Jul 30, 2014

Why I bribe my kids

My favorite podcast is Freakonomics ("the hidden side of everything"). They cover topics like "Does religion make you happy?" (yes), "What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common?" (use of game theory), and my personal favorite, "The upside of quitting" (let it go, let it go..!)

Last week their topic was "Why you should bribe your kids". (transcript here).

This was timely because I have just recently started paying my kids to eat vegetables.

I tend to think like an economist, so I have no problem with this. That is, I believe that (a) people respond to incentives, and (b) it is very, very difficult to get people to do things that they don't want to do, without them.

Of course, I am slightly uncomfortable with it. I would prefer to have my kids eat vegetables because I have modelled healthy eating, because I am a tough parent ("eat it or starve"), and because I have structured our lives and our menus in a way that the kids have learned naturally to enjoy their vegetables. But I have tried all of these things - some of them even consistently - and I know only that they involve a constant uphill battle for correspondingly little payoff. (See? economic thinking).

Bribery is not my only MO.

I hide vegies too. My kids love mashed potato. They only recently found out that I have always made it with half potato, half cauliflower.  I have chopped up green and orange vegetables so tiny you can barely see them, and mashed them into mincemeat burgers, only to have eagle-eyed seven-year-olds screech "What's that?" after taking one bite. I have mixed too many pureed vegies into bolognaise sauce and made an unappetizing grey gloop that even I didn't want to eat.

I heard a CSIRO scientist on the radio a couple of years ago say he lets his kids pour chocolate sauce on their vegetables, because eating vegetables is that important. I've never done that (my kids have enough chocolate in their lives), but I have simmered green beans in butter and honey (delicious!) and served broccoli with honey drizzled over the top (meh).

I've coated Brussels sprouts in breadcrumbs and toasted them - or fried them. I've made fritters out of flour, vegetables and cheese that are goddamn delicious - all to fairly unenthusiastic reception.

I have kept up serving vegetables, and tried to keep them varied, and I've tried to keep mealtimes light-hearted and natural (don't want to create an eating disorder!)  I've put various vegies on the table and said "You just have to eat one green thing and one yellow thing."

I've taught them how vegetables make them strong, and keep their innards working, and help them go to the toilet. I've told them stories about people who didn't eat vegies and got sick, or didn't grow. I've waxed lyrical on the satisfying crunch of a lettuce slice in a burger, or the tangy sweetness of red capsicum in a taco.

I've served up something I know they won't want, but might actually like, and said "You just have to have one bite. But if you like it, you can eat more, if you want."

And all of these things work a bit, and so I keep going with them all.

But I've had the most success yet the times when I've piled up their plates and announced: "I'm paying 50c per vegetable today", or "Three bucks to whoever eats ALL their vegetables tonight."

I am quite sure that many people will think - or comment - "Wow, when I was a kid we just ate what we were given", or "I don't offer my kids any alternative" or "If they don't eat it for dinner I give them the leftovers for breakfast". All that is great, and if these are your methods and they work, then that's great.

I too, as a kid, ate what I was given for dinner, and I didn't always like it.  I can't remember if I ate all my vegetables. I probably did, or at least ate most of them. I don't remember complaining.

But times have changed and the way we run our lives and food has changed. Kids get more to eat now, and more variety, and yes, that makes healthy dinners harder.

So I'll stick to my mix of tricks: all the things mentioned above, plus bribery a couple of times a week, until the healthy habits stick.

Do you / did you bribe your kids?

Mmmmmm, vegetables...


  1. As a general rule, I don't think bribery is a good idea, especially with young kids who may learn to modify their behavior in order to obtain the bribes. However, I'm sure you know your children and can analyze how it is working, if it becomes a negative thing etc. In other words it could be tricky, but I think you know what you are doing, and yes, sometimes whatever works...My son's specialty is fruit smoothies with added ingredients like spinach or broccoli. He makes them with his boys so they see what goes in them and they drink them right down. What ever works.

    1. That's a good idea. I used to make fruit smoothies a lot for my kids when they were younger, I might try that.
      And yes, exactly - you need to know the sweet spot and not overdo it. I don't want them to ONLY eat vegies for cash, plus I know it won't work forever. It's a case of often but not all the time, and not forever!

  2. I did indeed grow up with the 'eat what is put in front of you' philosophy. And well remember (in horror) being served the same piece of liver for three consecutive meals. In the end my mother told my father it had gone off or it would have continued to appear.
    No children here - but if it works - do it. Though there is not enough money in the universe to make me eat liver.

    1. Oh dear, yes I think I would need a pretty good incentive to eat liver!
      That's a good point too, not to expect more from kids than we ask of ourselves. I don't push red meat on my daughter A too much, as she has never liked it, though I ask her to try it every now and then, because it packs much more of a nutrition punch than white meat and we get sick of all the chicken. But I respect the fact she doesn't really like it.

