A New Study Says We Should Bribe Children to Eat Their Vegetables

Despite being frowned upon by many parents, research has found that a good old-fashioned bribe might actually be the most effective way of getting children to eat their greens.

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Sep 16 2015, 12:19pm

Athens and Sparta weren't the best of pals, Batman and the Joker had their disagreements, and the Gallagher brothers have some serious beef, but none of that has anything on the ever-raging battle between children and vegetables. Much to the despair of those responsible for ensuring small human beings don't contract rickets or take their fear of "icky peas" into adult life, there's just something about green stuff that kids cannot abide.

While the mummy blogosphere is heaving with Cold War-worthy espionage methods of hiding carrots in children's packed lunches, bribing kids to eat healthy foods is perceived by many as Bad Parenting 101.

"I can vividly remember my parents leaving me stranded at the dinner table all alone with a warning that I couldn't get up and play until I'd finished my spinach. Was it slimy and unpleasant? Absolutely. But eventually I ate it and grew into a functional human who can eat a salad without anyone slipping me a $20 bill" writes one totally not smug contributor on the Scary Mommy parenting site.

READ MORE: Fat Cartoons Are Turning Your Children Into Butterballs

But that functional human being may need to rethink her attitude towards greasing kids' palms, as a new study has found that a good old-fashioned bribe might actually be the most effective way of getting children to eat their greens.

Published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the study saw researchers at Utah State University (USU) monitor the fruit and vegetable intake of children at six elementary schools.

Students were split into three groups, with 882 kids offered prizes for eating fruit and vegetables, 640 awarded with praise from teachers, and an unlucky 770 receiving no recognition of their food choices.

Throughout the study, researchers photographed the students' lunch trays before and after meals to assess which fruits and vegetables they were given and how much they ate. Each child was provided with the same items, with the kids in the reward groups given hand stamps for accepting and eating the fruit and veg. After lunch, children in the reward group who had gained four hand stamps received cash prizes, while the 770-member group got nothing.

Researchers found that compared with the students who received no incentives, the kids getting ca$h moneyz for finishing their broccoli increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by 0.32 cups and those receiving praise from teachers upped their intake by 0.21 cups over the course of the experiment.

USU psychology professor and study co-author Greg Madden explained: "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."

READ MORE: Vegetarian Children Are a Complicated Breed of Eaters

The reward system carried on for three months, with teachers tracking the students' progress on wall charts and continuing to reward the 882 kids in the selected group. Six months later, the researchers checked back in to see what children were eating and found that those in the prize groups were still consuming higher amounts of fruit and vegetables.

The authors did note however that the delay between fruit and vegetable consumption and the delivery of any reward may have lessened the effectiveness of the incentives and some students could have even made up how many veggies they were eating.

Rewarding children for completing tasks they'll inevitably undergo in adult life sans sweetener will continue to divide parents and teachers, and some nutritionists have raised concerns that USU's experiment did not extend to meals eaten outside of school.

But with a third of 10 to 11 year-olds classified as obese in the UK and childhood obesity rates doubling in the US over the past 30 years, desperate times may well call for desperate—and reward-based—measures.