By now you’ve probably heard: a study came out in December showing that paying kids to eat their fruits and veggies works! And it doesn’t even take a lot of money. Researchers were able to increase fruit and veggie consumption by 80% by paying kids as little as 5 cents. You won’t be shocked to know, though, that 25 cents worked better.1
In my thoroughly unscientific polling of parents’ thoughts—I asked friends and clients, read what people were saying on the Internet—it was easy to tell that this study, which was conducted during lunch at 15 different schools, has been met with little enthusiasm. And I suppose I get it: paying kids to eat vegetables feels a little sleazy. But is it any worse than any of the other bribes parents routinely use?
- Eat your broccoli and then you can have a brownie.
- Two more bites of peas and then you can be excused from the table.
To me, the problem isn’t the bribe. The problem is that we’re incentivizing the wrong behavior. Instead of trying to get kids to eat more, we should focus on teaching kids to enjoy eating vegetables. So here’s what I propose: if you want to pay your kids to eat their veggies, fine. But pay them to eat a single bite. Call it the Happy Bite. Or pay them to taste an unfamiliar vegetable. But let them spit it out. A country ravaged by overeating shouldn’t be in the business of promoting more of anything—even when what we’re pushing is healthy food. Why? More simply isn’t a healthy eating habit.
When it comes to vegetables, the healthy eating habit we’re after is proportion: eating healthy foods more frequently than less healthy foods. Since fruits and vegetables top the list of healthy foods, we do want fruits and vegetables to figure more prominently in our kids’ diets. I’m not arguing that. The key distinction I’m making, though, is that proportion is a relational concept that teaches kids how to handle their whole diet (the good, the bad, and the ugly). More is just, well, more.
Most parents I know don’t teach their children the concept of proportion, either because they haven’t thought to or because they think proportion is a difficult concept to teach. It’s not. “We eat fruits and vegetables more frequently than we eat crackers, cookies and other treats,” will do the trick. (In case you think this is an unnecessary statement, add up all the crackers and cracker-like foods your kids eat and I guarantee they’ll outweigh the fresh stuff.)
So, how can the Happy Bite or tasting-and-spitting help you achieve the goal of proportion? By eliminating the pressure. Pressure makes kids resistant to vegetables and to experiencing new foods. Alternatively, the Happy Bite and tasting-and-spitting are long-term techniques that pay off because they produce positive associations with food for your kids, a doable eating “assignment,” and pleasant mealtime interactions between you and your children.
Trying, and learning to like, new foods can be challenging for kids. I see no problem with rewarding kids for their efforts —even with money. The key to food acceptance—i.e. to liking—is to emphasize exposure, not volume. It doesn’t matter how much your children eat. What matters is how frequently they eat it. Sadly, our culture encourages parents to go after consumption rather than liking, and to focus on the immediate meal (or the immediate mouthful) instead of lifelong eating habits. And that's something our kids will end up paying for for many years to come.
© 2013 Dina Rose, PhD. Portions of this post appeared in an earlier version on my blog It's Not About Nutrition. My book, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (Perigee Books) was recently released.
1 Just, D. R. and J. Price. 2013. “Using Incentives to Encourage Healthy Eating in Children.” The Journal of Human Resources 48(4): 855-72.