“If you eat your veggies you can have jelly.” Now this is a phrase we’ve heard many well-meaning parents say to their children in an attempt to improve their nutrition. Let’s take a look at what this can do:
- In the short term, a bit more veggies eaten but in the longer term and throughout life, fewer veggies eaten.
- More dislike for veggies and increased liking for jelly
- Toddler overriding their fullness signals and overeating just to get the jelly at the end of the meal.
We’ve named this section reward with foods but it covers the times when food is used for other purposes. This could be for comfort, to get your child to do something or as a diversion. All of these have negative results for our children’s feeding and contribute to feeding problems both now and into the future.
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’re hard to please. They get upset easily and they 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’re programmed to like from birth and this preference stays with us. Parents may realise early on some foods are pretty much guaranteed to please their young one. This can lead to foods being used as a bargaining tool for many purposes to achieve a variety of outcomes.
Why we reward with food
As we very quickly find out, 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.
“We’re going to go to mum’s work for a bit. If you’re good we’ll get an ice cream after.”
“OMG he’s broken his Lego. Here’s an ice block because you’re upset.”
“If you sit still I will give you a biscuit.”
- Physical pain – comforted with high sugar food. This is not 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 this starts to become normal and expected…. then somewhere amongst this, the child’s diet deteriorates.
- To get children to eat another food – food rewards are often used in an attempt to improve the child’s eating habits. This is a way we pressure children to eat.
- As a bribe to get children to behave
- To get children to do something
- For doing something good
- Because they’re 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.
- Distress – 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 over eaten when they’re available. Non-rewards food 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 our development of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Development of an ’emotional eater’
When children are used to being provided with high sugar, high fat foods to make them feel better whenever they’re faced with physical or emotional pain, children can become reliant on treats to help them to regulate their emotions.
Stress management with food
“I’m an emotional eater” Have you heard this before? Have you said it yourself? This is explained by 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 the vicious cycle of emotional eating when addressing overweight and obesity.
How to avoid rewarding with food
Toys, stickers, trips to places they like and other things non-food. You’ll be surprised how much children like these other things.
When they’re upset use this as an occasion of learning for them to deal with their 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’re going to places where they always give out food rewards for good boys and girls, try and avoid these places. Once they’ve been offered the food it’s then very difficult to say no they can’t have it – covert restriction.
Have a word with your doctor
I’ve used the word doctor here but you can insert any number of other people. Grandparent, childcare worker, teacher, uncle, swimming teacher.
It’s not just you that will use food to reward. Other people feel it’s a way to connect and be popular. You have the right to say something.
It’s not always easy to have this conversation and you may decide some things are worth mentioning and some aren’t. But these occasions add up and make it hard for you to feed your child the way you want!
Special occasions and celebrations
Before you go off and call us a bunch of Grinch’s we have to clear something up. There are times in ours and most other cultures where food is used for celebration.
Christmas, birthdays, you name it! There’ll be lots of favourite and sweet foods offered. It’s a case of making sure that food at these occasions are not becoming the norm and happening all the time.