Encouraging our kids to behave, do what we ask, and complete tasks is fairly common in how we raise kids, but using treat food has become more common—and it’s problematic. Here’s why, and a handful of healthy rewards for kids that they’ll love just as much…or even more!
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The Trouble with Using Food as a Reward
M&Ms for going potty; a lollipop at the end of soccer practice; dessert for eating dinner; a pizza party prize from the PTA—these are just a few of the ways that us adults use treat foods to reward kids for good behavior. We asked Leslie Schilling, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist who wrote about this issue for US News & World Report to help us sort through the issues and come up with some practical ways to respond. She joined us on our latest episode of the Comfort Food podcast to talk through the issue.
Some parents bemoan the extra sugar that these treats represent, which is understandable, but we’re actually more concerned about the weird message it sends kids about needing to earn their food. “It gives food a false power. We don’t hear anyone say ‘We’re going to do this amazing veggie party!’ so it further makes foods that our culture finds less desirable more taboo—because it’s always desserts and treats,” she says.
“It gives food more power than it deserves and makes it transactional instead of something that’s for pleasure and to satisfies our body’s need,” she says. Not to mention that we’re teaching kids not to listen to their bodies and their hunger.
There’s also the issue that when kids are set up to earn food, it removes the intrinsic desire for them to work for things just because they’re enjoyable or they’re proud of their accomplishments. (This seems to happen a lot with reading and math in my experience so far as a parent.)
Rewards for Kids
“When we elevate foods to be super special, we tend to make kids want them more,” Leslie says. She recommends reiterating that food is food. Plus, there’s the issue that may food rewards inherently exclude kids with food allergies.
If you had a treat planned and you remove it for bad behavior, that’s using food as a reward too. Try to separate behavior and food whenever you can even though I fully realize that can be difficult in life with kids. This takes practice and you won’t always do it perfectly, so be patient if you’re trying to work on this issue.
How to Stop Using Dessert as a Reward for Dinner
If you’ve been in the habit of using dessert as a reward for the kids eating their dinner, or certain parts of their dinner (ahem, broccoli), you can try telling your kids that you’re going to try something new. Try serving a portion of dessert with dinner because the more we habituate that food is food, the more we’ll see it become just food to our kids. We can use what’s usually reserved for treats without strings by not saying anything about it and simply putting it onto the plate with the other foods and letting the kids decide what to eat and how much in any order they desire.
TIP: Read more about this approach known as the Division of Responsibility here.
When Kids Get Rewards at Practices and Games
This can vary a lot depending on where you live, but if your kids regularly get treats and snacks for playing games or doing their practices, here’s what you can do. “When kids get older, talk to them about what’s happening and remind them that you want them to listen to their body. And that in our family, we don’t use food as a reward,” Leslie says.
“We need to regularly remind kids about our own values around food and that there’s nothing they can do that will make us parents take away their food or reward them with food,” she says. We can enjoy food without needing to earn it.
With team sports, try offering another solution to the snack sign up such as a hydration station. Or working with the league to come up with a list of recommended snacks to standardize what’s being given out. This will likely save everyone money and reduce any worries that some kids will get more than others (which is a complaint I’ve heard when I’ve asked other parents about eliminating snacks).
You can also talk to the kids about fueling their bodies. I like to have them bring the snacks home to eat some with the next meal so they’re sitting down and eating other foods with those snacks and treats to make sure that they have a chance to eat a balanced meal—and not give certain foods special status. These experiences are opportunities to learn to navigate messages that are different from what they get at home.
What to Do About Food Rewards in School
Public schools all have a Wellness Policy and it usually has a section on treats. Food rewards may or may not be specifically addressed. If you’ve never seen your Wellness Policy, ask the principal to direct you to where it lives on the school website and read it through. If something is happening regularly that’s expressly discouraged, email the principal and let them know.
You can also speak directly to a teacher, but I find working with the principal to be less emotional and confrontational since I never want a teacher to feel like I’m telling them that I know how to do their job better than they do…because I 100% do not! It can be a little awkward for everyone, but you can remind them that using treats to reward reading or math undermines your ability to teach your child to trust their hunger and fullness, it makes those foods more appealing, and it takes away the intrinsic motivation for kids to learn for fun and the feeling of mastering something. Which little kids new to school usually love to do without the candy! (But again, use the language in the Wellness Policy if you can refer back to it.)
It can be a little tricky to help younger kids understand what’s going on, but whenever my daughter gets a reward for something or brings home a reading incentive, I always try to remind her of our family’s beliefs. She doesn’t need to earn food. She can read or learn just because it’s fun. There are plenty of other ways to celebrate success.
Remember that sometimes we can change people’s minds and sometimes we can’t. But that you have the right to try to address a situation if it’s taking away your ability to do your side of the Division of Responsibility. And the environment in which the kids usually eat food—which is in your home—matters most.
Non-Food Reward Ideas for Kids
Use this list of reward ideas to help your kids know that you appreciate their good work without relying on treats to make them feel appreciated. Obviously, the ones you choose will depend on what your kids like and enjoy, their age, and what you happen to have on hand.
Download a printable version of this list here.
- Reading together
- Music time
- Family dance party
- Art project
- Cooking together
- Going to the playground
- Riding bikes
- Facetiming with a loved one
- Bath with extra bubbles
- Taking a walk
- Choosing a game to play
- Choosing music in the car
- New crayons or markers
- Temporary tattoos
- Extra hugs
- Enthusiastic verbal praise
- Playdate with a friend
- Going to a museum
- Finger painting
- New playdough
- Listening to a podcast
- Listening to an audiobook
- Special sign or decoration on their bedroom door
What would you add to this list?