In my practice as a Kids’ Nutritionist, helping families eliminate mealtime battles is something that I do on a daily basis. A common challenge for parents is how to get their kids to try new foods or eat their vegetables and parents will often resort to bribery. They may say to their child “If you eat all of your vegetables, you can have a cookie for dessert.” Offering food as a reward is a tactic that many parents use, not only at mealtime, but as a way to elicit any particular behaviour from their child.
Rewarding children with food presents several problems:
1) It teaches kids to reward and comfort themselves with food. Providing food based on performance or behaviour connects food to mood and can lead to emotional eating.
2) It teaches kids to eat based on the availability of food, not based on hunger or structured mealtimes.
3) It teaches kids that reward foods (i.e. candy) are more valuable and desirable than other foods. Turning sweets into a reward elevates their status.
Health and medical organizations such as the Canadian Paediatric Society and the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) agree that food should not be used as a reward, a punishment or a bribe. Using food as a reward, as a punishment or as comfort sends a message that food leads to love and acceptance and can teach our children to seek out food for comfort or self-punishment.
A wide variety of alternative rewards can be used to provide positive reinforcement for children’s behaviour. Attention, praise, or thanks, are often more highly valued by children than a toy or food. Rewarding your child with privileges such as extra time doing an activity they enjoy or a special outing is an option. Offering toys, books, puzzles or games can be another motivating reward for kids. Consider using a point system or sticker chart where accumulated points could be cashed in for a larger prize. It is important to note, however, that these methods should not be used as a way to pressure your child into eating specific foods or quantities of food at mealtime.
In the long run, food rewards or bribes often create more problems than they solve. If you are struggling at mealtime and have been relying on bribery or threats to get your child to eat a particular food a specific amount of food, it is time for a new approach.