The other day, I came across a Wall Street Journal article called “Here’s Why You Should Pay Your Kids to Eat Their Vegetables.” As the mother of one very picky eater, I will admit that my first reaction was, “Hell yeah. Maybe I’ve finally found my answer!”
The article cites a study from the Journal of Health Economics where researchers implemented incentive programs in elementary schools to coerce students into eating more fruits and vegetables. 8,000 kids from 40 different elementary schools participated in the program. If the kids ate at least one fruit or vegetable during lunch, they got a 25-cent token, which could be redeemed at the school store, a carnival, or the book fair.
I think it’s notable that the kids could eat a fruit or a vegetable to get the token. How much do you want to bet that most kids stuck to apples and peaches? I know my picky kid would always choose the sweet stuff if given the choice, and while fruit has its nutritional value, if vegetables could be so easily passed by, what’s the point?
Anyway, the researchers claim their little plan worked, and not just for the three- or five-week period that the programs were carried out. “These small incentives produced a dramatic increase in fruit and vegetable consumption during the incentive period,” the researchers wrote, adding that the change in consumption was sustained for up to two months after the incentive programs ended.
The conclusion of the research is that there is nothing wrong with providing a monetary incentive to get your kids to eat healthier — and that it actually works. They have a couple of theories why it worked in these schools, including peer pressure (the good kind, I suppose), and the fact that the simple act of eating fruits and vegetables changes a kid’s palate, and gets them used to the textures and flavors so that they crave them more.
Hmm…two-month sustainability sounds pretty good, right? But I’d like to come visit those schools six months or a year later to see if those kids are still eating oodles of fruits and vegetables. I have a feeling my answer would be a big fat NO.
I guess I sound like a pessimist, but what I am mostly is a parent — a parent who likes to keep it real, especially when it comes to the struggles of getting kids to eat healthy. I just don’t think it’s as simple as, “Here’s a quarter. Now you’ll love vegetables for the rest of your life.”
Here’s the thing: I will freely admit that I bribe my kids to do stuff. I have bribed them with money, and even candy (gasp!), but that’s for times when I need them to do something pronto, like getting my toddler to put on his goddamn shoes so that we can pick his brother up on time for school.
When I want my kids to actually change their habits as a long-term goal, bribery is just not going to swing it. I know that the point of the study was not that you would need to pay your kids to eat their vegetables for all eternity. The idea is that by making consumption of fruits and vegetables a habit, your kids will naturally learn to love them. But besides the fact that I doubt this vegetable love affair would last nearly as long as the researchers propose it would, I’m not sure I want my kids to associate healthy eating with bribery, especially monetary bribery.
Yes, I want and need my kids to be healthy, and this has to trump their finicky preferences when it comes to eating. No, I can’t let them eat goldfish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (which they totally would if left to their own devices). But if I started to introduce money into the equation, what kind of message would I be sending my kids? And the model of providing them money for each meal is not sustainable long term, so what about when that trend expires? Or loses its appeal?
As far as I’m concerned, I’d be sending them the message that there will always be an incentive for making healthy/good choices — and that the only way I can implement change as a parent is through bribery. I’m not willing to sign on for that.
Maybe this sort of incentive program works best in a school environment, where incentive systems are usually already the norm. Kids can separate their school and home environment fairly easily in most cases, and knowing they want a reward like their classmates is different than getting a quarter from their parents for eating “yucky” broccoli.
That doesn’t mean I don’t still struggle to feed my kids well. My picky son spent several years of his life eating hardly anything but bread products, the occasional nugget, and a few bites of broccoli here and there (yes, it’s pretty amazing that he tolerated broccoli, but that was literally the only green thing he would eat).
We had the rule that most households have: “No dessert unless you eat your vegetables.” In a way, this sounds a bit like bribery too, but at least it’s logical: You can’t fill your belly up with junk unless you fill it up with goodness first. (And desserts around here are usually pretty simple: a square of chocolate or some fruit gummies.)
I am happy to report that now, at almost 10 years old, my vegetable-refuser actually requests vegetables sometimes. Yes, there are only about three that he’ll actually eat, but he genuinely wants to eat them.
It may have taken a long-ass decade rather than a quick three weeks for us to get here, but I’d much rather have my son fall in love with vegetables naturally and of his own volition, than by paying him to eat them.