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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 06-Jul-12


Friday 06-July-12

Getting kids to eat their food

Getting your children to eat their food has long been a problem. They would of course prefer food that is bad for them, probably because it often contains large amounts of substances that are only found in trace amounts in nature and which we are programmed to seek. A lot of this is based on what is easiest to grow in large quantities and a classic example is corn sugar, which has been blamed for America's obesity problem. But this blog is about the everyday 'feeding the kids' issue, not politics, so let's leave that to another day.

Forcing kids to eat is the classic approach and I spent many unhappy hours sitting at the table trying not to be sick as I chewed on cold, congealing food ('You'll sit there until you eat it!'). When food is expensive, parents are loathe to waste it. It also seems like a good idea to drill in polite eating habits ('I can't take you out if you're going to leave things'), although social rules about what you leave on your plate can vary greatly.

A problem with forcing is that it can create revulsion. I'm still not keen on fish after the boney, choking haddock I was fed as a child. Perhaps a reaction to this is the approach I took with my children which was to say 'You don't have to eat it, but there's nothing else until the next meal.'. It worked quite well and it also taught them about hunger. Other suggestions include presenting the food attractively and even cutting or laying it out to make a smiley face.

There's also been some interesting recent research on this. Cooke et al (2011) got over 400 four to six year olds to taste six vegetables and rank them in order. The researchers then took the fourth ranked choice and presented it back to the child several times over the next two weeks. Some were rewarded with a sticker, others got praise, some were given nothing and others remained as a control group.

All except the control group increased their liking of the vegetables, showing that encouraged eating has some benefit. However, when allowed to eat as much as they like, those on the sticker group chose significantly more. And when reviewed after one and three month intervals, both the sticker and the verbal praise children showed sustained increase.

Previous studies had shown that rewards were not effective at creating long-term change. The researchers argue that this is probably because other studies used food the children already liked. It is also possible that  the children, in explaining to themselves why they ate more, concluded that it could not be the minor significance of the stickers and praise, so concluded that it must be because their tastes had changed. Remember also that they were quite young.

It is also worth noting that, although the stickers worked better initially, the praise was just as good as a long term motivator. In fact there could be additional benefit in building intrinsic motivation and encouraging the child to value praise from its parents.

Reference: Cooke, L., Chambers, L., Anez, E., Croker, H., Boniface, D., Yeomans, M., and Wardle, J. (2011). Eating for Pleasure or Profit: The Effect of Incentives on Children's Enjoyment of Vegetables. Psychological Science, 22, 2, 190-196

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