Cash for carrots: wrong ways to make a child eat healthily
Don’t lure them with a lollipop to eat greens, or keep serving food they don’t like
Getting your child to eat vegetables can be challenging – but not impossible if you adopt the right approach. Photograph: Getty Images
Tears and tantrums at mealtimes are a regular occurrence in many households – but this is often just the parents as they try every tactic to coerce their children into eating healthy food.
Many are faced with shaking heads and stubbornly clamped lips and some youngsters even resort to spitting out the meals that have been so lovingly prepared. So often their exhausted parents, in sheer desperation and worry that their child will be malnourished, give in to demands and offer replacement foods which they know their child will like.
But according to some new research, the trick is to persist in giving children food they don’t like until, eventually, they learn to accept it.
In a study undertaken by Coventry University in Britain and the BBC Terrific Scientific campaign, a group of children aged between 9 and 11 were given kale every day for 15 days. Prior to the experiment, the participants did not care for the vegetable but after a daily dose for two weeks, most found they had in fact developed a liking for the leafy “super-food”.
However, Dr David Carey, director of Psychology at City Colleges and dean of the College of Progressive Education, says constantly bombarding a child with something will only have a negative outcome.
“I do not believe children should be stressed and made anxious or angry deliberately,” he says. “There is enough stress in a child’s life without parents adding more by giving them foods they dislike to eat.”
Peadar Maxwell, senior child psychologist with the Health Service Executive, agrees and says this method will not help to develop a healthy attitude to food.
“I am not sure if this research can be applied to all children,” he says. “Feeding a child something they don’t like for 15 days sounds like exposure therapy, a way of exposing a person to something they are normally adverse to.
“This concept is used to tackle all kinds of fears – but food and feeding are incredibly complex as they are tied up in nutrition, emotions and attachment as well as body image and maybe even sensory processing. What does seem like a good idea is exposing your child to healthy and varied foods on a consistent basis so that they get used to the sight and smells and hopefully textures and tastes of new foods.”
Louise Reynolds of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute agrees.
“Offering food up to 15 times may be necessary, particularly at the weaning stage,” she says. “This is a completely normal fear of new things. So praise the child for trying the food, even if they don’t eat it and then after leaving it a couple of days, encourage them to try it again.
“But do not offer the same food every day for 15 days in a row as anyone would be put off by that approach. Instead, provide a few different vegetables in bowls in the middle of the table and allow everyone to help themselves – the younger, less adventurous child will see others trying different foods and this will normalise the behaviour.”
“Children, like ourselves, have likes and dislikes and it’s important to respect that,” she advises. “But where whole food groups like fruits and vegetables are ‘disliked’ then we can use repeated exposure to a variety of types – maybe not the same fruit or veg everyday but every few days until it becomes the norm.
“Repeated exposure is important but so is presenting the food in a tasty fashion – for example some children may prefer raw to cooked broccoli, some may prefer a little sauce for dipping or they may like it stir fried. There are ways and means to get over most issues with persuasion and good example.”
Dr Foley Nolan is referring to gentle verbal persuasion but if an official UK guideline is to be believed, parents should persuade children to eat their green by bribing them with cash.
Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum in the UK, believes that cash rewards could give children an incentive to eat vegetables and offer a solution to the obesity crisis.
As controversial as this notion appears, it seems as though Mr Fry is not alone as in 2016, a study published in the US journal Health Economics showed how a group of 8,000 children who were given money to encourage them to eat healthily, doubled their intake of fruit and vegetables.
But despite the apparent success of this somewhat unorthodox method, Irish psychologists are not supportive.
“Bribery is no way to raise children,” says Dr Carey. “It is inappropriate in any context. Being a member of a family requires co-operation so I don’t believe in bribery to get children to do chores and it is a daft idea to bribe them to eat properly.”
“It’s a form of coercion,” adds Mr Maxwell. “The key part of encouraging children to expand the range of food they eat is to develop trust between parent and child. Children need to be able to trust their parent that they won’t get tricked into eating something that they are afraid of or have an aversion to.
