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Should you reward children with food?

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Young blond boy eating ice cream

“You need to eat all of your dinner before you can have dessert. Especially your [insert green vegetable].”

There isn’t a parent who hasn’t, at least once, uttered those words after cooking their child a healthy meal only to have them take half a bite and ask for something sweet.

Rewarding children with sugary snacks for being good, bribing them with favourites, or denying them treats when they are naughty may seem harmless, but does it set children up for an unhealthy relationship with food?

Konsita Kuswara, PhD Candidate at Deakin University School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences,  Accredited Practising Dietitian and mum to two young girls says, “using food as a reward or punishment is only a short term solution and will likely produce negative implications for a child’s relationship with food in the long-term”. 

In a 2015 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at children, aged five to seven years old, who ate ‘emotionally’.

The researchers defined emotional eating (a contributor to adult obesity) as, “eating in response to a range of negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger and loneliness to cope with negative affect”.

They found that parents who reported the use of more food as a reward and restriction of food for health reason with their children at ages three to five years old, were more likely to have children who ate more under conditions of negative emotion at ages five to seven years old.

In other words, the more parents controlled their child’s eating, either using food as a reward or punishment, the more likely children were to emotionally eat.

How an adult perceives food, takes root in their experiences as a child, so a child with positive food experiences will be more likely to have a healthy relationship with food in adulthood.
Jessica Freese

When does our relationship with food start?

Accredited Practising Dietitian Jessica Freese, says long term food habits are established in early childhood.

“How an adult perceives food, takes root in their experiences as a child, so a child with positive food experiences will be more likely to have a healthy relationship with food in adulthood,” says Jessica.

Konsita says that a child’s relationship with food begins during pregnancy and continues through milk feeding.

“In a cross sectional survey, of 564 mothers of preschool children, early introduction to fruits and vegetables during weaning was associated with a higher frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption in two to six-year-old children,” says Konsita.

“The early feeding period is a critical time to be exposed to and learn about a wide variety of foods which will facilitate food acceptance.” 

What’s so bad about food bribery?

Discretionary foods, or high-energy dense foods, rich in sugar, fat or salt, are commonly used as a reward for children (“you can have chocolate if you…”), or as a punishment (“you can’t have chocolate unless you…”).

“The harm of rewarding or punishing children with discretionary food is that the child could then associate the provision or denial of these foods with certain behaviours, emotions or to feel comfort,” says Jessica.

“This can contribute to the child forming an unhealthy relationship with food, for example eating discretionary food when they feel down, or have done something they are proud of, even if they are not hungry.”

Jessica also points out a study done in 2003 by Rebecca M. Puhl and Marlene B. Schwartz which found, “binge eating and dietary restraint in adulthood are significantly related to participants’ recollection of their parents using food to control their behaviour in childhood”.

Konsita says that “higher levels of parental pressure to eat are associated with decreased preference and intake for the food.”

“Pressure may include using food as a reward, for example, ‘if you eat your broccoli you can have ice cream’.

“Experimental studies showed that when a preferred food (ice cream) is used as a reward for a less preferred food (broccoli), the child’s intake of the less preferred food (broccoli) increased but preference is reduced.

“In other words, the child eats more broccoli in the short term but they dislike it even more.”

Konsita points out that non-food rewards actually work better.

“Interestingly, using non-food rewards to promote healthy food consumption has been shown to be more successful.

“Rewarding children, say with a sticker, for eating a vegetable showed increased intake and preference that is maintained at a longer term even when no longer rewarded, without adversely affecting their preferences for the food.”

What about birthday cake?

What happens to all those events in a child’s life that involve food when celebrating, for example birthday parties?

Both Jessica and Konsita agree that food, like birthday cake, can be part of celebrations, but shouldn’t be the main focus.

“You are there to be happy for the person and this includes eating, rather than you are there to eat special foods and it happens to be someone’s birthday,” says Konsita.

How to change bad habits

“Don’t feel guilty if you’ve been using food as a reward or punishment,” says Jessica.

“Try to identify where you reward or punish with food and start there.

“For example, if you find that you reward your child with a sweet treat for good behaviour, try a non-food reward like a sticker chart, when the child collects 10 stickers, they get to choose an outing like going to the park.

“It’s important when looking at alternative rewards for your child not to underestimate quality family time as a reward. These often hold more value to the child.”

A way to get children to eat what you want them to eat is understanding that children learn by copying others.

“Role modelling has much more impact than words when it comes to parenting,” explains Konsita.

“It is crucial that role modelling is shown not just from one parent, but from both parents and siblings so that children see consistent messages across the family. 

“If you are trying to encourage your child to love vegetables, then the whole household needs to be eating and enjoying vegetables.”

Konsita also points out that there is “consistent evidence which shows that food preferences and intake is modifiable with increased exposures”.

“It can take as many as 15 exposures (sometimes more!) to an unliked food before children choose to like it and eat it.

“So be patient and keep trying to introduce the rejected foods in lots of different ways.”

Tips from Accredited Practising Dietitians, Jessica Freese and Konsita Kuswara on helping your child have a positive relationship with food:

  • There are no “good” or “bad” foods. There are foods that are eaten often and foods that are eaten sometimes.
  • Be aware of your own attitude to foods and role model the behaviour you want to see, this includes not rewarding yourself with food.
  • Don’t underestimate how much children appreciate quality family time as a reward.
  • Make meal times relaxing, encouraging and low pressure for your child. Remember, it is the parent/carer’s responsibility to provide a wide variety of nutritious foods and the child’s responsibility to eat it.
  • Help children be grateful for the abundant food available to them and how food helps to produce an active and healthy body so they can do things in life (like play).
  • Communicate your love often and creatively without always involving food.