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Dr. Ayala

Dr. Ayala
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
V.P. Product Development
Herbal Water
I’m a physician (Pediatrics and Medical Genetics), artist, and mother of 3 school age active kids. I recently co-founded Herbal Water Inc. (www.herbalwater.com) with my husband, Albert. I am a serious home cook, and love to entertain. My expertise is vegetarian food (I have been a vegetarian all my life). I strongly believe that eating healthy and enjoying good food go hand in hand. My main interests are science, nutrition and art, and I am overall a very curious person that tries to learn something new every day. Dr. Ayala (Ayala Laufer-Cahana M.D.)


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JANUARY 4, 2012 7:42AM

Should parents reward kids for eating their veggies?

Rate: 2 Flag

Many parents struggle with getting their kids to eat veggies.  A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tests a new tactic to getting those veggies in and shows that rewarding kids for tasting a disliked veggie increased both intake and liking.

I was surprised when I read the title of the study – prizes for healthy eating run contrary to the advice generally dispensed to concerned parents – so let’s read through the study and see what we can learn from it.

Rewards and praise for trying veggies

The study, led by Anna Remington, was conducted in North London, UK, and recruited 3-4-year-olds.

The 149 kids who completed the study were randomly divided into 3 groups:

  • Tangible rewards - parents offer their kid a small piece of the target veggie for 12 days, and if the kid tastes the piece of veggie he’s rewarded with a sticker.
  • Social rewards - parents offer their kid a small piece of the target veggie for 12 days, and if the kid tastes the piece of veggie he’s rewarded with praise, such as “brilliant, you’re a great vegetable taster”.
  • Control group - no daily tasting and no rewards.

The target veggie was picked according to the kid’s initial reaction.  The families were presented with 6 veggie options: carrot, cucumber, white cabbage, red pepper, celery and sugar snap peas.  After the kid had a taste he ranked the veggies from 1 (most liked) to 6 (least liked).  The target veggie for the experiment was each kid’s “4”, giving this veggie an opportunity to either rise or fall in fondness.

And the result: the kids who received the prize ate more of the target veggie and reported liking it better than the controls.  This increase in intake and liking persisted over the 3 months of follow-up.  The praise group also increased its intake and liking, but less so than the reward group.

Give veggies a chance

This study, and many others, capitalizes on the well-known fact that repeated tasting works.  We are creatures of habit, and people -- especially kids -- like what they know.  The way to know a veggie is to see it often, know its name, and give it a taste – many times.  Studies show that it might take 10 taste exposures to get kids to accept a new food.

Young faces will light up with pleasure when tasting a sweet food for the first time, but foods that are out of the realm of sweet, fatty and salty can be an acquired taste, if given the chance.

To know is to like; to like is to eat.  In that respect we parents can really make a huge difference in our kids’ food preferences and habits.

Anything to get a kid eating

So how far would you go to get your kids eating healthy? The issue of rewards for eating is a controversial one, with many experts arguing that rewards -- orany kind of pressure for that matter -- are counterproductive in the long run.

This study suggests that rewards do work, at least for 3 months, and the reward was small enough to perhaps make parents deem it a non-issue.

But whether large or small, is a reward worth considering?

I personally believe that eating behavior shouldn’t be punished or rewarded.  After all, eating isn’t a good deed or an achievement.  Eating, whether healthful or not, is something one does to fulfill a basic self-interested need.

Kids, I think, are not supposed to be eating for their parent’s satisfaction or praise.

How did we even get to accept that “like” is a requirement for eating good food when hungry? Have marketers convinced us that “lovin it” is a prerequisite? 

Family dinner should be simple: Serve a healthy meal, don't serve anything that you don't want your kids to eat, no fuss, no electronics, no need to clean the plate, but a taste is much appreciated. Except it isn't, and many families struggle with how to best feed their kids peacefully and healthfully.

Regardless, the person to be thanked and praised is the provider of the meal – praise the cook, not the eater!

What do you think? Would you try prizes to get your kids eating their veggies?

Dr. Ayala 

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Wouldn't it be smarter to actually have a conversation with the child and find out which veggies they like better or how to prepare them so they are more palatable to them? Everything does not have to be this hard, does it?
I've raised a lot of kids and can't remember one not liking all six of those vegetables and many others, without having to be manipulated into eating them.

I do think "like" and "familiar" are important criteria because they're important safeguards. There's a reason for not liking certain substances (e.g. the berries off the tree in the neighbor's yard), and that's also a valid reason for being reluctant to try food that you don't see other people eating regularly.
I guess if you start kids out with veggies, from the time they are first able to eat them, then maybe you don't have to go the rewards way. But rewards are a so common part of our lives now. It may be all that works for some.
@High Lonesome, @Rita and @Mary Stanik: Thanks for the comments. I agree. Open conversations & early and reasonable introduction to healthy eating are really key to getting kids to eat well in the first place.