Here's Why You Should Never Use Food as a Reward
You're at the dinner table, at a total loss over your kid's refusal to eat/taste a new food/take one more bite. So you dangle something enticing in front of them: the promise of ice cream, a sticker on a chart, or even cold, hard cash.
In that moment, you're not necessarily proud of what you're doing—but you're desperate. And let's face it: Bribes often work, resulting in more bites of dinner or a nibble of asparagus. But though bribery may nab the short-term gains, is it a smart strategy in the long-term? That depends.
In some cases, rewarding kids for trying new foods (or eating more of certain kinds of foods like vegetables) may help them discover new favorites or get them in the habit of eating those foods more often. In one study, schoolkids who got an incentive for eating fruits and veggies ate more of them—and continued to eat them weeks later when the incentives were gone.
I created this reward chart for trying and rating new foods, using only non-food items as the reward, like getting to pick out the family movie or an extra book at bedtime. With my own kids, I noticed that simply writing the foods on the chart was motivation to taste new things—and some of those foods became ones they now eat.
But bribery can also backfire. For instance, when getting dessert is contingent on eating veggies, kids may start viewing veggies as a yucky thing they have to get through in order to get something good. In research, children who were asked to consume a preferred kind of juice in order to access a fun play activity actually grew to like the juice less and less.
Major health organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, warn about food rewards in general—for good behavior or for eating veggies, for example. Studies have found that when parents use food as a reward or punishment, kids are more likely to prefer high-fat, high-sugar foods (like the ones often used as rewards). One study in the journal Eating Behaviors found that adults who remembered their parents using food as a reward or punishment were more likely to report issues with food like binge eating and restricted eating.
The Bottom Line
Here's my advice: If your child finds it motivating to have non-food incentives—like a sticker or even a quarter—for trying new foods, that's okay. Having fun with food is a good thing. Cookie bribes, on the other hand, are not. So avoid using food as rewards (or punishments), pitting foods against each other at the dinner table, or holding certain foods up as the end-all-be-all.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor and registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.