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Eat and You’ll Get a Treat -- Why bribing your picky eater doesn’t work…

Girl and Healthy Broccoli Diet on WhiteI was out for dinner the other night with my husband and three children at one of our favorite restaurants. We had just ordered our meal when I heard a father with two young kids at the table next me say a dreaded phrase: “Come on, if you eat five more bites you can have dessert!”

It can be frustrating when your picky eater won’t eat as much as you want them to. It leaves you wondering if they’re getting enough nutrition to grow healthy and strong.


Trust me, I know!

Having a child who pokes at her plain macaroni and only eats three pieces before announcing she’s full can be stressful.

My son Charlie was a very picky eater and I researched to find a solution. We tried lots of remedies along the way and learned valuable lessons.

So I know firsthand how tempting it can be to try ANYTHING to get your child to eat. But there are a few things you could be doing that might be hurting your cause.

Helping your child develop a good relationship with food is not about forcing X amount of calories into his body every day.

Food issues are often power struggles and parents may contribute to the problem due to fears and anxieties over their child’s weight and eating habits.

Desperate parents try to get their child to eat by bribing them. Most of us have been guilty of this at some point. It makes perfect sense; children just need incentives to do things they don’t want to do.

But I’ve seen many parents bribe their kids to eat three more bites of ham sandwich, or one more piece of chicken, or a spoonful of peas. And they’re still doing exactly the same thing one year, two years or even five years down the road.

Nothing has changed.

The child is reluctant to try new things and won’t eat anything unless they are offered something in return.


Why bribing doesn’t work.

Bribing is, simply put, offering a reward for good behavior. When dealing with picky eaters, the common reward is a more desirable food, such as dessert.

While it’s true that it can “work” in the sense of getting the child to eat a few morsels of food, it’s really just a band-aid on a much bigger problem.

Bribing creates tension at mealtimes and it’s a lot of work for parents. It does nothing to help the child build a sense of independence or excitement about food.

Worst of all, bribing creates a list of negative and positive foods in the child’s mind. With healthier foods (like the ones you’re trying to get her to eat) on the negative list and treats (like the ones you’re bribing her with) on the positive list.

Healthy food becomes something to be endured to get the reward.

Let’s think about this for a second…

As adults, we savor that delicious pasta with seafood and vegetables in cream sauce as though it’s the best treat in the world. Even a piece of buttery toast with creamy peanut butter can taste delicious and decadent after a hard day at work.

By programming our kids to only think of sweet foods or salty junk foods like chips as the “good” food, we’re depriving them of the joys of discovering “good” food.

This same problem occurs when we tell our children that they must finish their healthier food before they get dessert. Ideally, the child should look at all foods equally. Each child will still have their favorites. Many of those favorites will be sweets, but by making them equal, they become less attractive. This opens the way for healthier foods to become more desirable.

There’s no reason why sweet, crunchy grapes can’t be considered just as much of a treat as a handful of Smarties.

It takes time and patience, but as a parent you can win the food battle.

There are lots of things you can do to get your child on a path to healthy eating, and believe it or not, your child will eventually start trying and even liking new foods.


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If you’re looking for more advice and practical “how-to” strategies for getting your child to actually ENJOY eating a balanced, healthy diet, check out The Food Sense Program. It was created with the help of a children’s nutritionist, and has helped thousands of families take the stress out of mealtimes!

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Dana’s Sleep Blog

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My blog is a great place to find opinions, advice, the occasional rant, and some great videos about sleep.

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