Getting a toddler to eat anything other than chicken nuggets and French fries can feel like a superhuman, almost mythical feat of parenting. Sure, you know they should be eating a healthier, more well-balanced diet, which all the Instagram parenting “experts” would have you believe is totally possible right up until the moment when you are faced with a toddler who refuses to touch anything that isn’t fried or covered in cheese.
When it comes to a battle between a toddler and green vegetables, the toddler will always win out in the end, especially on the days when it takes over an hour just to get them to put on pants.
Study shows non-food rewards get toddlers to try more vegetables
Times like these call for desperate measures—and as a recent study conducted by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands indicates, bribing your toddler to eat their vegetables is a strategy that can work.
In this experiment, which was recently presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity, researchers tested whether offering a fun, non-food reward, such as a sticker or small toy, would get toddlers to eat a wider variety of vegetables. To start, toddlers at a number of daycares in the Netherlands were divided into three groups. One group was exposed to a variety of vegetables, and given a reward whenever they tried them, one group was exposed to a variety of vegetables, but given no reward, while the third group wasn’t exposed to vegetables, and didn’t receive a reward.
At the end of the experiment, the toddlers who were offered a fun, non-food reward were more willing to eat a wider variety of vegetables compared to toddlers who didn’t receive a reward, or who weren’t exposed to a variety of vegetables.
“Rewarding toddlers for tasting vegetables appears to also increase their willingness to try different vegetables,” said researcher Britt van Belkom, who led the study, in a press release. “The type of reward is, however, very important—it should be fun but not food.”
Positive reinforcement works
“Toddlers respond very well to positive reinforcement,” said Beth Oller, a family physician based in Plainville, Kan. This could be in the form of stickers, or it could be clapping and verbal praise. Depending on your toddler, offering a sticker or small toy could help get them to try more vegetables.
However, as Oller cautions, “it could set a precedent that you don’t want to have to continue.” One potential drawback is that your toddler might start expecting a reward for other routines, such as sitting at the table for a meal.
Still, “every parent knows their child the best,” Oller said. “If a sticker is going to get the child to try something new, there may not be much of a downside to it.”