For many of us, rewarding children with food has become second nature. Whether we learned it from other parents or developed the ritual through the twists and turns of our own parenting, gratifying children with cherished foods has become a common and accepted practice. Food is a motivator for both adults and children and most see the positives of food rewards but may not fully consider the negatives. Many doctors and dietitians steer parents away from food rewards for a variety of reasons.
Fosters a poor relationship with food
Using food as a reward encourages children to eat when they are not hungry and promotes eating in response to emotions. For many children it reassures a strong desire, almost obsessive, for the food reward and healthy foods become viewed as less desirable (aside from taste) or even a punishment. This relationship often carries into adulthood by frequently justifying unhealthy food choices and nutritious foods are viewed as restrictive.
Promotes stress and anxiety in children
Most of the time food rewards are used to get a child to do something they do not want to do. Dangling the proverbial carrot or candy in exchange for the less desired behavior can ensue panic or fear in a child who strongly desires the reward but is not confident he or she can complete the requested task. For example, offering a cookie for sharing a beloved toy may cause more distress than offering a cookie for taking one more bite of chicken.
Decreases diet quality
Perhaps the most obvious, food rewards are often high in sugar, calories, and fat but low in nutrients. They can also displace healthy calories by lowering a child’s appetite at meal times.
Not ready to give up food rewards completely? Consider these tips to gradually reduce how often you reward your children or yourself with food.
Consider Other Rewards
Consider each child and what they value or what motivates them. Here are few ideas to get you started.
- Getting to pick the next show, game or song that gets played
- Getting a special seat at the table or in the car
- Special time with parents or grandparents
- Playdate or sleep over with friends
- Sticker system: save up stickers for special activities or prizes
- Access to special crafts, games, or TV shows
Make treat foods a reliable part of a child’s diet
It is realistic to say children will eat sugar or treats in their diets and must learn to do so in a healthy, controlled, manner as they grow up. Offering special foods on a regular but limited basis assures children they are not deprived and that desserts can be enjoyed without having to earn them. It can also help children to let them know when they might expect a treat food. For example, if a child asks for a cookie after lunch but you know there will be cake at a party the next day you can say “We aren’t having cookies today but we can enjoy some cake at the party tomorrow.”
Reflect on your own habits
Parents are the greatest model for our children. Take some time to consider your own relationship food. Do you reward yourself with food? Do you punish yourself with healthy eating and exercise? Do you verbalize that around your children? How else might you reward yourself? Activities like going to the park or a bike ride with a parent can be motivating for a child and beneficial for both party’s health.