How and why you should avoid rewarding your child with sweets

Avoiding sweets as rewards keep children happy and healthy.

Why is it important to avoid rewarding children with food?

Using sugary or calorie-dense foods (ex. candy, cookies, or ice cream) as “special treats” for good behavior can actually increase your child’s desire to eat these types foods in the future. Research  has shown that children, boys in particular, are more likely to eat diets that are high in fat and carbohydrates when food is used as a reward for good behavior because these foods become associated with positive feelings and experiences.

Food rewards can also teach children to ignore their natural hunger and fullness cues, encouraging them to eat when they are not hungry. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “when children are rewarded with sweets or snack food, they may decide that these foods are better or more valuable than healthier foods.” As a result, providing sweets and snacks as “special treats” can cause children to view them as highly valuable (and therefore, more desirable).

Research shows that the eating patterns and food preferences children develop in their early years remain long into their teen and adult years. What you teach them about food and healthy eating right now will stick with them for life — make sure to encourage healthy eating habits from the start!

How to promote healthy eating habits and introduce nutritious foods

It’s best to try to introduce healthy foods (such as a new fruit or vegetable) when your child is in a positive environment, or while doing an activity your child enjoys. If your child tries a new healthy food when he/she is happy, it increases the chances of him/her liking the food you serve.

Frequently offer, but never force new foods on your children.  Offering new food choices is associated with less fear of trying new foods. Forcing, on the other hand, is linked to increased fear of new foods and lower food acceptance.

Share responsibility with your child. According to Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility in Feeding,” it is your job as a parent to decide which foods to offer and when to offer them. However, it is up to your child to decide whether or not to eat and how much to eat at a time. If your child refuses to eat, do not offer to make them something else or substitute a snack food (such as chips or Pop Tarts). Save the meal for later, or allow them to wait until the next meal or snack you offer to eat.

Remember: sweets can still be included in a balanced diet! Try introducing these foods to your children as “sometimes foods,” but don’t emphasize them as special or fun foods. Include them in moderation and use fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins as your everyday foods.

Alternative rewards

Instead of offering your child sweets, try an alternative reward like a family bike ride or trip to the pool. Another alternative reward would be to allow your child to pick out a new fruit or vegetable at the local farmers’ market. When your child gets to pick out something new to try, they’re more likely to be accepting of new foods.

One of the best alternatives is positive words of encouragement and praise for your child. Phrases like, “I’m so proud of you” or “You did a great job” not only strengthens parent-child relationships, but also increases your child’s self-esteem.

Michigan State University Extension offers a variety of programs for youth and adults that can help your family develop healthy eat and living habits.

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