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“Finish your broccoli if you want dessert tonight.” Sound familiar? If the dinner table has become a constant battleground, you may feel stuck resorting to bribery in order to get your kids to eat the healthy foods needed to grow big and strong. However, research shows that by using this tactic you may be winning a battle – but losing the war.
What you see may look a lot like success – you got the little one to eat all of their broccoli! But tonight’s victory may actually have far-reaching negative effects on your child’s relationship with food.
Bribery helps to shape your child’s food preferences, but not in the direction you want. Using the scenario above, making dessert depend upon eating broccoli reinforces everything your child already thinks they know about the oft hated green veggie (“it really must be icky if I get something for eating it!”). In fact, using food as a reward teaches them to dislike it! At the same time, it makes them like dessert – the reward – even more. You may be surprised to learn that all babies are actually born with one tooth – a sweet tooth. Over the course of human history, this preference for energy dense foods helped our ancestors survive cycles of feast and famine. But in the plentiful food environment of the present-day, the last thing we should be doing is reinforcing this preference.
Bribery can also disrupt childrens’ ability to regulate their energy intake. Kids intuitively know how much they need to eat; bribing them to do so can easily disrupt this, causing them to eat past the point of full. It teaches them to rely on cues other than hunger and satiety – such as a broccoli-free plate – to know when they’ve had enough. So in the long run, your good intentions can turn into bad habits, like choosing energy dense foods and eating beyond the point of fullness.
If we want to grow healthy humans we need to teach our kids to enjoy healthy foods and listen to their bodies. Why not show them how delicious healthy foods can be? One of the best ways to enhance food acceptance is by setting a good example. It is perfectly normal for kids to be wary of new foods. In an evolutionary context this ‘neophobia’ helps protect them from eating things that could potentially be harmul. Seeing mommy and daddy eating and enjoying healthy foods will show them that these foods are safe and good to eat. At the same time, it is important to let kids decide when they have had enough. Have them check-in with their tummies instead of checking to see what’s left on their plates.