Should toys really be used to incentivise children to eat healthy?

Posted by Andrea Hogan on 2nd August 2017

The Cancer Council Victoria this week suggested giving away toys with meals could be limited to healthy foods only. This suggestion came with their latest study finding children are influenced to eat certain foods if they will also be given a toy.

But should toys be used be used in place of teaching children healthy eating habits which could last them a life-time?

According to Teri Lichtenstein,  Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Director of FoodBytes, a nutrition-consulting agency, toys have a place as a form of encouragement, but should be used appropriately by both food companies and parents.

“The best way to help children become competent eaters for life is to introduce positive eating behaviours from the baby stage,” Teri told Australian Food News.

Ellyn Satter is a pioneer in the area of early childhood nutrition that focuses on the division of responsibility, where the parent chooses the food to serve and the child decides if and how much they will eat.”

“I think toys can be used together with these principles, but toys should never replace the basic structures around positive eating behaviours,” Teri said.

Toys should not take all the blame for unhealthy eating habits

As part of the Cancer Council Victoria’s study, supplying movie character toys with fast food was concluded to have an “enormous” impact on what foods children want to eat.

Teri however says toys or movie characters should not take all the blame for unhealthy eating habits.

“To some extent, a toy or movie character is no different to crayons and pictures being offered at restaurants to keep kids entertained, or colourful plates being used to serve food to children,” Teri stated.

“If a child is taught positive eating habits from a young age, and if parents and carers model these behaviours, then the toy becomes less important. Food companies do have a responsibility to market responsibly to children, but at the end of the day, typical “unhealthy food” will always be just that. There is a time and place for unhealthy food in childhood, whether a toy is included or not!”

How can parents teach healthy eating habits without toys?

Teri suggests parents looking to teach their children healthy eating habits should consider Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility model. The model suggests parents choose the type of food they want to provide their child and when they wish to provide it, whilst the child decides how much they will eat of the food.

Teri also has the following suggestions for parents looking to deal with particularly difficult eating situations:


Phrases that hinder 
Phrases that help
When you bribe / nag / beg your child to finish their vegetables (e.g. peas)
That’s great that you finished ALL of your peas

Just one more bite and then you can have {insert bribe}
Is your stomach telling you that you’re full?

 Has your tummy had enough?
When your child refuses to try a food
Eat that for me please
This is kiwifruit, it’s sweet like a strawberry. This is a radish, it’s really crunchy
When your child pulls a face, or says they don’t like a food
See, that did not taste so bad, did it?
Is that not one of your favourite foods?

 Which one is your favorite?

 Everybody likes different foods, don’t they?
When you serve a new food to a child
It really is delicious, I promise you will like it
Would you like to have a taste of this to see whether or not you like it?

We can try these vegetables again another time. Next time would you like to try them raw instead of cooked?


Teri Lichtenstein is a dietitian and nutritionist. She is director of FoodBytes, a nutrition consulting agency. Teri works with many parents, childcare organisations and schools to help empower kids and adults to develop positive eating behaviours and enjoy all aspects of food. Teri is a board member of Nutrition Australia and is a mum to two young kids. You can find out more about Teri and FoodByte’s services by visiting


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