As a part of every check-up, my pediatrician asks me about what my children (ages 2 and 4) are eating. “Are they getting lots of vegetables? Especially dark leafy greens, and iron-rich foods like broccoli?” she asks, one eyebrow raised skeptically.
“Oh, absolutely. Lots.” I reply, while avoiding direct eye contact. I’m not exactly lying – my kids are getting plenty of healthy foods. They just aren’t really eating them, at least not as much as I’d like them to.
I’ve heard all sorts of advice about overcoming the Vegetable Problem. Hide them in other foods, serve them first and leave the chicken and pasta for later, add lots of seasonings for flavor, make a big fuss over how much you love broccoli to fool them into thinking it’s delicious. In my experience, these techniques aren’t all that helpful. So like many a desperate parent, I have decided to resort to bribes.
Psychologists (myself included) frequently warn against using rewards to encourage behavior in children, because extrinsic rewards like treats, money, or even effusive praise can undermine a child’s intrinsic motivation to do something they already enjoy or find meaningful. Once a child is rewarded for eating particular foods (the logic goes), they are less likely to eat those foods willingly once the rewards are removed.
While studies have shown that the danger of rewarding desired behaviors is very real when it comes to activities children already enjoy, like reading or solving math problems, it’s possible that rewarding a child for eating vegetables might prove more effective. When your child already doesn’t like vegetables, there isn’t any intrinsic motivation to undermine.
In fact, new research by psychologist Lucy Cooke and her colleagues at University College London shows that with rewards, children not only eat their vegetables, but learn to like them, too.
At the beginning of the study, 422 children (ages 4-6) where shown six vegetables (carrot, red pepper, sugar snap pea, cabbage, cucumber, and celery). They were asked to taste a piece of each, rate how much they liked it (on a scale from yummy to yucky), and put them in order of best-to-worst tasting.
The researchers focused on the fourth-ranked vegetable for each child, inviting them to eat as much as they wanted, and measuring the amount eaten (usually, not much.)
The children were then offered that vegetable again on each of the next twelve days. Some of the children were offered a tangible reward (a sticker) for eating it, some were enthusiastically praised for eating it, and others were not given any kind of reward. (Children in the control group were not offered the vegetable each day.)
At the end of the twelve days, and again after 1 month and 3 months, the researchers offered the vegetable again to all the children, but this time without any rewards, and observed how much they freely chose to eat.
Initially, after the rewards were removed, the children who were given a tangible reward ate the most of their vegetables. Those who received praise, and those who were simply exposed to the vegetable each day, ate less than the sticker group, but still ate significantly more than the control group.
But after three months, the sticker group was no different than the praise group – and both groups were eating nearly twice as much of their vegetable, of their own free will, than the control group kids.
So if you want to encourage your children to embrace the delights of broccoli and green beans (and be able to look your pediatrician directly in the eye), try introducing rewards into your dining routine. If you aren’t comfortable with the idea of paying your kids to eat, the good news is that some enthusiastic cheerleading works just as well in the long run. Personally, I’m planning on investing in a lot of stickers.