By Lori Meszaros, Nutrition Communication Student at ASU
Using rewards to get children to eat isn’t anything new. If you think about it, haven’t parents been doing this all along? “Clean your plate or you won’t get dessert” or “Eat three more bites and then you can go play.” Using rewards can be an extremely effective way to get children to eat healthier, but does this really encourage a healthy eating behavior?
The short answer: Yes.
A study conducted by Just and Price found children who were offered a small reward for eating at least one serving of fruit or vegetables at lunch increased the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed by up to 80% and reduced the amount of fruits and vegetables thrown away by 40%.
Cornel University’s David Just and Joseph Price wanted to see if the waste of school lunches could be reduced by offering a small monetary reward for eating at least one serving of fruit or vegetables at lunch. The researchers offered incentives for 5 days over a 2-3 week period in 15 elementary schools in Utah. Just and Price found that even the smallest reward of a nickel was enough to encourage children to eat at least one serving of fruit or vegetables at lunch and reduced the amount of fruit and vegetables being thrown away by 40%. Just and Price further demonstrated that fruit and vegetable consumption remained at higher levels two weeks after the intervention, but then quickly died off after four weeks.
While Just and Price didn’t find lasting results of fruit and vegetable consumption from their study, they noted they were only interested to see if offering an incentive could reduce the amount of fruits and vegetables thrown away. Further research done by Loewenstein, Price and Volpp demonstrated that the longer the incentive was in place, the longer lasting the effects would be.
A recent study published in the Journal of Health and Economics showed lasting results from offering incentives to children for eating at least one serving of fruits and vegetables at lunch. The researchers conducted field experiments in 40 Utah elementary schools involving 8000 children in grades 1-6. The children were offered tokens worth $0.25 that could be spent at the school store, school carnival or book fair. Each school was randomly assigned a treatment period of 3 or 5 weeks and data was collected on fruit and vegetable consumption before, during and 2 months after the intervention ended.
The researchers found that offering an incentive nearly doubled the number of children who ate at least one serving of fruit or vegetables in the 3-week intervention and more than doubled the amount eaten in the 5-week intervention. They further demonstrated that the 5-week treatment group had a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables 2 months after the incentive program was gone.
3-week fruit and vegetable consumption
Before intervention 39.9%
During intervention 76.4%
2 months after 48.1%
5-week fruit and vegetable consumption
Before intervention 37.6%
During intervention 79.9%
2 months after 54.0%
The USDA 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend elementary school children eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day, but many children are falling short of these recommendations, and it’s not due to the parent’s relentless will of trying. So maybe next time you find yourself telling your kids to eat their veggies, just try offering them some cash. If you do, you won’t be alone. Even celebrities like Heidi Klum have jumped on the bandwagon.
Just D & Price J. Using incentives to encourage healthy eating in children. PDF http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.185.4328&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Just D & Price J. Default options, incentives and food choices: evidence from elementary-school children. Public Health Nutr. 2013;16(12):2281-2288.
Loewenstein G, Price J & Volpp K. Habit formation in children: Evidence from incentives for healthy eating. J Health Econ. 2016;45:47-54.