Should Kids Be Paid to Eat Fruits and Vegetables?


The findings of a Utah study imply that bribing kids to eat fruits and veggies is a good idea. (Photo: USDA/Flickr)

When it comes to getting your kids to eat vegetables, you’ve probably tried begging, bargaining, and sneaking them in (kale in smoothies is a good trick). But a new study out of Utah suggests using another approach: boldfaced bribery.

“The rewards can be used to encourage children to repeatedly try fruits and vegetables, and there is some evidence to suggest that repeatedly tasting novel foods increases their acceptability,” study co-author Greg Madden, a Utah State University psychology professor, told Reuters.

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Madden and fellow researchers tested groups of students participating in an ongoing school-lunch program called Food Dudes — adapted from a plan in Wales for U.S. kids by Madden in 2011. It aims to increase kids’ intake of fruits and vegetables by using superhero role models, tasting experiments, and an incentive plan. By the end of its first four-month cycle, Madden told Salt Lake magazine, kids were eating 40 percent more fruits and vegetables.

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The latest study looked specifically at the produce-eating habits of kids based on whether or not they would receive rewards. It included 882 students offered monetary prizes for eating more fruits and veggies, 640 children who received praise by teachers for doing this, and a third group of 770 kids who got nothing for their food choices.

At first, researchers assessed what kids chose and what they actually consumed by taking before-and-after photos of their lunch trays. Then they provided the same fruits and vegetables to all students, gradually increasing the portion size, and added rewards or praise for a 16-day period. Students who got paid off upped their fruit and vegetable consumption by .32 cups, while those who were praised for their eating skills ate .21 more cups. From that point on, the students self-reported their lunch habits, with teachers tracking their progress, while continuing to dole out praise or cash rewards.

Six months after the incentives stopped, researchers checked back to find that those who had received awards were still eating significantly more fruits and veggies than the other kids.

Madden did not immediately respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment. Samantha Heller, an NYU nutritionist, tells Reuters, “Rewarding good behavior such as healthy eating is a step in the right direction.”

But is it really the best approach?

“Parents are often misguided about incentives,” according to Brigham Young University economics professor Joe Price, who co-authored a very similar study, with similar results, in 2013. “We feel a sense of dirtiness about a bribe,” he said in a news release about his findings at the time. “But rewards can be really powerful if the activity creates a new skill or changes preferences.”

Price’s weeklong studies took place in 15 different Utah schools, offering fruit-and-veggie incentives including a nickel, a quarter, and raffle tickets for larger prizes. But in all cases offering rewards, the kids ate 80 percent more fruits and vegetables, according to the results published in The Journal of Human Resources.

Still, parenting expert Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a Pennsylvania-based pediatrician, tells Yahoo Parenting that using incentives for healthier eating is simply “an interesting trick,” which she sees as “a useful Band-Aid, but not the cure.” To create true healthy eaters, she says, we need to tap in to real motivations.

“It’s great to know, in this case, the trick seems to stick for a while. But we also need to build internal motivations for health. Eating vegetables is just one small part of healthy living, and we don’t want to create a reverse menu where we are paying for each healthy choice,” Gilboa says. Otherwise, parents could find themselves paying their kids to choose water over soda or for coming back extra-sweaty from gym class.

“Bribery doesn’t teach kids to be the people we want them to be — nor does it create the generation we want to raise or employ or have run the world,” she adds. “I’m not saying you never do it, but it’s a last resort.”

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