CHILDREN could be encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables by introducing simple competitions into meal times.
A new study suggests playing to a youngster’s competitive streak is likely to result in them being more likely to choose healthier foods by up to a third.
And it indicates that girls are more likely to respond to an element of competition in vegetable-eating than boys.
The study analyses the findings of a trial conducted by researchers at the universities of Edinburgh, Bath and Essex involving more than 600 pupils aged six to seven and nine to ten in 31 different primary schools.
For the “individual” scheme, pupils were given a sticker if they chose a portion of fruit or vegetables at lunchtime, or brought one in as part of a packed lunch. They were given an extra reward if they picked, or brought in, more than four of the foods over the course of a week.
In the “competition” scheme, a second set of pupils were also given a sticker for choosing a portion of fruit and vegetables, but were split into groups of four, with the youngster in the group who had the most stickers at the end of the week gaining an extra reward. There was also a control group that was offered no incentives for eating fruit or vegetables.
The researchers found that although the results differed by pupils’ age, gender and background, overall offering pupils incentives increased their consumption of the foods, with the competition having a greater and longer-lasting effect than the individual scheme.
In the competition scheme, among those who were not eating fruit and vegetables every day before the trial, the proportion trying the foods increased by around a third.
The study added that the individual scheme seemed to work very well for older children, but less so for younger pupils.
Professor Michele Belot of Edinburgh University’s School of Economics said: “Using incentives, particularly with children, is often controversial.
“Yet many parents use incentives to encourage positive behaviour from their children. Our research shows certain incentives do work, and in particular for groups of children that typically respond little to other health-promoting interventions, such as boys and children from poorer backgrounds.”
Dr Jonathan James, of the department of economics at Bath University, added: “Our study looked at ways we can better target interventions that change young people’s eating habits in favour of them choosing and eating more fruit and vegetables.
“Through our research we found that introducing an element of competition at lunchtime could have larger effects on children’s eating habits than using an incentive scheme that was based only on their own choices. By using a different approach, we found that the proportion of children trying fruit and vegetables could be increased by up to a third.”
Dr Patrick Nolen, of Essex University, said: “Unlike in other work on competition, we find girls – rather than boys – respond more favourably to the competitive incentive.
“This means girls, who generally eat more healthily than boys, increase consumption of fruits and vegetables even more under our new incentive.”