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


  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 […]