, and rewards have the potential to backfire.

    I work with young children in school and community settings, to expose them to the beauty and magic of the “rainbow” of vegetables and fruits all around us. I don’t focus on “nutrition” in my programs; we just have fun and explore all the colours, tastes and textures of these fabulous foods! I have watched young children happily chow through vegetables that their parents insisted they hated, and have heard feedback that they have continued requesting broccoli and zucchini at home long after our adventures!

    I completely agree with you that “liking” veggies is what we’re after!

    • Jill says

      Thanks for all the work you do, Janet, with kids! We need more people like you teaching about nutrition, without the “nutrition angle!”

  3. says

    We rewarded my kids with attention when they engaged in healthy eating and it worked. We were careful to ignore picky eating to avoid rewarding that with attention.

    Next time, try asking Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center and 2008 President of the American Psychological Assn. His has been helping parents change picky eating for more than 30 years. He uses basically the same method I used with success on my 2 kids. He has written a couple of parenting books that you would do well to read.

    See this study which contradicts your daughter’s opinion:

    …the children who received praise appeared to interpret their choice as internally motivated and therefore continued to select the healthy option even in the absence of reward.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666312002048

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