It’s important for adults to help children establish a healthy relationship with food. We want them to learn how to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. We also want them to eat nutritious foods and like them. Rachel Gow, PhD, LCP, an expert on disordered eating at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU and mom of three girls age six and under, offers some insight including a few recommendations for rewards, such as her daughters’ favorite – visiting a new playground!
Using food as a reward can disturb the process of establishing a healthy relationship with food by unintentionally sending the wrong message. Ideally, guidance from adults will help children develop the attitude that “eating healthy foods makes my body strong and healthy and sometimes I have treats because my body doesn’t need those as often.” When we give food treats for good behavior we’re essentially saying “my body doesn’t need treats as often unless I’ve done something good, in which case I can reward myself with food.”
This attitude can further lead to thoughts such as, “I feel badly, so I’ll treat myself to food to help me feel better.” A habit of emotional eating, whether associated with happiness, sadness, worry, boredom or any other feeling, can develop into obesity and eating disorders.
Offering food as a reward can also backfire when used as a bribe to get children to try healthy foods. “Eat your spinach if you want dessert” leads to spinach becoming even less desirable. The types of food we use as rewards are particularly problematic because they are generally high in fat, sugar and/or salt. They have a lot of energy (i.e., calories), but not many nutrients. The taste of these foods is already rewarding on its own and when ice cream or candy is given as a reward it becomes even more special and desirable in a child’s eyes.
Tasty reward-type foods are also often overeaten. Overeating, particularly high calorie foods, can lead to abnormal weight gain, obesity and disordered eating. Too much sugar can also lead to dental problems.
Of course, there’s room for treats in a healthy diet! The key to giving food treats, such as ice cream, chips or candy, is to make sure they are not given as a reward. In other words, “we’re having ice cream today” rather than “you get ice cream because you followed the rules.” It’s also a great idea to talk with children about eating slowly, tasting and enjoying the food, and stopping when their stomachs feel full.
Offering children rewards other than food can help to promote healthy attitudes about eating. At a loss for what these rewards might be? Here are a few ideas:
- Outdoor activities, such as walks, kickball, tag, bike rides or a trip to the playground
- Indoor activities, such as movies, family game nights or dance parties
- Inexpensive items, such as sticker books, pencils, markers, bubbles or bouncy balls
- Inviting a friend over to play
- Extra minutes of screen time (when kept to a minimum)
- Reward chart (Give stickers or check marks for each desired behavior that kids can “cash in” for an agreed-upon reward.)
Many of these rewards come with the extra benefit of promoting healthy activity as well!