14 December 2011

Reward might get kids to eat veggies

If a preschooler turns her nose up at vegetables, giving her a small reward for taking even a taste might help, a new study suggests.


If a preschooler turns her nose up at vegetables, giving her a small reward for taking even a taste might help, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that when parents gave their three- and four-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.

Idea of reward is controversial

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

The bottom line for parents is it might not hurt to try the sticker approach, according to Dr 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", Dr 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, Dr Wardle and her colleagues note in their report, which appeared online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Rewards cause lost of interest

That's because some studies have suggested that rewards can backfire, Dr Wardle said. 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.

Stickers reward last longer

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, Dr 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 is ineffective

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, Dr 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 Dr Wardle, suggests that about 10 days is typically enough to change young children's attitudes.

(Reuters Health, December 2011)

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