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Feeding Practices: Bribing Children to Eat

 

“If you take another bite of chicken, you can have dessert.”

Time and time again, you may find yourself wanting your child to eat better. Sometimes you’ll do just about anything to make that happen.

Today, the value placed on healthy eating, from clean eating to trendy diets like Paleo or Keto, places a lot of pressure on you as a parent.

You want to get it right. You want a nourished child. A healthy eater. A child who can self-regulate his eating.

What is Rewarding, Exactly?

Rewarding, or bribing, is called Instrumental Feeding in the scientific literature on feeding kids.

It is defined as a strategy used by parents to control their child’s eating behavior and food intake by using rewards or incentives, which can be food-based or non-food-based rewards (ie, stickers, praise).

Why Do You Bribe Your Child to Eat?

Whether you pressure your child to eat healthy food, police his sweets and treats, or –yikes! — force him to eat, the desire to have your child eat healthy is a driving force.

The truth is, you’ve probably succumbed to bribing your child to eat, whether you like to admit it or not. It’s a prevalent feeding practice and it’s done without thinking of the long-term consequences.

Why?

Bribing kids to eat is effective. In the short-term, anyway.

Typically, when you use a food reward you’ll see an immediate result: a child who eats more, tries new food, or eats healthy food. 

In kids, the desire for sweets and treats is strong, so these are easy incentives.

Do Food Rewards Have Lasting Effect on Good Eating Habits?

My 15 year-old daughter and I got into the topic of healthy food for kids and getting kids to eat better. We got onto the topic of using food rewards.

I was mentioning the results of a 2010 study published in Appetite, about rewarding preschool children for trying new fruits and vegetables. The results of the study showed that preschoolers ate more fruits and vegetables when presented with a reward, and this carried over to meals without a reward. Six months later the effects were still seen.

I was interested in my daughter’s opinion about using rewards to get kids to eat.

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

She said, “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.  Vegetables will still be on the list of things kids don’t like (and never did like) anyway.”

Interesting point.

According to her, bribing a child to eat is a lot of work with little pay off in the long run.

Other Outcomes of Using Food as a Reward

I looked into the research further to investigate what we can learn about bribing children to eat.

In a 2016 study out of Aston University in the UK, researchers looked at children aged 3 to 5 years and the feeding practices their parents used. The researchers followed up with these children at ages 5 to 7 years.

Their findings: The children were more likely to be emotional eaters at 5 to 7 years if their parents had reported using food as a reward when they were younger. 

A 2017 review study in Appetite suggested, based on the evidence we have to date:

“…food-based rewards should not be used in order to make children eat everyday, well-accepted foods.” 

Using food rewards may decrease the preference for the foods kids already like, and increase their preference for the reward food (which is usually a sweet or treat).

Using small, non-food rewards (ie, stickers) may help children get over the fear of, or resistance to trying a new food. Since tasting a new food is required in the process of helping kids learn to like new foods, non-food rewards can incentivize children to taste them.

One study did show, however, that use of non-food rewards may undermine a child’s ability to develop a natural drive and motivation to try new food. So, be careful if you use non-food rewards. If you sense it is back-firing, then adjust your course of action.

I cover this in much more detail in my workbook, Try New Food, available here.

Do Food Rewards Impact Liking of Food?

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

After all, what you choose to eat as you age reflects what you like.

Take, for example, my hubby. He still doesn’t like many cooked vegetables, but there are some 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. In my experience, kids are more like my husband than they are health-conscious adults.

While you may think that rewarding or bribing your child to take another bite of that uber-healthy food is the path to a healthy diet, the reality is it probably doesn’t work this way.

What does work for long-term liking is building in frequent exposure to new foods without pressure to eat them.

Keeping Perspective on Kids Eating

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 with food is used.

Kids may feel good initially (food rewards generally elicit excitement), but their “scooby-sense” may go on high alert. They may perceive bribes as manipulative and look for a way out, or up the treats and sweets ante (Give me more if you want me to eat that!.

What my daughter 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 rewards. Liking what you eat helps your satisfaction level after eating.

Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables

Are you getting kids to eat vegetables using rewards so your child will eat?

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.

What do you think?

Does rewarding your child for eating work for you (and your child) or not?

Share your experiences, I’d love to hear.

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  1. 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

    1. I agree that ignoring negative behaviors works. This article summarizes the latest in feeding research, and specifically looks at rewarding with food, specifically desserts, which is unfortunately common practice amongst parents. Thanks for your perspective.

  2. 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!

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

  3. 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.”