Alternatives to Using Food for Encouragement

Alternatives to Using Food for Encouragement

Do any of these phrases sound familiar?

“No dessert until you clean your plate.”

“If you clean up your room, we can go out for ice cream.”

“If you use the potty, you’ll get some candy.”

These are just a few of the ways that parents commonly use food to encourage good behavior in their children or as punishment for bad behavior. I think we have all been guilty of using these tactics from time to time. I know I have. It is just something that spills out of the mom in me, and then the dietitian in me remembers this is not the best way to deal with my children. Even the most innocent of statements can have a very negative impact and interfere with our goal of raising children to have healthy eating habits.

For starters, it sends the wrong message to children. It teaches them that the “earned” food is highly desirable and other foods less desirable. Often, the “earned” foods are high in sugar or fat and therefore less healthy. These foods then become objects of desire to children and often replace healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains in a child’s diet.

Using food as encouragement can also teach children to ignore their own internal cues for hunger and satiety. If a child has to clean his or her plate in order to get dessert, he or she may no longer be hungry but will continue to eat to have the “reward” or dessert.

Along the same lines, food should never be used as punishment as this can also cause problems down the road such as anxiety and even disordered eating. If food is often taken away as punishment for bad behavior, that child may become insecure about having enough food to fill his or her tummy. This can potentially result in binging or eating in secret.

Find other ways to encourage your child:

  • Let your child pick out an additional book to read at story time or bed time
  • Grant additional play time outside
  • Visit a special place, like the park or the zoo
  • Award small “prizes” such as stickers, pencils, crayons, or coloring books 
  • Invite a friend over to play
  • Schedule special time with a parent or grandparent

It does take some forethought and behavioral changes on the parent’s part to use these alternatives, but the end result of a happy child is well worth it.

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