Using Food as a Reward or Punishment for Children:

A convenient short-term fix, not a long-term solution

Road trip meltdown #4 is underway. You’re almost at your destination. You pass your child another snack to distract them a bit longer.

We understand. Getting through a long road trip isn’t easy. Food can be a calming and useful tool for behavior change in stressful situations. However, this does not set a child up for success. Setting the stage for healthy eating patterns early yields better ties with food in the future. Children who learn to use food as a tool to cope with feelings are more likely to become stress eaters. Food is nourishment for our bodies, and that should be the focus from a young age. Treats and desserts work best as random and exciting delights in life!

Teach children to eat if they are hungry and to stop if they are full. This is a key (and often overlooked) lesson.

Forcing children to clean their plates may seem caring, but this teaches kids to ignore signals of fullness. This can develop into a lifetime of eating when not hungry, or a child disliking nutritious foods that are being pushed too hard. How many times have we realized, as we grow older, that we do like that veggie we always thought we hated? Perhaps we thought we didn’t like it because it was forced upon us and we did not like that. Allow children to listen to their bodies and to not feel pressured to eat.

Do you offer an off-limit treat to reward your child’s job well done?

Take a close look at the message your child is receiving. Indulging in foods that are bad for them as a reward for doing something good is confusing. They may start to correlate their best moods with unhealthy foods. This is how harmful patterns begin. If chips and sugary sweets are offered as a reward, children may start to favor treats rather than healthy foods with higher nutrients. Don’t worry, there are options! A fun option is to offer non-food, healthy rewards to children, whether at home or in the classroom.   

Next time, try one of these healthy alternatives:

  • A unique outing or activity
  • Extra reading time before bed
  • Playing a favorite game with a parent
  • New art or school supplies (like stickers)
  • Watch a favorite movie together, or rent a new one

Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, sums it up this way: “Rewarding children with unhealthy foods in school undermines our efforts to teach them about good nutrition. It’s like teaching children a lesson on the importance of not smoking, and then handing out ashtrays and lighters to the kids who did the best job listening.”