With the endless amounts of rules and recommendations around parental feeding practices, it can be difficult to know when innocent behaviours may negatively impact a child’s relationship with food.
The use of food as a reward
The use of food as a reward occurs when good behaviour has been performed and a child is rewarded with an item of food, which more often than not has little to no nutritional value, for instance, sweets and chocolate. Once a child is rewarded for their good behaviour, they then associate the action with the reward, and this motivates them to do it more often, which is also known as positive reinforcement . Although this behaviour is fairly common, the long-term implications that it may have on a child’s relationship with food are yet to be fully understood . Literature has, however, suggested that it may negatively impact a child’s learning, physical health, and subsequent eating behaviours [2, 3].
Which foods are commonly used as a reward?
The foods that are commonly given as rewards are treats, which are high in added sugar, trans and saturated fats, such as crisps, sweets, chocolate, and fizzy drinks. These types of foods are often referred to as ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ foods, as they lack nutritional value, and are associated with an increased risk of heart disease .
Why should we avoid using food as a reward?
Parental feeding practices play a critical role in establishing a child’s food preferences, eating patterns, and nutrition, in early life [2,5]. Consistently rewarding a child with certain foods for good behaviour, can lead to them overeating foods with little to no nutritional value, and increase their risk of weight gain and its associated diseases (e.g., type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disease) .
Along with the negative health effects that are associated with over-consuming these foods, there several other reasons why we should avoid this behaviour. For instance, when certain foods are seen as off-limits and are only given as a reward, they can become more appealing and a child or adult may begin to prefer these ‘off-limit’ or ‘bad’ foods, to healthier ‘good’ foods with more nutritional value. Food as a reward can also disrupt a a person's ability to understand their internal hunger cues and regulate their eating, which can lead to weight gain. Along with this, this behaviour may have long-term implications, for example offering a child a treat to calm their emotions, may lead to them developing an unhealthy dependency on food as a fix in adulthood .
What is meant by ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods?
Healthy foods are often referred to as ‘good’ foods, and these are whole foods that are packed with nutrients, such as fruit, vegetables, beans, and lean meats. They have a wide range of health benefits, such as reducing the risk of certain diseases and supporting our digestive and immune systems. Due to the positive health benefits that are associated with consuming these foods, they should make up the majority of our diet. Despite their number of health benefits, these foods are rarely given as a reward for good behaviour, and more commonly used as a punishment instead, for example: if a child doesn’t finish all of their vegetables they will not get a dessert .
• ‘Bad’ Foods
Alternatively, unhealthy foods are often labelled as ‘bad’ foods, and these are foods that are highly processed and also, high in sugar and fat. Often 'bad' foods are used as a reward to encourage a child to perform the desired behaviour. Due to the negative health effects that are associated with consuming these foods in excessive amounts, it is recommended that they should be enjoyed mindfully and in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet .
Why should we avoid labelling foods as good or bad?
Labelling foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be confusing for children, especially if they are being rewarded something described as ‘bad’ for performing good behaviour. Once certain foods are categorised as ‘bad’, a child may develop a fear of them, and when this food is eaten not as a reward, feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment may arise, which can also result in long-term complications, such as disordered eating in adulthood . Along with this, if these foods feel off-limits, it may lead a child to desire or crave them even more, and over-indulge when they do have them. Ultimately, placing foods into these two categories should be avoided as, if a child is given a treat for eating a vegetable, this can reinforce the idea that ‘good’ foods aren’t as appealing as ‘bad’ foods.
Tips of what we can do instead
Rather than labelling foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we can consider speaking about them for how nourishing they are. We eat nourishing foods because they are packed with nutrients and because of the positive health benefits that are associated with this. For all food though aim to eat mindfully and in moderation, because we enjoy them, rather than purely as a reward.
Many other things can be used as a reward for good behaviour, and literature has suggested positive outcomes when parents use non-food-based incentives (e.g., a trip to the beach or playing a game with the family) . These rewards still offer praise and encouragement for good behaviour; however, they can also support a child’s learning and encourage physical activity too.
5 non-food-based incentives for good behaviour:
1. Reading a book together
2. Playing their favourite game
3. Building a den outside in the garden
4. New craft supplies i.e. painting or colouring books
5. A trip outside to the beach, woods, park, or another favourite outing
Take home message:
Non-food-based incentives can be just as, if not more, rewarding than certain foods, and they can also encourage learning, bonding as a family, and physical activity too. Giving and withdrawing food for certain behaviour can be confusing for anyone and especially for a children, as if certain foods are only given for good behaviour and are off-limits the rest of the time, they may become more appealing and increase a child’s risk of further implications, such as weight gain. Along with reducing the use of food as a reward, we should also avoid demonising certain foods, and rather than labelling them as either 'good' or 'bad', instead think of them as nourishing or not-as-nourishing, and enjoy a variety of these as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
This blog post was written by Laura Fuller who studied BSc (Hons) Psychology, and MSc Human Nutrition. Laura recently gained her title as a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) from the AfN. Currently, she is working in Child Weight Management and through a non-diet nutrition approach, supporting families and young people to sustain a happy and healthy lifestyle. In the future, she is interested in specialising in eating disorders. You can find Laura on Instagram at @nutrition.lf
1. Meule A, Kübler A. Food cravings in food addiction: The distinct role of positive reinforcement. Eating Behaviors. 2012;13(3):252-255.
2. Roberts L, Marx J, Musher-Eizenman D. Using food as a reward: An examination of parental reward practices. Appetite. 2018;120(1):318-326.
3. Fedewa A, Davis M. How Food as a Reward Is Detrimental to Children's Health, Learning, and Behavior. Journal of School Health. 2015;85(9):648-658.
5. Gerards S, Kremers S. The Role of Food Parenting Skills and the Home Food Environment in Children’s Weight Gain and Obesity. Current Obesity Reports. 2015;4(1):30-36.
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