Rethink Using Food as a Reward


Girl with ice creamAs a child I remember with any major event, be it crisis or celebration, food was always the reward. As far as my Grandmother was concerned, cookies and milk served as a cure all. I can still hear her saying, “Here, let me make you something to eat, you’ll feel better.”  As I got older and started having my own children, I found that food was not the best solution to inspire good behavior. In fact, I discovered it ended up hurting more than helping. 

Food as a Reward 

Although it isn’t uncommon in various cultures for food to be used as a celebratory accoutrement, in our society it is undoubtedly overused. Food has become a crutch for all life’s situations, the good, the bad and the ugly. However you look at it, whatever the situation may be it is clear that food, typically unhealthy food, has become the reward of choice.

I must confess that as a new mom, I used food in an effort to keep my four kids (all under six years old) in check. Be it potty-training, bath time, whatever, M&M’s® were my friend. That is until my kids figured it out. They wouldn’t do anything unless M&M’s were involved. The weaning process was hard. Twenty years later if I knew then what I know now, I never would have started.   

The downside of food rewards

As a society, it seems that food is “the fixer” when dealing with the daily stresses of life. Think about it.  “Hey, I got a promotion, let’s go out to eat!” or “My boyfriend and I broke up, I need ice cream.”  And with our kids, we unconsciously have taught them to handle their emotional ups and downs the same way- with food. 

There are a number of reasons that food as a reward doesn’t work. And if you’re currently rewarding your child with food, here some thoughts to help you reconsider.

• Using food as a reward teaches kids that emotions are best handled with food and typically unhealthy food. For example, “When I am upset, eating a candy bar makes me feel so much better” versus, “When I am upset, I need to sit down and talk with a parent, a relative or a friend.”  It’s our responsibility to educate our children on how to handle their emotions without making food part of the equation.

• If children link “junk food” with emotional comfort it could potentially lead to obesity in the future. Using junk food for comfort is a surefire way to bring on disease later in life.

• How many times have we heard a young mother say, “If you behave at the store, I’ll get you a treat,” I was guilty. Unfortunately, the treat is likely some sort of candy or junk food. I’ve yet to hear a parent say, “If you’re good, I’ll get you a grapefruit.”  Our kids have learned to look to “junk food” as the more desirable food hence why they turn their nose up to healthier options.  Why do kids typically celebrate their sports wins at fast-food restaurants? Reward.

• If good behavior comes in the form of candy or junk food, kids will start striking up “deals” with their parents all in an effort to get the candy or sweet that they want. (I know from experience). There’s enough hidden sugar in everyday foods that kids eat, why compound it with more? 

As we look to change our reward system, here are some healthier options:

• Go to the park as a reward or play an outdoor game.

• Try using a point system for successes and at the end of each month points can be turned in for a special activity or event.

• Visits a local museum, art gallery, music store, etc.

• Sign up for an activity your child has wanted to try, martial arts, art class, music class, dance class.

• Take a day out to hike or bike somewhere special, the zoo, the movies, etc.

If a tangible reward is in order, give your child alternatives to food rewards to inspire a healthy relationship with food. There is more to success than simply food. Do keep in mind that rewards aren’t always necessary. Sometimes a simple, “I’m proud of you!” is the best and healthiest reward.

Don’t you agree? What do you give as rewards to your children?

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