“If you eat your peas then you will get a cookie!”
“Take two more bites of your chicken, and I’ll let you have ice cream!”
“If you don’t finish your dinner, then no dessert!”
I get it. When you’re at the dinner table and trying to prevent a tantrum, the idea of bargaining with your children seems to make a lot of sense. How else can you get them to eat the healthy, nutritious stuff without a little innocent bribery? Why would they eat the meal if they know all they have to do is just wait for the sweets?
But please trust me on this one. Using dessert to incentivize your kids to eat the rest of the meal will always backfire!
Think about it this way. When we say things like, “If you eat your peas, then you will get a cookie,” here’s what you are implying to your child:
· Peas = yucky food
· Cookie = yummy food
I know what you’re thinking. “What else am I supposed to do!? Should I try to explain to a 2-year-old about fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin K, thiamine, vitamin C, folate, etc. etc. etc. Yeah, good luck with that!” I agree—that’s not the right approach, at least for really young children. (For older children, it’s a different story, though—look out for a future blog post on this subject.)
So, if we can’t bargain with our children to eat their peas, but we also can’t get them to comprehend the nutritional benefits either, what’s left?
The answer? Pressure-free meals!!! Consider the concept of serving your family a meal where everyone gets a plate that includes a fruit, vegetable, starch, protein, and a small cookie—all at once. Try not to serve the dessert at the end. Include it with everything else like it’s a normal part of the meal.
Once the meal is served, you should talk to your child about anything other than the food that’s in front them. Don’t beg them to eat. Don’t nudge them to reach for the peas or the chicken before the cookie. The only requirement is that they sit at the table for at least 15 minutes. Give it a try!
At first, the child might eat only the cookie and nothing else. But be patient! Over time, you might come to notice that your child is no longer obsessing over the dessert. Maybe they eventually decide to try a pea. We need to trust our children to eat when they’re hungry and to the foods in front of them without resorting to pressure.
While every child is different, we know that using dessert as a reward is not a long-term solution to getting them to enjoy balanced meals. I look forward to hearing your experiences as steer away from calling dessert a reward and instead talk about … ANYTHING ELSE!