Using food as a reward can be very effective but it can have some unexpected longer term impacts so it is best avoided.
If you play nicely, you can have some crisps later.
Many parents use food as a reward for good behaviour, either at the table or elsewhere. At the table, rewards are often offered in exchange for eating. Away from the table, food rewards may be offered to elicit a desired behaviour, or to avoid an undesired one. Ultimately, this is using food as a bribe.
Food is also often used to make a child 'feel better', for example, after they hurt themselves. However, using food in these ways can have a negative effect on developing preferences and future eating behaviour.
Examples of using food to control or change behaviour are:
At the table:
- "Finish your dinner and then you can have a cookie"
- "If you eat all of your peas, then you can have your pudding"
- "If you sit nicely and wait for your sister to finish eating, you can have ice cream for pudding"
Away from the table:
- "If you are good while we are at the shops, Daddy will buy you a lollipop"
- "We have to leave the park now. If you come now without crying, we can get an ice cream on the way out"
To regulate emotions:
- "Oh, that was a nasty bump. Come on, let's have a biscuit to make it all better".
- "I know you're sad. Would you like a piece of chocolate to cheer you up?"
Why is food as a reward bad?
Liking for sweet foods is present from birth and as children grow they continue to show a preference for sweet foods. This presents parents with a very easy bargaining tool which can be used in order to get their child to behave in a particular way. Many parents feel that by giving treats they are bringing happiness to their child through the pleasure of enjoying something yummy.
However, using foods as a reward, bribe, or to 'makes things better' is associated with a number of less desirable outcomes.
What can I do instead?
Eating is undoubtedly an enjoyable experience. Sensory pleasure is experienced in response to liked tastes, textures, and smells, while the physiological relief from hunger brought about by eating is similarly rewarding.
If food is used as a bribe or reward, or to induce happiness, eating can become pleasurable for other reasons. This may be because of the positive feelings of achievement gained when the reward is achieved, or with the alleviation of a negative emotion. In understanding that these associations can be problematic and can lead to heightened desire for high-fat, high-sugar foods, parents should focus on learning alternative strategies for rewarding their children and dealing with negative emotions.
- Decreased liking for non-reward foods
When used to reward eating, liking for the food-to-be-eaten decreases. Therefore, offering a child a reward in exchange for eating their peas will not help them to like peas. Rather, they could begin to dislike them.
- Development of an emotional crutch
When treat foods are used to make a child feel better, children can become reliant on them to help them to regulate their emotions. This has been associated with emotion-induced overeating in later life, and can contribute to overweight and obesity.
- Increased liking for reward foods
Foods that are used as rewards often become extremely liked and desired more. This is because they tend to be treat foods that may be restricted at other times. As such, they become 'prized'. This can be unhealthy as research suggests that such foods tend to be overeaten when freely available. See the restriction pitfall section for more information.
- Contribution to a poor diet
The foods that are most often used as rewards tend to be unhealthy, sugary treats and salty snacks that can contribute to overweight, obesity, and an unhealthy diet. Regularly using these foods as rewards or bribes means that these foods become part of your child's everyday diet, which is something to be avoided.
Things to try
- Offer real rewards
Offer children real, tangible objects or experiences as rewards, rather than food. For example, a sticker, a small toy, a comic, or a trip to the park. You may be surprised that your child finds these equally rewarding! Go to the tips and tools section to see a list of non-food reward ideas.
- Offer kisses, not cookies
Don't use food as a plaster or to make your child happy. Children are like sponges, not only soaking up information but learning associations that can stay with them for life. Recognise that how you deal with your child's upsets now can influence how they deal with their emotions later in life.
Ultimately, food should not be a tool.