Should food be used as a reward?

  • Date: 01 November 2018
  • Category: HW Blog

Parenting can be challenging. There’s often conflicting advice, and what suits one family may not even be right for another. When it comes to concerns about what a child is (or isn’t) eating, it’s not uncommon for parents to provide rewards or incentives for eating differently. But unfortunately, these wellmeaning efforts often lead to unintentional consequences such as further ‘fussy’ eating, and childhood confusion about why and how to eat.

Offering a food reward – for example, ‘eat your vegetables and you can have some ice cream for dessert’ – sends the message that food Y is a better than food X, and that nothing good comes without reward. If you try and think like a threeyear- old, you’ll soon appreciate that it may be quite confusing as to why eating food X is rewarded by food Y.

Through research we know that pressuring children to consume more fruit and vegetables results in most children eating fewer fruits and vegetables. The same goes when children are rewarded for eating healthy foods; human nature overrides and there becomes a decreased preference for eating these foods in the future.

So how should we approach this? We know that children do respond well to positive reinforcement and positive exposures to food. At mealtimes this can include carers showing children how to be good eaters, providing them with moderate praise about positive things displayed at mealtime (such as ‘I like the way you sat at the table tonight’, or ‘I like that you had three different colours on your plate tonight’ rather than ‘you didn’t eat X.’)

Try and avoid using incentives or rewards for eating particular foods, as we know this can set up reduced confidence in eating those everyday foods (and could lead to an endless shopping list of rewards to buy). Here are a few tips to encourage your kids to become confident and competent eaters:

  • ‘Do as I do’, not ‘do as I say’. Meaning, parents need to eat a wide range of healthy foods if that’s what you want your kids to do too.
  • Provide regular (but structured) opportunities to eat. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper is needed for most kids.
  • Avoid offering food rewards for eating (or not eating). For example, avoid saying ‘if you don’t eat X you can’t have Y’, as this can be really confusing for kids and muddles up their hunger/eating cues.
  • Discuss internal cues to eating, encouraging a recognition of the body’s needs, rather than what the mind may want. ‘I’m starting to feel a little bit tired. My tummy is rumbling. I’m feeling hungry because it is lunch time soon’.

Having mealtime routines will act as ‘cues’ to eating. This is often something as simple as washing hands before going to the table to eat. This transition from one activity to a mealtime signals to the brain and tummy that it is time to eat.

Consistency is key in learning any activity. Be sure to acknowledge your kids’ successes, and don’t feel disheartened if each meal doesn’t resemble a ‘made-in-the-movies’ style of family dinner. Instead, just come back at the next meal and try again to take another step towards success.