Why You Shouldn’t Use Food as a Reward with Kids


Children can develop eating issues as a result of offering food as a reward or punishment. As parents, we want to make sure we create good habits for kids.

Sadly, these issues can lead to poor eating habits or unhealthy attitudes about food, which can last a lifetime.

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When you offer food as a reward and your child doesn’t do the desired behavior or reach a goal, that treat might be withheld, which in turn becomes a punishment. Crazy, I know.

Here are some of the possible issues that can arise. When we use food as a reward or punishment, we can make children feel anxious. It can also cause them to feel that food is scarce, which can lead to overeating. By doing this, we are not creating good habits for kids.

Also, reflect on what you may be teaching your child through this reward and punishment dynamic. You are using food, even when it’s well-intentioned, as a form of getting what you want. Depending on your child’s temperament, this can teach him or her to use food as a form of control. Think anorexia or bulimia as possible issues as your child get older.

Another possible issue is that your child may refuse to eat as a way to get attention. Continue reading to find out how to create good habits for kids.

Good Habits for Kids. Using Food As a Reward

Parents should avoid using food as a reward. If you’re negotiating with kids using dessert as the reward, it can backfire for a few reasons.

  1. Studies show that children actually end up eating less! Which is completely counter-productive to what you’re trying to get to happen.
  2. The food you are negotiating with will seem like the bad food and the dessert as the amazing, good food. You don’t want to put these treats up on a pedestal and make veggies seem like something kids have to just eat to get what they truly want… a cupcake or cookie! The goal is to get kids to truly appreciate the taste of vegetables to help them become lifelong healthy eaters.
  3. It teaches kids that food is something they can use as a form of control.

Do’s and Don’ts for Parents and Child Care Providers

  • Do serve treat foods (sweets) not only on special occasions but sometimes because it is Tuesday or Wednesday. This helps to separate the overtly focus on sweets and special occasions.
  • Don’t replace a favorite food with another because of behavior. If the beloved item is on the menu, serve it, regardless of the child’s actions.
  • Do tell your child’s grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers about the no-food-reward rule.
  • Don’t let others reward the child with food. Try to say no to lollipops at the Doctor’s office.
  • Do serve a balance of healthy, age-appropriate foods at each meal.
  • Don’t use treats to distract the child from a scraped knee or after he got his feelings hurt.
  • Do encourage the child to try new foods by serving as a positive role model. If you won’t eat the food, there is a good chance your child won’t either.
  • Don’t offer more of a particular food if the child behaves. Your role as the caregiver is to provide enough healthy choices at each meal to meet the child’s nutritional needs.
  • Do try to make mealtimes social and fun. Even with a very young child, talk to him about what he is eating and use descriptive words like colors, textures, smells, etc. Talk about the day’s events and activities that are yet to come.
  • Don’t celebrate every holiday with candy and treats. Maybe on Valentine’s Day, you can celebrate with crafts instead of chocolates.
  • Do celebrate your child’s wins with extra special one-on-one attention; activities like a movie or park time. We want to celebrate your child’s successes – just not with food.
  • Don’t force children to eat. Children will eat when they are hungry. If you are concerned your child will not eat, please see if he needs professional intervention.
  • Do allow children to leave the table when they feel they are done eating. Keeping children at the table until a certain amount of food is eaten can create a power struggle between children and their parents or caregiver. Encouraging children to stop eating when they are full allows them to exercise independence. It also helps prevent obesity by teaching them to listen to their own body cues and learn the difference between hunger and fullness. We don’t want to teach kids to eat past being full.
  • Don’t serve sugary, over-processed desserts. Instead, choose healthy desserts that can be served as part of the meal, such as fresh fruit. If a dessert is offered, ensure that every child receives it.
  • Do try to work with your school to reduce how much food rewards are offered. For example, at our elementary school, teachers will have a pizza party if the class does well on a test. Instead of a food reward, why not make an activity reward like a field trip, dress up in PJs, superhero day, special craft, etc. Watch our 30-day challenge video to learn more about the importance of healthy eating during school hours. Together, we can all create good habits for kids.

Create good habits for kids without using food-based rewards. Learn how you can create kids who have healthy relationships with food!

Some of the information was adapted from “Feeding: The Brazelton Way” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
The information on this website is designed for educational and/or entertainment purposes only. The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns regarding your child’s condition. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses.
Why You Shouldn't Use Food as a Reward with Kids
Why You Shouldn't Use Food as a Reward with Kids

Create good habits for kids without using food-based rewards. Learn how you can create kids who have healthy relationships with food!