Reward Children With Nutritious Treats

At an early age, we begin to condition our children that the reward for putting up with all of those vegetables on their plates is a sweet, sugary dessert. You might recognize the familiar statement, “If you don’t eat that broccoli, then you don’t get dessert.”

This establishes a reward system that suggests that the sweet, sugary dessert is a treat or a reward for experiencing something unwanted. The instant gratification aspect of this process makes it somewhat effective in that the child begrudgingly eats the vegetable and then relishes the reward. Over time, this behavior is repeated many times and the unspoken rule develops. That is, if you eat your vegetables, dessert will follow.

Next, dessert becomes a presumption, an assumed feature of every meal. After all, the rule we have lived by for so many years included dessert after eating a meal. We come to believe that dessert is a necessary element of each meal. This conditioning sticks with us throughout our adult lives. Interestingly, we even incorporate this rule into our diet and weight-loss programs. You’ve been ‘good’ for a while and you lost a few pounds, and you now believe you have earned a reward; a chocolate ice cream treat.

Ironically, the very thing you have decided is the reward for all of your good effort is the cause for the health and weight challenges you had in the first place. The reward for choosing healthy, nutritious food is good health, well-being and long life. How much more important and valuable are they than the instant gratification enjoyed by a mouthful of sweetness?

This takes a gargantuan mindset shift for some people. Shifting the reward from something tangible that makes you feel good in an instant to something that promises a lifetime of a happier and healthier existence hardly seems a fair trade to a child.

“Eat your vegetables and you’ll grow up to be a healthy and happy person,” will most likely produce an objection response, like, “But MOM… !” The battle continues…

Changing this mindset as an adult simply requires becoming aware of the impact of dessert on your health and being disciplined to discontinue the practice. Later on, after years of yo yo dieting and the development of ailments induced by poor dietary choices, that discipline becomes easier to adopt.

For your children, the process is more complex but you can do it. First, decouple the link between vegetables and dessert. Change your language in terms of how you express the benefits of eating vegetables. A dessert reward is not a good benefit for eating these nutritional powerhouses. Use meal times as a fun time to explore the varied benefits of different vegetables and the nutrients and specific benefits they provide.

Changing your language alone will not be enough to shift learned behavior. No matter how difficult the struggle, you’ll be surprised how much of this new knowledge will be remembered and start to take root in their belief systems. In the short term, you can also switch out the sugar-laden dessert with something more nutritious. For example, plain yogurt with some fresh strawberries blended into a delicious treat – leave out the sugar. This creates an opportunity to educate them on the nutritional value of the dessert choices you make as well. All around, they are rewarded for eating their meals and their desserts, each day with higher nutrition, better mental and physical performance, and a brighter future.

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