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Explore nutrition tips, kids’ meal plans, kids’ activities, recipes and more from pediatric nutritionist, Melissa Halas, MA, RDN, CDE.

Healthier Toddler and Preschool Mealtimes –Parents Don’t Do This!

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Here are two ways in which bribing kids to eat can backfire, with tips to correct some of the mealtime woes that lead to bribery.

Parents of picky toddlers and preschoolers may feel as though they’d do anything to help their kids eat better. One strategy that parents have used for generations is to promise dessert or other rewards for kids who clean their plates.

As tempting as bribery may be, experts caution that it is not a healthy way to encourage children to eat.

Bribing teaches toddlers to ignore their hunger cues.

Parents often bribe their kids to eat out of concern that they are not eating enough. But most toddlers actually eat plenty when they are presented with nutritious food options and allowed to eat as much as they want.

By allowing kids to eat until they are no longer hungry (but not too full), parents teach them to follow their internal hunger cues. This is important because toddlers who learn to pay attention to their hunger cues are less likely to become overweight.

When parents offer their toddlers rewards in exchange for eating more, they make it harder for their kids to listen to their bodies. Research has linked bribery at mealtime with childhood obesity, as bribes sometimes teach children to eat when they’ve already had enough.

Rather than bribe your children to eat more at mealtimes, work on general strategies for healthy eating.

  • Focus on food quality over quantity. Prepare healthy meals and snacks for your toddlers, and then allow them to choose how much to eat.
  • Encourage your toddlers to eat only as much as their tummies tell them they need.
  • Make mealtime memorable and as relaxing as possible.
  • Watch for signs that your toddlers are no longer hungry, such as playing with food at the end of mealtime. Remove dishes when they are showing signs that they’ve had enough.
  • Avoid using junk food as a reward for good behavior. Sign up for our free newsletter on food and rewards on our home page.
  • Contact your pediatrician if you are concerned that your toddlers are not eating enough, or if you are concerned that they are eating too much.

Bribing can cause kids to like healthier foods less.

Parents may be tempted to bribe their children because they worry that their kids are not eating the right types of foods. It may be tempting to offer your children cookies in exchange for eating their vegetables, but this plan could backfire.

When parents reward their children for eating healthy foods, they may send the message that the healthy items are not worth eating unless treats are involved, and their kids may grow to dislike those foods. Even worse, when parents use dessert as the reward, their kids may learn to like sugary or fatty treats even more.

Instead, parents should aim for children to eat their vegetables and other healthy foods by choice.

  • Focus on strategies to improve your child’s diet without bribing. Here are some ideas to get you started.
  • Keep in mind that some toddlers may need several exposures to a food before they will eat it.
  • Understand children will occasionally have food jags, that overtime typically improves.

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About the Author

Picture of Kim Yawitz, MA

Kim Yawitz, MA

Kim Yawitz, MA, is a senior dietetics student at Kansas State University with an interest in nutrition public policy. She lives in St. Louis, MO, and has two toddler daughters.

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