Why Dessert as a Bribe is a Bad Bargain

Aug 13, 2010 by

Let’s just say we want to eat ice cream every night as dessert after dinner. We’re grown-ups, so we eat our dinner first. The problem comes when the kids, who don’t care about what’s good for them, just want to eat the ice cream and skip the salad, meat and veggies.

So we make a bargain, for their own good: they have to eat dinner before they can have ice cream. Sometimes it works. Sometimes maybe it’s the only way we can make the children eat their dinner.  It becomes complicated, though: just how much dinner must one eat to get the ice cream? If they won’t eat what we want them to eat, we deny them the ice cream. Then they throw fits. Should we quit eating ice cream? Should we let the kids do what they want? Things are not going well, and no answer to the problem seems quite right.

I think eating ice cream every night is unhealthy.  But that aside, using one food to coerce children to eat another has other negative long-term results.

The danger is they might react the way kids often do in such circumstances.

A study was done on preschoolers to see how they responded to being bribed to do things that they would normally be willing to do. The kids were offered incentives for coloring with markers instead of crayons. So, naturally, the kids colored more with the markers that day. But the next time, when no one was rewarding them for using the markers, they used the markers less than they had before.  They used them less than the other group of kids who hadn’t been bribed. The fact that someone had wanted them to use the markers and rewarded them for doing so seems to have taken some of the shine off using markers.

In a similar study, some other kids were offered incentives for trying a new yogurt drink. Others were just offered a taste, freely. The ones offered the prizes didn’t much want to drink it later without a prize. Those who got no prize were more likely to like it and to drink it again later.

So maybe kids don’t like being manipulated in general. Maybe that’s what put a bad taste in their mouth. Or maybe getting a prize for doing something planted the idea in their heads that it wasn’t something worth doing on its own, without a prize. Their perceived value of the markers and the drink seems to have gone down.  Either way, positioning good food as a means to an end, the obstacle between them and what they want,  does little to establish it in kids’ minds as something they actually like and want.

What is intended to encourage appears to actually serve to discourage. We just might be asking for more food resistance rather than real compliance or generally better eating.

Using dessert to get kids to eat dinner is an unsustainable, short-term solution that works against getting your kid’s healthy appetite working on its own long term.

A kid who’s relating normally to food is going to enjoying eating a healthy dinner.  It is possible to have kids who eat real food with gusto every day, given the proper environment. My kids are proof of it.

In several ways, using dessert as a lever to get kids to eat dinner establishes a bad relationship to food:

  1. It positions dinner as something you need compensation to eat.
  2. It gets you in the habit of eating what you don’t want to eat, maybe eating more than you really want, instead of a habit of enjoying and wanting healthy foods.
  3. It shortchanges the joy eating real food can be.
  4. It probably sets kids up for craving sugar.
  5. It develops the habit of eating real food not because we like it but because we want the dessert afterwards.
  6. It develops dependency and fussiness instead of a self-propelling, natural, healthy appetite.

Let’s compare eating to reading.  A child who grows up from toddlerhood being read to will want to read on his own. He will like to read and enjoy reading.  What have you accomplished if you get kids to read only by bribing them?  A book or two read reluctantly and little desire to read more. If you’re very lucky, they’ll stumble across loving books on the way to getting the bribe, but the bribe itself makes that considerably less likely.

