By Beckie Strum
Science says it’s OK to pay your children to eat their fruits and vegetables.
The strategy not only works in the short term, but can create healthful eating habits in children in the long run if the little bribe is carried out consistently for several weeks, according to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Health Economics.
“As a parent, imagine that there’s something to do that might be worth my effort, and I get the long-term benefit,” says Joseph Price, associate professor of economics at Brigham Young University. He co-wrote the paper with George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, and Kevin Volpp, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
For a year and a half, the researchers carried out a study of 8,000 children in first through sixth grade at 40 elementary schools to test whether short-run incentives could create better, and lasting, eating habits in children.
At lunchtime, students who ate at least one serving of fruit or vegetable, such as an apple, fresh peaches, pineapple, side salad or a banana, received a 25-cent token that could be redeemed at the school’s store, carnival or book fair.
The researchers saw an immediate spike in consumption, Dr. Price says. “These small incentives produced a dramatic increase in fruit and vegetable consumption during the incentive period,” the researchers wrote. “This change in behavior was sustained.”
Two months after the incentives ended, many more students than before the program started were still eating a fruit or vegetable at lunch. For schools that provided the 25-cent incentive for three weeks, 21% more children were eating at least one serving of fruit or vegetable at lunch than before.
The effect was even greater for schools that implemented the program for five weeks, which led to a 44% increase in consumption two months out.
Positive peer pressure played a role in getting the children to adopt and then stick to the program. A health economist from Cornell University has even suggested that one way to establish the social norm even quicker was by making sure the “cool kids” were the early adopters of the behavior, Dr. Price says.
The researchers also believe that the more often students ate fruits and vegetables, the more they learned to like them. Dr. Price draws an example from his personal life, saying he offered his son an incentive to practice hitting a baseball. The more his son practiced, the better he got and the more he liked playing, Dr. Price says.
Parents or schools could also try nonmonetary rewards, such as extended recess or gym class, Dr. Price says.