Small rewards help preschoolers eat veggies

December 19, 2011 in Healthy Eating, Nutrition for Children and Teenagers, Nutrition Topics in the News

Small rewards help preschoolers eat veggies

If your children turn up their noses at broccoli, a small reward like a sticker for taking even a taste may help get them to eat previously shunned foods, a U.K. study finds.

However, the notion that a reward could tempt young children to eat their vegetables is controversial. Some studies have shown that rewards can backfire and cause children to lose interest in foods they already liked.

Verbal praise has also been shown not to work.

The researchers recommend that parents use small non-food rewards, given daily, for tasting tiny pieces of the food -- smaller than half a little finger nail.

The study 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 children's attitudes.

Over a couple of weeks, children rewarded this way were giving higher ratings to vegetables, with the foods moving up the scale from between 1 and 2 -- somewhere between "yucky" and "just okay" -- to between 2 and 3, or "just okay" and "yummy."

The children were also willing to eat more of the vegetables -- either carrots, celery, cucumber, red pepper, cabbage or sugar snap peas -- in laboratory taste tests.

Researchers randomly assigned 173 families to one of three groups. In one, parents used stickers to reward their child each time they took a tiny sample of a disliked vegetable.

A second group of parents used verbal praise. The third group, where parents used no special veggie-promoting tactics, served as a "control."

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

Soon after, children in the sticker group were giving higher ratings to the vegetables -- and were willing to eat more in the research lab, going from an average of 5 grams at the start to about 10 grams after the 12-day experience.

The turnaround also seemed to last, with preschoolers in the sticker group still willing to eat more veggies three months later.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, December 2011

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