Coming soon:

How to Insure that Kids Eat Dinner whether There’s Dessert or Not

How to Deal with Food Tantrums

How to Have Dessert without Making it a Bribe

Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Dessert

Related posts:

Leveraging Dessert to Get Kids to Eat Dinner Every Night

The Right Strategy to Get Kids to Eat: Put Gas in that Car

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 13 August 2010 / All rights reserved

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Hi Rosie Kate, nice to hear from you! That is indeed one of those situations it's hard to know how to respond. I would avoid requiring bites of anything, ever. That only serves to get something down an unwilling child's throat short term, which I'm never in favor of. It's just asking for trouble. It forms food resistance. Kids never need to be made to eat. It's never the answer. At the same time, it sets up meals and real food as the thing they don't want and that you want them to eat. It sets up a situation ripe for food struggles, and once that starts, it's all downhill. If my child didn't want to eat a meal because he was counting on filling up on a dessert later, I would restrict the servings of dessert. Only one serving. That's not a bad idea anyway. Not that we never eat seconds of dessert, but you have the opportunity with a small child to set up the habit of restraint with stuff that's bad for you and of realizing we don't pig out on dessert and consider ourselves nourished. Babies are born with no self-restraint or understanding of why they should restrain themselves, so we have to keep them away from harm when they're little. I advocate NO pushing of the good, and plenty of restricting of the bad. Option 1: If he refuses dinner, ask him is he's hungry or not and say that he will only get a certain small amount of the dessert and that if he's hungry after that, there won't be anything more to eat. Give him the choice. He's the only one who knows if he's really hungry and he's the only one that really needs to worry if he is. Put that ball in his court. If he decides to just eat the serving of dessert, the natural consequence that he's hungry later with nothing else to eat will teach him not to do that again. We hope, anyway. Especially if it happens several times. Temporary hunger is harmless and one of our best tools. It's OK if he cries. He'll eat better the next meal. Option 2: a more tough love version: When dinner is served, if he shows any resistance about it, just say "You must not be hungry, then, so no dessert either this time." Leave it at that. Say clearly, "You are NOT having any dessert tonight. Just forget about it. If you're not hungry, you're not hungry. We do not just eat dessert." Be very firm. He'll probably decide to eat dinner rather than have nothing at all. He'll probably beg for dinner at that point. Don't rush to give it to him. "Believe" him that he's not hungry. Your best results will come if you don't let him have dessert even if he does eat dinner and then beg for the dessert. If we have to choose between forcing them to eat and not letting them eat something, I would ALWAYS choose to not let them eat something. Next time he will think twice about refusing dinner. He may eat dinner just to have the dessert next time, but he won't be jerking you around or getting you involved in his food issues. And it won't be because anyone forced him to eat. He'll probably learn to eat dinner when there's a dessert present, get used to enjoying both without pulling you into it, and learn not play games with you about food. Option 3: If you are not tough enough or ready enough for the repercussions for the full version here, you can warn him before it happens: "If you even act like you do not want your dinner, there will be no dessert tonight. I do not want to hear anything about it." In any case, restrict dessert to a small amount with a kid who likes to try to just fill up on dessert. When he has better habits, he may eventually be trusted with seconds once in a while, but not now. I hope that helps. Let me know what you think or if you try it!!


I couldn't agree more! However... sometimes there's still the dilemma about what to do about dessert. Now, my 5 year old is generally very good about eating whatever I make, and those things that he doesn't care for I handle in a nonchalant manner, and he often ends up eating anyway. Also, we rarely eat dessert, and when we do, it's not after supper. For us, Sunday afternoon is "treat day" when we indulge in something special (and not always sugary-- popcorn is perfectly acceptable!). But occasionally there is a time (usually special events, company for supper, etc.) when dessert follows supper and my son rebels about supper (or part of it) and then I'm never quite sure what to do. I usually let it go since it's a special occasion and this doesn't come up often. But still, it can be difficult to decide what to do... Also, it's very easy (reflexive, almost) for me or my husband to automatically require some bites of supper before the dessert, and then I always kick myself because we started what I was trying to avoid...


  1. […] try tricking them into eating good foods by offering bargains and rewards, but those tactics can backfire. Too easily, the lesson becomes that dessert is the good thing and the nutritious meal is something […]

  2. […] Why dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain […]

  3. […] For more specific suggestions for breaking out of the dessert bribe trap, see my Aug. 17 comments on Why dessert as a bribe is a bad bargain […]