Hey Kids! If Your Parents Start Stealing Your Veggies, Don’t Fall for That Old Trick!

Some of my long-time readers (i.e., my wife and three sons) might know what today is – it’s every other Saturday, which means it highly likely that today’s blog has something to do with behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

For people new to my blog, it’s every other Saturday, which means it highly likely that today’s blog has something to do with behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

I find the field of behavioral economics fascinating, and Dan Ariely is one of the leading researchers and writers in the field. He has written several best-selling books (such as Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality), writes an advice column every other week in the Wall Street Journal (which often finds its way into my blog), and is the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight, which is dedicated to using behavioral insights to tackle challenging problems at home and abroad.

The following question was posed to Dan in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Dear Dan,

Like so many kids, my children resist my attempts to get them to eat healthy foods. How can I convince them to finish the meals I serve? —Gideon

and here was Dan’s response:

One technique that works well with a stubborn eater is to “steal” a morsel off their plate. Immediately they become extremely protective of their dinner, and after a few thefts they decide the best way to protect their food is to eat it. This strategy relies on the “endowment effect,” which means that we tend to like things more when we perceive them as belonging to us.


I’m not so sure about this one.

If I was a little kid and my mom or dad started eating my turnips, I’d gladly slide the turnips onto their plate. I can’t imagine kids wanting to claim ownership of something they want no part of. I don’t know much about the endowment effect, but it seems it would most likely only apply to something you have some affinity for, like your house, or a car, or an Oreo cookie. If my mom or dad tried to take one of my Oreo cookies when I was a little kid, I would have quickly licked all of them to show my ownership (but according to number 9 on the Oreo personality test, that might be considered troubling behavior).

So what would I suggest for getting kids to eat their veggies?

Well, I can share with you what my Dad did; it may seem a little questionable, perhaps even outrageous, but it seemed to have a double benefit.

I remember one night at the dinner table, when I was about 10 years old, I refused to eat my mashed potatoes (being Irish this was sacrilegious). My dad then struck a bargain with me. He told me that if I ate all of my mashed potatoes, he would give me a pack of cigarettes.

I know, in hindsight, it’s kind of a strange incentive.

But what 10-year old boy doesn’t want to be like his dad? And my dad was a smoker, so this seemed like an awesome reward, and I gobbled up my potatoes.

My dad stood by his side of the bargain, and he gave me a pack of Kool cigarettes, and then invited me out to the garage to share a smoke with him. I was ready to be a man.

He lit up a cigarette for each of us, and my first puff was one of the most disgusting things I had ever tried. I started gagging and coughing, and it was the last cigarette I ever had.

I’m not sure if that’s what my dad had planned on, but if he wanted to make sure I never smoked, it worked like a charm.

And as it turned out, I was a good Irish lad after all. Mashed potatoes became one of my favorite foods after that night.

Apparently, my Dad was at the forefront of behavioral economics before it even became a field of study.


17 thoughts on “Hey Kids! If Your Parents Start Stealing Your Veggies, Don’t Fall for That Old Trick!

  1. Our eldest hated mashed potato and I could never figure out why such a harmless comfort food deserved to be rejected. The same as my parents’ rule, ours were each allowed one food they never had to eat. Son no. 1 had picked eggs – so he had to face the mashed potato. On hindsight he reckons he should have chosen mashed potato for exclusion as he likes eggs now. My brother was given his veg first for Sunday dinner and no meat till he had eaten them. We had to sit and watch him with a mouthful of veg he refused to eat – now he never eats veg as an adult! No easy answer for parents.


  2. Cute story. I never even tried a cigarette in my life, but have been smoking a pipe ( and occasional cigar) since college. I was a picky eater as a kid and I spent many an evening, sitting at the table until I finished my dinner, because kids were starving in China, don’t ya know?


  3. that happened to me – re. the cigarettes – and I’ve never been a smoker, although I did ‘pretend’ to moke when older and it was the cool thing to do. I became expert at blowing the smoke out through my nose as if I’d taken it down. i never did though and it never became a habit.


  4. We were never made to eat specific things if we did not want to. Mom would cook a healthy meal and put it on the table. You took what you wanted and ate what you took. When it was all gone, you were done. You could pass on anything if you wanted, but you may have to deal with being hungry later. Great post!


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