Changing your mind-set of food rewards for children

Dietitian, Retha Harmse, explains the negative effects of food rewards for children that can occur later in their lives.

Food rewards are common practice in South Africa. One of the first questions I ask a patient when they step into my office is ‘What does your relationship with food look like?’ The answer gives a good indication and insight into their eating habits.

It’s no coincidence that the first time any of us were exposed to eating or nourishment, it was literally in our mom’s arms as babies being fed and comforted. Food, comfort and rewards are so closely linked and are then strengthened through repeated exposure.

However, we are in a dangerous zone for developing an unhealthy relationship with food when we reinforce those neural pathways in our brains (thought patterns) by:

  • Offering food as a response to discomfort, pain or hurt (e.g. going to the dentist).
  • To regulate emotions (e.g. when a child is sad, offering food to make it better).
  • As a reward for achievement (e.g. good marks on a test).
  • To elicit desired behaviours or to avoid an undesired one (e.g. using food as a bribe).

What does the research say?

When it comes to food, the research is clear that persuading children with dessert to eat their vegetables, for instance, is not effective. There are various other risks involved with food rewards, such as:

They will perceive the reward as more desirable than the food they are being bribed to eat.

  • Studies have found that when parents use food as a reward or punishment, children are more likely to prefer high-fat, high-sugar foods (which are often used as rewards). Food rewards are often desired more and become the favourite. This is because they tend to be ‘treats’ that may be restricted at other times and in essence, they become ‘prized’. Studies suggest that when these foods become freely available, they tend to be overeaten.

There might be a decreased preference for non-reward foods.

  • When children get used to reward eating, their liking for the food-that needs-to-be-eaten to get the food reward decreases. Consequently, offering a child a reward in exchange for eating their peas will not help them to like peas more. Rather, they could begin to dislike them.

Food rewards, such as being obligated to eat something or given food to alter behaviour (e.g. sit still or keep quiet), might also override children’s natural hunger and satiety cues.

  • A study in the journal Eating Behaviours found that adults who recalled their parents using food as a reward or punishment were more likely to report issues with food like binge eating and restricted eating. Professionally speaking, I can confirm this. These are usually patients who tend to emotional or comfort eat and use foods to soothe.
  • Development of an emotional crutch. When food rewards are used to make a child feel better, children can become reliant on them to help regulate their emotions. This has been associated with emotion-induced overeating in later life and can contribute to overweight and obesity.

Alternative rewards

Just because we have established that food is not a healthy or viable way to reward children (or ourselves) doesn’t mean that performance or achievements can’t be celebrated or rewarded.

Parents can offer several other rewards, not related to food, to reinforce good behaviour. Consider these creative options:

  • Trip to the library, zoo, or another favourite outing.
  • Embarking on a physical activity together as a family, such as hiking, cycling or playing tennis.
  • New art supplies or colouring books.
  • Pencils, stickers, or other supplies that can be taken to school.
  • Listening to their favourite music as a family.
  • Extra reading time before bedtime.
  • Playdate or sleepover with a friend.
  • Playing a favourite board game with a parent.

Perhaps the most powerful incentive is something we don’t even consider as a reward: the time parents spend with children (such as quality time together following positive behaviour).

Food may therefore feature somewhere in an effective reward plan, but rewards found in the parent-child relationship count far more than those found in the fridge.

Parents need to be the role model

Strategies that encourage healthy eating include creating a positive, healthy food environment and for parents to be the role models. Below are some examples.

  • Being offered healthy choices and watching parents enjoy good food are strong influences.
  • Involving children in vegetable gardening, shopping and preparing healthy meals and snacks can also nurture lifelong healthy food habits.
  • Let them listen to their bodies. Try not to force them to eat when they’re not hungry or if they don’t like a certain food (try offering the same item again at other meals, perhaps cooked a different way).
  • Serve a wide variety of nutrient-rich, kid-friendly foods.
  • Don’t show concern or get upset if your child turns down a food.
  • For young children, keep servings small. For all family members, use portion control and healthy serving sizes.
  • 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.

Finally, make mealtime pleasant. Don’t argue, talk about problems or discipline children at the table. Family meals should be relaxed, happy occasions where you can talk about your children’s day and share experiences.

Retha Harmse is a Registered Dietitian and the ADSA Public relations portfolio holder. She has a passion for informing and equipping the in the field of nutrition. She is currently in private practice in Saxonwold, Houghton and believes that everyone deserves happiness and health and to achieve this she gives practical and individual-specific advice, guidelines and diets.


Retha Harmse is a registered dietitian and the ADSA Public relations portfolio holder. She has a passion for informing and equipping patients in the field of nutrition. She is currently in private practice in Saxonwold, Houghton and believes that everyone deserves happiness and health and to achieve this she gives practical and individual-specific advice, guidelines and diets.

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The impact of COVID on children

If your children are currently acting out or showing signs of anti-social behaviour, this may be a normal reaction to the news that the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight.

Many parents were likely to have felt mixed emotions when the start of the school term was pushed back. Parents juggling full-time work may be experiencing a sense of frustration or worry, while others who are deeply concerned about their family’s safety may be feeling relieved given the destructive path of the virus.

During this time of prolonged uncertainty, it’s essential to prioritise the well-being of your child or children, who may be experiencing a sudden onset of anxiety or a lack of appropriate social interaction given the extended school holidays.

Display of unusual behaviour

We are seeing an increase in the number of children displaying unusual behaviour as a direct consequence of the circumstances brought on by the pandemic. Unfortunately, the changes can be very subtle, and may be mistaken for bad behaviour, rather than seen in context, which if not addressed correctly, could have long-term negative impacts on children.

Many children under the age of three may be experiencing anxiety, which can play out in many forms, including the sudden onset of bedwetting, mood swings, nightmares, fidgeting, the inability to concentrate, and so on.

I’ve seen this in my own child, who suddenly started getting nightmares of getting sick after eating food given to her by a stranger. This anxiety was a direct result of learning at school that she should not share food or cutlery because it may make her sick.

Unlearning social norms

Children are having to unlearn many of social norms, from “sharing is caring” to not sharing at all, given how the COVID is spread, and this can create confusing, anxiety-provoking messaging.

Anxiety can also play out in children who have been social distancing by not going to crèche, by suddenly becoming a lot less confident in social settings and some may refuse to interact with their peers altogether.

Anxiety may turn usually sociable and playful children into clingy, tearful kids who instead of being happy to go to crèche, only want to sit on their mothers’ laps.

Identifying if your children are impacted

Parents know their children. Every child has a baseline behaviour. If they do something that deviates from their normal, baseline set of behaviours, then it may very well be that your child is being impacted by the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.

The first step in dealing with anxiety in kids is to recognise what could be spurring it on. For this, it’s essential that parents become aware of their own emotional states, as their own anxious behaviours and feelings could be spilling over to the child, who is a lot more in tune to the parents’ way of being than what is commonly understood.

Then, for school-going children, it’s best to deal with it cognitively through reasoning, or explaining to them and talking to them about what is happening; both around them and to their own emotional state of being.

For children who are in the process of developing their cognitive skills and can’t yet reason, it’s best for the parents to be extra sensitive to their children’s needs. It may be a good idea to balance being understanding and empathic towards your child’s behaviour, no matter how difficult it may be, with gentle encouragement.

Alternatively, if you’re uncertain if your child’s behaviour is normal or not, and you do not know what to do, consider phoning a trusted, medically trained nursing service who has the expertise to help you navigate this uncertain period.

This article was written by Dr Iqbal Karbanee, a paediatrician and CEO of Paed-IQ Babyline.

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