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The Healthiest Way to Bribe your Kids with Dessert....

The Healthiest Way to Bribe your Kids with Dessert....

Hey there, 

If you are reading this post, you are probably curious to see how best you can get your picky toddler, preschooler or older child to eat all those 'yucky' vegetables and 'healthy' foods that they just wont touch.  Or maybe, you are tired of the fights and simply desperate to see your children eat healthy foods?  Perhaps you are a frustrated parent who is struggling with a caregiver or family member that continuously uses bribes to get your children to eat.

Well, this post is all about BRIBERY.... So let's get to it!

Bribery, according to Wikipedia, is defined as: the giving of SOMETHING (food, money, etc) to someone in exchange for a change in behaviour (one that benefits the person doing the bribing). Hmm... so clearly the reason for bribing children with dessert would be to get them to do something they are currently not doing? [for the purpose of this blog post, I'll assume that would be not eating a specific food]  :) 

Ok, parents who want to bribe their children to eat a specific food (let's assume vegetables), are having a hard time asserting their authority over their kids, and getting them to do something that the parents feel is best.  That statement was not intended to be hurtful.  Just an observation. 

I think, before we move on, we need to understand reasons for which children might not eat something:

  1. Autonomy.  Food is one of the only areas in a young child's life where THEY HAVE POWER... where they get to decide what goes into their mouths.  
  2. They are already full from either grazing on other foods, drinking too much liquid (other than water - such as milk and juice) between meals.
  3. There is something about that food that they are not comfortable with.  It could be the smell, the taste, the texture, the look.  We need to remember that the mouth is a sacred area for a little one.  Things that come to the mouth are things that they want to explore. So when we think of toys - usually all toys are explored by mouth. :) Usually in a happy play time - positive experience.  When a little one has a parent hovering over them, trying to force food into their mouths, that is a VERY NEGATIVE experience.  And can cause food aversions, stress and anxiety over food and meal times.  It is important to remember that children (and everyone, really!) need EXPOSURE to a new food - it can take 20 or more exposures to a food before they feel comfortable putting it in their mouths!  So the keys here, are to (1) constantly offer it at the dinner table as part of a meal, (2) in a positve environment, and (3) without forcing them to eat it.
  4. They don't see parents/caregivers eating the same foods.  As the saying goes, 'Monkey see, Monkey do!'. And this holds very true for young ones.  If they see you  eating something, they will be more likely to want or to try that food then if they are told to eat it while the adult eats something else. Can I also add here, that if one parent eats it and the other parent makes a comment about not liking it, your child will likely start to not like it.  So even if YOU don't like a food, watch how you talk about the food and react to it.

Children, no matter how young, are people.  And they should be allowed to make decisions for themselves.  Yes, of course there are limits.  But we can't expect children to go from never being allowed to make their own decisions to suddenly making the right decisions all the time.  They need the opportunities to make their own decisions, and "make mistakes" in a safe manner.

My approach to parenting (yes, I have little ones too!) and raising my children starts with treating them like little adults. I talk to my children with full explanations about things, I offer choices (age appropriate, of course), and I also expect them to do what they say they will do.  The goal... What do I want my children to learn?  First and foremost: To listen to their bodies. Second, to feel confident making decisions for themselves, to know how to approach situations safely, and to feel comfortable protecting their bodies (from anything they find unpleasant, not just food).  And, although some of you might be disappointed by this, bribery does not fit into this method of parenting. 

Ok, so WHY should we not bribe our children?  BECAUSE IT DOESN'T WORK.  Children are VERY very smart.  They know when they are being taken advantage of, and they know how to take advantage of others (especially parents)! Ever been here?: "What? mom said no? ok, I'll ask dad, or grandma, or [fill in the blank]!"  My little one started doing this at the age of 3! [True story, sigh...].

So, although bribery might work for a little while, it does not teach them to explore food, but rather teaches them that there are 'yucky foods' that they HAVE to eat in order to get to the 'yummy foods' that they want to eat.  It teaches them to use bribery to get what they want from other people.  It teaches them that if they put up enough of a fight, they will get a reward for doing what they are being asked to do.  Hmm.. not quite the learning experience that we wanted, is it?  

So, if your goal as a parent/caregiver is to help your child grow in the way his/her body intended, then why not start from the beginning by using an approach to mealtimes that WORKS?  Where children get a chance to make decisions for themselves (within limits), where mealtimes are positive and happy times, and where over time, your child will grow just fine?  WITHOUT BRIBERY.

This is called the Division of Responsibility of Feeding, created by the Internationally Renowned Registered Dietitian, Ellyn Satter.  (for full details on the Division or Responsibility, please click on my blog posts: Feeding the Family: Part 1 (introduction to the Division of Responsibility) and Part 2 (questions answered).

A quick summary of this approach:

  • Parents are RESPONSIBLE for:
    • Where children are fed - always at the table.  TV/screens off, homework away.  So that kids can eat mindfully.
    • When children are fed - every 2-3 hours.  So that they don't go too hungry and can listen to their bodies.  Nothing in between meals/snacks (including milk and juice).  Just water.
    • What children are offered to eat. Yes, mom and dad, YOU choose this.  Not the little ones.  This is where you want to make sure you are offering at least ONE food you know your little one will eat, and also expose the little one to foods they might not be ready to eat yet.
  • Children are RESPONSIBLE FOR:
    • If they eat.  Sometimes they don't, and that is ok.  They will not starve, because you will offer them food in another 2-3 hours.
    • How much they will eat.  It might be a lot, it might be a little.  Adults are no different, right?  Some meals we eat a ton! and other times, we don't really feel like eating all that much.  And that is ok. 

So... after all that, the healthiest way to Bribe your child to eat, is to NOT BRIBE your child at all, but rather to implement an approach to mealtimes where both you and your child have responsibilities, to respect each other's responsibilities, and to keep meal times positive.

Hope that helps. 

As always, if you have any questions, please email me at eliana@eatdifferentrd.com.

Wishing you the best of health,

Eliana

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