Paying children to eat veggies works. But should you do it?

Before you answer the question about paying kids for vegetable consumption, ask yourself a different, but related question. Do you support the Halloween buy-back? You know, the program where parents (or dentists) pay children to give up the bulk of their Halloween haul? It’s important to consider this now that we’re entering the Eating Season.

Many people who object to paying kids to eat veggies, support paying them to get rid of their candy. They also support paying kids to do chores. Or paying them for good grades. So what’s the difference?

I’m the opposite. While I’m not exactly against paying kids to eat their veggies, I’m a vocal critic of the buy-back.

Conceptually, paying for healthy eating and paying for not-eating junk, is the same thing. Both forms of payment incentivize the behavior you want to promote. But for me, paying for healthy eating teaches that vegetables are good. The buy-back teaches kids they can’t be trusted around candy.  It contributes to the demonizing or fear of sugar.

Are you surprised that I’m not exactly against paying kids to eat their veggies? Of course, I’d rather people incentivized their kids to eat vegetables by making them taste good. You’d be surprised how far a little garlic and oil can go. Skip the steaming.

My big concern about paying kids to eat anything is that it encourages them to overeat. That’s why I advocate rewarding kids for sampling new foods, rather than for eating them.

The major argument against rewards is a reasonable concern. What happens when you don’t pay or reward kids anymore?  Will they stop eating their veggies?

It turns out that the answer is no. Once children find the flavors of the food intrinsically rewarding, the extrinsic rewards are no longer needed. Read more about rewarding children. 

But what’s going to happen when you stop doing the buy-back? Once the extrinsic reward goes away, there are no intrinsic rewards left—unless you count the virtuous feeling of having gotten rid of all the candy. If that’s the intrinsic reward, though, we’re back to the idea of guilty pleasures. Phew, I got rid of the temptation. Otherwise, candy could stay in the house and kids could eat it over time.

There is one buy-back I do support: My better buy-back  It’s about replacing “bad” candy with “better candy” to teach the lesson, It’s better to eat the candy you love than the candy you have.

A recent study gave elementary school students a token worth $0.25 if they ate a serving of fruits or vegetables during school lunch. Consumption went way up.

The token could be spent at the school store, school carnival or book fair.

For schools that provided the incentive for:

  • Three weeks, 21% more children were eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables at lunch than before.
  • Five weeks, there was a 44% increase in consumption.

When the researchers checked back two months after the incentives ended, when no one was paying the kids, the healthy eating persisted. In other words, if you pay children to eat their veggies, they’ll continue to eat their veggies even when you stop paying them.

Why does this work? When you pay or reward children:

  1. Students develop the habit of eating vegetables.
  2. Children get used to the taste of vegetables.
  3. Making veggie-eating at lunch more “popular” shifts social norms.

Of course, we all know that what works at school doesn’t always work at home.

So don’t assume that giving your kids money will make them dive into the salad. Still, I hope you’ll consider the positive use of rewards — especially for exploring, rather than eating, new foods — and re-consider the negative use of rewards such as with the Halloween buy-back. It’s the best way I know to teach your kids the habits they need for a lifetime of holiday eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Loewenstein, G., J. Price, and K. Volpp. 2017. “Habit Formation in Children: Evidence From Incentives for Healthy Eating.” Journal of Health Economics 45: 47-54.