    2. I remember liver. Sliced very thin, dipped in flour and fried quickly so It didn't dry out, often mixed with bacon and kidneys, served with mashed potatoes, green beans and a nice rich gravy made from the meat juices in the pan. We had it every week. And we liked it.
      I tried it on my kids, but they didn't like it so I didn't force the issue, they ate plenty of other meats already.
      They did get tiny bits of liver or kidney mashed into their baby foods, but when it was a separate item on their plates none of them liked it. They got that from their dad, he refused to touch it also.

    3. Perhaps try cooking red meat in a different way? For instance does she eat meat pies?
      If she'll eat pies, then make thick casseroles with the red meat and turn them into a family size pie for dinner.
      When I was small I had trouble with red meat, (muscle meats) usually because back in those days most meat was "well-cooked", so dry and tasteless, I would chew and chew and not be able to swallow my chops. Now, I still hate the taste of lamb chops but can eat a medium rare steak with no trouble at all. I was fine with organ meats, see above, also sausages.

    4. Great suggestion River, thank you. Yes she does like some meat pies (not my home made ones!) so I'll try the casserole suggestion.
      Also the way you describe liver makes it sound pretty good!

  3. Jackie, I think you are good parent not tough one. Eating veggies is very important for childre,. Definitely eating vbeggies with chocolate is disgusting idea.

  4. I've heard about this bribing to eat veggies thing. Thankfully I never had to do that, my kids were eating mashed versions of whatever I had for dinner at 3-4 months old. They got used to the tastes very quickly with a couple of exceptions. one son gags if pumpkin gets into his mouth and one daughter gags on peas. All four kids ate everything else that I ate. I never served spinach or red cabbage because I didn't like them, but they all eat spinach now and I do too. But none of us eats red cabbage.
    I did put finely chopped veggies in burgers and spaghetti sauce, but not to hide them, just because I preferred more veggies at each meal.

    1. It's a little frustrating because both my kids were very good with veggies when they were little; I always have them veggie mash as toddlers and cooked veggies which they used to eat no problem.
      So I know they can do it!

    2. You know they can do it. So put just a teaspoon of each veggie on their plates. Say nothing. Well maybe say enjoy your dinner. But don't serve dessert or any sweet snacks for a while. Maybe a week or two. They won't waste away, but they might get a bit hungrier and will eat anything you serve up at dinner. I remember we didn't snack much at all, certainly nothing between breakfast and lunch and only on school days the kids got a small snack on arriving home. Then they were outside playing and working up an appetite. It was the 70s and 80s, no electronic games. It made a difference I'm sure.

  5. All good tactics, but I grew up with 'finish your meal before you leave the table'. I always left cabbage to last, and it was cold and my parents said it was nicer if it was hot, which I now know. I used to fill my pyjama pockets with cabbage, to dispose of later. Brussel sprouts made me gag. I can eat them now, but I really don't like them. My seven year old niece is a fussy eater, but she loves her 'trees', broccoli.

    I, of course, am an expert at child raising even though I am childless and hand care of my niece over to my partner when she visits, so I will venture that maybe bribery is not a great idea. They have been introduced to many vegetables. You have done well. They will come back to them as they mature. I once thought parmesan cheese smelt like sick and refused to eat it, now it essential for pasta. I hated olives, but love them now.

    1. Oh yes, I remember that about cabbage too. And now I love it, it's one of my favourite vegetables. My kids both also quite like broccoli (and I love it), so we eat that often.
      And yes, parmesan cheese DOES smell like sick. We all eat it here and like it, but I still think that.

    2. Pre packed grated parmesan cheese is awful. If you read the packaging you might see that it is parmesan STYLE cheese, which means it contains other cheeses not just parmesan. Less popular, more smelly varieties or it has flavour additives which aren't actually cheese.
      Buy pure parmesan in a block and grate it yourself as you need it. It is sharp and tangy and if you shave it with a veggie peeler instead of grating, it is wonderful on tomato-veggie soup. Or just to snack on. Angel (my cat) loves it too.

    3. Flavour additives like that awful artificial cheese stuff that is in those packaged Macaroni Cheese "dinners".
      Cook and eat one of those and it will be in your kitchen and on your breath for days. Urk!!

    4. We buy both the fake parmesan in a tube and shaved parmesan in a bag, which I like better, but we all eat both. And yes, the cat loves any shaved or sliced deli object including the cheese. Then again she adores Doritos. (Don't worry, I only discovered that by mistake).

  6. Actually my kid ate pretty much everything and still does but I don't have any problem with bribery or whatever other methods anyone uses to get their kids to eat healthy foods...when it comes to kids,.whatever works is my battle cry.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...