Kids will eat tons of vegetables if you pay them

baby eating corn
© K Martinko

Scientists conducted an experiment to see how financial incentives can motivate children to establish healthier eating habits over the long-term.

Kids and vegetables have always had a fraught relationship. As any parent knows, getting children to eat vegetables and fruit consistently, without nagging, is an ongoing challenge. So they mash and purée, combine and conceal, in hopes that little bodies will get the nutrients they need.

Now scientists are saying that bribery—that oft-considered yet awkward tactic that every parent guiltily dreams of employing daily—is entirely acceptable when it comes to motivating kids to eat fruits and vegetables. According to a study published in the Journal of Health Economics, offering a financial reward for every piece of fresh produce eaten, if carried out consistently for several weeks, can lead to healthy eating habits in the long run.

Researchers observed 8,000 children at 40 elementary schools in Utah. Kids were given a 25-cent token for each serving of fruit or vegetables they ate at lunch. The tokens could be redeemed at the school carnival, school store, or book fair. The experiment lasted between 3 and 5 weeks, and, when the children were observed two months later, they were still eating more produce than before the experiment began.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Two months after the incentives ended, many more students than before the program started were still eating a fruit or vegetable at lunch. For schools that provided the 25-cent incentive for three weeks, 21 percent more children were eating at least one serving of fruit or vegetable at lunch than before. The effect was even greater for schools that implemented the program for five weeks, which led to a 44 percent increase in consumption two months out.”

The researchers believe that, the more often the kids ate vegetables and fruit, the more they grew to like them (although I bet the growing weight of tokens in their pocket definitely helped).

While positive reinforcement is undoubtedly a great thing, the idea of bribing kids to eat a food group that’s foundational for human health is slightly disconcerting for me. Personally, and as a parent, I don’t think kids should be given the option of not eating vegetables and fruit. I adhere to the untrendy school of thought that my kids should eat what’s served to them, without complaining, especially when I know the food we eat is delicious and nutritious.

I would also question whether the two-month check-in period is adequate for assessing whether the habit has stuck with the students. A year or two later might give a better picture. As with most things, establishing these sorts of unpleasant-but-good-for-you lifestyle habits usually require parental supervision, and if the students hadn’t been receiving that from the very beginning, I have trouble imagining it suddenly increasing.

Still, bribed veggies are better than no veggies, and ultimately each family needs to work out a system that works best for them.

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