Food Rewards

“If you eat your veggies you can have ice cream.”

“If you eat your veggies you can have ice cream.”Now this is a phrase we’ve heard many well-meaning parents say to children in an attempt to improve their nutrition.

Let’s take a look what the result of this can do:
  • In the short term, a bit more veggies eaten but in the longer term and throughout life less veggies eaten
  • More dislike for veggies and extra liking for ice cream
  • Toddler overriding their fullness signals and overeating, just to get the ice cream.

We’ve named this section reward with foods, but it covers the times when food is used for other purposes such as to comfort, to get toddler to do something or as a diversion. All of which have negative results for our children’s feeding and contribute to feeding problems now and in the future.


Emotional eating throughout life can be caused now!Learning to use food for emotional reasons can start now. You know adults who have trouble with foods because they’re ’emotional eaters’? Well this is where it starts.

Toddlers can be like planes flying around with no pilots – uncontrollable. They are hard to please, they get upset easily and can be hard work. This means that we’re at risk of using food for other reasons and helping our children become emotional eaters.

Sweet foods are something we are programmed to like from birth and this preference stays with us.

Parents realise they have something that is pretty much guaranteed to please their young one. They may then use it as a bargaining tool to achieve a number of things that can make life easier in the short term.

Why we might do it

As we find out very soon, providing sweet treats to our children appears to bring them happiness. It’s quite understandable that after all our hard work we might enjoy the appearance of increased connection and positive feedback.

This isn’t just something parents do, it could come from grandparents, other family, other parents, sports coaches and doctors. Before you know it there are many rewards coming thick and fast and starts to become normal and expected, then somewhere amongst this…. the toddlers diet deteriorates.

“If you eat these you can have ice cream.”

“If you pick up your toys I’ll give you a biscuit.”

“Very good dancing now let’s sort out a choccy bar.”

Reasons food rewards are often used
  • As a bribe to get children to behave 
  • For doing something good
  • To get children to do something 
  • To get children to eat another food
  • Or just for some peace and quiet: a lot of parents resort to food handouts for a moment’s peace but at what cost?
What about when they are hurt or upset?

This can be a really hard one, when our children are upset it’s hard for us, it pulls at our heart strings and to soothe with a sweet food is really tempting. Why? Because food can have a calming effect

Let’s look at the term upset. There is a big difference between…

  • OMG he’s broken his arm here’s an ice block to suck while we wait for your painkiller to work and
  • OMG she’s broken her block tower, I’ll get an ice block to chill her out. 

If we jump to using food for any old type of upset or distress it will soon become the child’s fall back. Children have to get used to dealing with their emotions. They have to get over their sadness, their upset, their boredom. They need to be able to tolerate and address these feelings and stress as a part of life, without it triggering eating.

What happens if we use food to reward?

Spoiling child food preferences

The most common reward foods are often unhealthy, sugary treats and snacks that can contribute to an unhealthy diet and unhealthy weight gain.

If food rewards are common in your child’s diet they’ll become desired more and overeaten when they’re available. Non-reward foods will be liked less. So you guessed it, the child’s preferences will become less and less healthy.

The food preferences that are gained now will follow us into the future and will determine our chances of maintaining a healthy weight and the development of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Development of an ’emotional eater’

Emotional eating pictureWhen children are used to being provided high sugar, high fat foods whenever they’re faced with physical or emotional pain, they can become reliant on treats to help them regulate their emotions.

“I’m an emotional eater” Have you heard this before? Have you said it yourself? This is overeating caused by emotion.

This is when adult’s deal with emotion by eating high fat, high sugar foods. It’s very common for Dietitians to work with clients to manage this vicious cycle of emotional eating in order to address overweight and obesity.

What to do

Non-food rewards

Toys, stickers, trips to places they like and other things non-food. You’ll be surprised how much children like these other things.

You’re not helping! Not with feeding anyway!

Non-food comfort

When they’re upset use this as a learning opportunity, for them to deal with emotions and build resilience without food. How you deal with your child’s upsets now can influence how they deal with their emotions later in life.

Stick to meals

Stick to meal times. If it’s not the time for a meal do not feed: see meals for more information.

Avoid food reward places

If you are going to places where they always give out food rewards for good boys and girls then try and avoid them. Once they’ve been offered the food it’s very difficult then to say no they can’t have it – click here to read more about overt restriction.

Have a word with Nan

I have used the word Nan here but you can insert any number of other people here. Childcare worker, teacher, grandfather, uncle, doctor, swimming teacher. It’s not just you that will use food to reward, other people think it’s a way to connect and be popular. You have the right to say something.

But what about birthdays, Christmas and other celebrations that involve food?

Before you go off and call us a bunch of Grinch’s we have to clear something up. There are times in our culture and most others where food is used in celebration. Christmas, birthdays you name it, we’ll celebrate with lots of favourite, sweet foods. It’s a case of making sure that food at these occasions doesn’t end up becoming the norm and happening all the time.



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