“Bribing also diminishes the child’s feeling of control over what goes into their body and their sense of responsibility about their body. Bribes come before a desired task whereas rewards come after. Bribes encourage expectations of being ‘paid’ to do anything you don’t normally want to do whereas rewards, which can be anything from praise to dessert, encourages co-operation and responsibility.”
Dr Foley Nolan says food really shouldn’t be seen as a challenge and instead just a normal, pleasant part of everyday life.
“Both children and adults should be treated with respect and should not be bribed or forced to eat,” she says. “But it is important to make food attractive and tasty and a key issue is to eat the same food along with a child and to lead by example.
“Unintentionally, we can often put children off certain foods or provide them with a very limited range and this promotes ‘fussiness’. Eating should be an enjoyable and sociable part of life and not linked to parent-child stress.”
Practising what I preach
I am very fortunate to have three sons who pretty much eat everything that is put in front of them. And this I put down to the fact that they were raised in a pretty old-fashioned manner – dinner was dinner without an alternative.
Right from the very beginning I gave them a version of what we were eating, pureed when they were tiny and cut up into little pieces as they got older.
Because they saw us eating the same food, there was never any question of anyone getting something different and as we introduced them to a variety of flavours and textures from the start, they were always open to new foods – sure there were some things they liked better than others, but they never shied away from tasting.
Growing up in a household where both parents have a keen interest in food and cooking, the boys were naturally exposed to a variety of different foods all the time. And as they got older, we included them in the shopping process, followed by the preparation and then the final outcome, serving up the dish they helped to create.
It might seem like a simple and obvious solution, and perhaps I am just fortunate to have children with a broad palate but I do believe that one meal for all and a variety of foods on offer each week, is a good first step.
And according to Ms Reynolds, I may have been on the right track.
“Always remember that children learn so much by example – and that certainly holds true when it comes to their food choices and preferences,” she says. “If you, as a parent, never eat vegetables then you will have a more difficult road to navigate to get your child to embrace all things green and nutritious.
“If you don’t like fish, and therefore never cook it, it may be safe to say that as your child grows up in this fish-free environment they will tend to be a little more suspicious when first offered a nice piece of fresh fish.
“So that’s important – model good behaviour in terms of family mealtimes and being adventurous with foods for your children and basically, the first thing parents should do to get their children to eat properly is to eat properly themselves.”
Simple tips to help parents make mealtimes less of a challenge
“Do not cook four different dinners – ‘one family, one meal’ is a good motto to live by, particularly if you are responsible for the cooking.
“Try to always include something you know the fussy eater will like and after that encourage trying new foods.
“Remember, there will be individual likes and dislikes so don’t get too hung up on the types of vegetables, for example, that your child eats, once they eat some vegetables every day and preferably not the same one.
“Include children in cooking the family meals as they are much more likely to eat something they have cooked themselves and are also learning about ingredients and where food comes from.
“Don’t encourage unhealthy snacks between meals – instead have a well-stocked fruit bowl where children can help themselves.
“Avoid having treats after most main meals – instead offer healthy alternatives like yoghurt and fruit.
“A healthy child will not starve themselves so try to keep stress away from the dinner table.
How to keep your kids trim
The most recent national figures suggest that 25 per cent or one in four Irish children is either overweight or obese. In order to try to reverse these alarming statistics, Safefood has a number of simple steps.
1. Reduce portion size and fill at least 1/3 of the dinner plate with vegetables and salad.
2. Encourage children to eat slowly, use a smaller plate.
3. Avoid eating while watching TV as it is easier to overeat while distracted.
4. Follow serving-size guidelines on high-calorie snacks.
5. Offer a rainbow of foods – in other words serve plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to all family members.
6. Children may need to eat little and often so offer healthy snacks such as cheese and crackers, unsweetened breakfast cereal with milk, chopped vegetables and fruit, yoghurts, wholegrain toast, home-made vegetable soup or even home-made popcorn (minus the salt).
7. Milk and water are the best drinks for preschool children.
8. Unsweetened fruit juice should only be given once a day and ideally should be diluted with water and served with meals.
9. Fizzy drinks (even sugar-free options) are not suitable for children, neither is tea or coffee.
10. Squash should not be offered as a daily drink as most contain sugar or sweeteners.