December 13, 2011 / 7:30 PM / 7 years ago

A little reward might get kids to eat veggies

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - If your preschooler turns her nose up at vegetables, giving her a small reward for taking even a taste might help, a new study suggests.

Some of more than 8,000lbs of locally grown broccoli from a partnership between Farm to School and Healthy School Meals is served in a salad to students at Marston Middle School in San Diego, California, March 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Researchers found that when parents gave their 3- and 4-year-olds a sticker each time they took a “tiny taste” of a disliked vegetable, it gradually changed the preschoolers’ attitude.

After a couple weeks, kids rewarded with stickers were giving higher ratings to a vegetable they’d previously sworn off. On average, the vegetable moved up the scale from between 1 and 2 — or somewhere between “yucky” and “just OK” — to between 2 and 3 (“just OK” and “yummy”).

The children were also willing to eat more of the vegetable in taste tests in the lab.

Verbal praise, on the other hand, did not work so well, the study found.

The bottom line for parents? It might not hurt to try the sticker approach, according to Jane Wardle, a researcher at University College London in the UK who worked on the study.

“We would recommend that parents consider using small non-food rewards, given daily for tasting tiny pieces of the food — smaller than half a little finger nail,” Wardle told Reuters Health in an email.

It might seem obvious that a reward could entice young children to eat their veggies. But the idea is actually controversial, Wardle and her colleagues note in their report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

That’s because some studies have suggested that rewards can backfire, Wardle explained. In most of those studies, rewards caused kids to lose interest in foods they already liked.

In the latest study, the researchers focused on vegetables that their preschool group had little taste for.

They randomly assigned 173 families to one of three groups. In one, parents used stickers to reward their child each time he took a tiny sample of a disliked vegetable (either carrots, celery, cucumber, red pepper, cabbage or sugar snap peas).

A second group of parents used praise as a reward (as in, “Brilliant, you’re a great vegetable taster!”) The third group served as a “control,” where parents used to no special veggie-promoting tactics.

Parents in the reward groups offered their child a taste of the “target” vegetable every day for 12 days.

Soon afterward, children in the sticker group were giving higher ratings to their previously disliked vegetable. And in the research lab, they were willing to eat more as well: from an average of 5 grams at the study’s start, to about 10 grams after the 12-day experiment.

The turnaround also seemed to last, Wardle’s team found. Preschoolers in the sticker group were still willing to eat more of the once-shunned veggie three months later.

Verbal praise, on the other hand, seemed ineffective.

It’s possible, the researchers say, that parents’ words seemed “insincere” to their little ones. Or the preschool set may just really like stickers. Whatever the reason, Wardle suggested that parents give the sticker reward a shot. (Children in this study, she noted, were also given a special sheet where they could place their well-earned rewards.)

And it’s unlikely you would have to bribe your children with stickers until they are 18. This research, according to Wardle, suggests that about 10 days is typically enough to change young children’s attitudes.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 7, 2011.

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