No dessert unless you eat your vegetables

How NOT to encourage a healthy diet

Posted Mar 11, 2011

When you were a child did your parents try to bribe you to eat vegetables by threatening you with the loss of dessert? Do you do this with your children? This all-to-common strategy may backfire and increase your child's resistance to eating vegetables or other healthy foods.

There's a good reason why your kids would prefer desserts over vegetables. Some sour or bitter substances are poisonous or inedible but very few sweet tasting things are. Hundreds of thousands of years ago our prehistoric ancestors who ate sour or bitter substances were more likely to perish, those who ate only sweet things were more likely to survive. Liking sweet tastes was a survival mechanism that has been passed down to us. Thousands of years ago it was adaptive; obesity wasn't a problem then. Now, an innate preference for sweets can contribute to unnecessary weight gain. Despite a genetic predisposition to like sweets, you child can learn to like vegetables without being bribed.

When I was a child I ate peas without complaint but resisted green beans, cauliflower, and absolutely refused asparagus and spinach. I wouldn't touch a tomato and even avoided ketchup until I was in my teens. My mother, aware of the importance of a balanced diet would cajole me to eat my vegetables. She'd plead, "Just try a little" and when I refused she would tell me that I couldn't have dessert (usually ice cream) unless I relented. Although I routinely missed the ice cream, this process didn't do anything to increase my fondness for veggies. In retrospect, I think I enjoyed asserting my independence and frustrating my parents even if it meant missing out on the ice cream.

Now, as an adult, I can see the problems with the "no dessert until you finish your vegetables" approach. The implicit message is that dessert is intrinsically more desirable than vegetables. Vegetables are to be endured to obtain dessert, the reward. While we are born with a preference for sweet tastes this preference doesn't translate automatically into a preference for dessert over vegetables. Some veggies like carrots and peas are sweet, while some desserts are too sweet or have other undesirable characteristics (did you ever experience a "brain freeze" with a Slurpee?). Even as a child there were some candies I didn't like. As an adult, I salivate at the thought of a well-prepared salad while I can take or leave plain M&M's. One friend enthusiastically looks forward to Brussels sprouts, despite their bitter taste, but is blase about cake and cookies.

If you've been using the no dessert strategy it's time to change your approach. Start with you own feelings about vegetables. It will be difficult to get your kids to eat vegetables if you're not enthusiastic. If you think they're unappetizing or boring, can you remember a meal that you had in a restaurant or friend's house that included a delicious salad or vegetable side dish? Even if you don't have the recipe, you could go on line to find something similar and prepare it for a meal. It will be easier to get your children to eat veggies if they see you enthusiastically enjoying them. Although you might not see an immediate change, it's likely that eventually your kids will be curious about the food you're enjoying. There are more tips for improving your children's diet in my new book, It's NOT Just Baby Fat! 10 Steps to Help Your Child to a Healthy Weight ( I'll have some more recommendations about veggies in my next blog post.