At a young age, we begin to condition our children that the reward for putting up with all those veggies on their plates is a sweet and sugary dessert. You may recognize the familiar statement: “If you don’t eat that broccoli, you won’t have dessert.”
This establishes a reward system that suggests that the sweet and sugary dessert is a gift or a reward for experiencing something unwanted. The instant gratification aspect of this process makes it somewhat effective, as the child reluctantly eats the vegetable and then enjoys the reward. Over time, this behavior repeats itself many times and the unspoken rule develops. That is, if you eat your vegetables, dessert will follow.
Next, dessert becomes a conceit, an assumed feature of every meal. After all, the rule we’ve lived by for so many years included dessert after eating. We come to believe that dessert is a necessary element of every meal. This conditioning accompanies us throughout our adult life. Interestingly, we even incorporate this rule into our diet and weight loss programs. He has been “fine” for a while and has lost a few pounds, and now he thinks he has earned a reward; One chocolate ice cream.
Ironically, what you’ve decided is that the reward for all your good effort is the cause of the health and weight problems you had in the first place. The reward for choosing healthy and nutritious foods is good health, well-being, and a long life. How much more important and valuable are they than the instant gratification that comes with a bite of sweetness?
This requires a gigantic mindset shift for some people. Changing the reward from something tangible that makes you feel good in an instant to something that promises a happier, healthier life doesn’t seem like fair trade to a child.
“Eat your vegetables and you will grow to be a healthy and happy person” will probably produce an objection response, like, “But MOM …!” The battle continues …
Changing this mindset as an adult simply requires being aware of the impact of dessert on your health and being disciplined to discontinue the practice. Later, 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 mealtime as a fun time to explore the many benefits of different vegetables and the specific nutrients and benefits they provide.
Changing your language alone will not be enough to change the learned behavior. No matter how difficult the struggle, you will be amazed at how much of this new knowledge will be remembered and will begin to take hold in your belief systems. In the short term, you can also swap the sugar-laden dessert for something more nutritious. For example, plain yogurt with some fresh strawberries mixed into a delicious treat; skip the sugar. This creates an opportunity to educate them on the nutritional value of the desserts you choose. In general, they are rewarded for eating their meals and desserts, each day with more nutrition, better physical and mental performance, and a brighter future.