Skip to main content
Explore URMC

menu
Noyes Health / About Noyes / News / Article

Food | Not a Reward, Not a Punishment

Friday, August 5, 2016

As a young child, I remember sitting in the grocery cart kiddie seat each week as my mother grocery shopped.  Most of the time I was expected to just sit there quietly but occasionally, mom would treat me to a box of animal crackers.  I would make the little delectable critters last a good long time.  The best part was telling a story about each animal before popping it in my mouth.  Nowadays when I go to the grocery store, I often see one of three scenarios unfold: 1) a child is misbehaving and a parent bribes the child with food to acquire the desired behavior; 2) the child is behaving and the reward is food or 3) the child is misbehaving and food is withheld as a punishment. In all three cases, food is attached to the behavior. The message is behave in a certain way and food will come your way. Food for some has become a reward or a punishment instead of nourishment and something to be enjoyed with family and friends in community. Unfortunately, the child who expects a sweet for being good at the store at age 4 or 5 may become an adult who reaches for food as a reward for a long day at work.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, parents should not use food as a reward or punishment.  Punishment by withholding foods can make a child anxious.  In addition, children may turn the table on their parents and punish them by refusing to eat (certain foods), thereby gaining attention, and causing the parents to be anxious. Furthermore, attaching treats to a behavior can undermine healthy eating habits and interfere with a child’s natural ability to determine if he or she is full and satisfied or still hungry.  Currently, one-third of children and adolescents ages 6-19 are overweight or obese.  Promoting healthy eating habits and making mealtime fun with good conversation and laughter is an important step to turning those numbers around.  

When food is used as a reward for achieving good grades, eating everything on the plate, or picking up toys, there are consequences.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) lists several consequences for using food rewards:

  • It compromises classroom learning.  Schools, child care centers, and even parents have nutrition programs.  They extol the virtues of eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins.  These lessons are meaningless if they are contradicted by rewarding children with sweets.  The state of Connecticut Department of Education states, “It’s like saying, “You need to eat healthy foods to feel and do your best, but when you behave or perform your best, you will be rewarded with unhealthy food.”

  • It contributes to poor health.  When food is presented as a reward, children are more apt to learn a preference for sweet foods and junk foods. Cookies, candy, and junk food all contribute to health problems including childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cavities.

  • It encourages overconsumption of unhealthy foods.  Foods used as rewards often are high in sugar, fat, sodium, and calories.  By associating these foods with celebration of even the smallest achievements, children learn to grab these foods as a default mode as they head toward adulthood.

  • It contributes to the path to adult obesity.  Statistically, children, who are rewarded frequently with food, are more prone to be overweight or obese adults.  The associations are strong and hard to break.  

It compromises classroom learning.  Schools, child care centers, and even parents have nutrition programs.  They extol the virtues of eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins.  These lessons are meaningless if they are contradicted by rewarding children with sweets.  The state of Connecticut Department of Education states, “It’s like saying, “You need to eat healthy foods to feel and do your best, but when you behave or perform your best, you will be rewarded with unhealthy food.”

It contributes to poor health.  When food is presented as a reward, children are more apt to learn a preference for sweet foods and junk foods. Cookies, candy, and junk food all contribute to health problems including childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cavities.

It encourages overconsumption of unhealthy foods.  Foods used as rewards often are high in sugar, fat, sodium, and calories.  By associating these foods with celebration of even the smallest achievements, children learn to grab these foods as a default mode as they head toward adulthood.

It contributes to the path to adult obesity.  Statistically, children, who are rewarded frequently with food, are more prone to be overweight or obese adults.  The associations are strong and hard to break.  

Educators have long used rewards in the classroom to motivate students. Parents have used refrigerator charts to track good behavior. Coaches have dangled “carrots” in front of players.   You don’t have to do away with rewards.  The key is combining motivational strategies with occasional, healthy rewards.  The CSPI offers the following examples of beneficial, inexpensive rewards for children:

  • Social rewards – praise, thanks, big hugs, nods, smiles, winks, high fives

  • Recognition – little notes in the lunchbox, school paper tacked to the refrigerator, a special homemade ribbon or “certificate”

  • Privileges – extra story time at night, play date with friends, playing an educational game on the computer, special outing on the weekend, child’s choice for movie or music

  • Family rewards – game night, dancing together, hiking, playing outside together(everyone!), eating on a picnic blanket together, family reading time, art/craft time, puzzle time

  • Stuff – little things like school supplies, toys, and trinkets – do this in moderation.  Experts agree that the most effective rewards for children are time related not thing related.

Social rewards – praise, thanks, big hugs, nods, smiles, winks, high fives

Recognition – little notes in the lunchbox, school paper tacked to the refrigerator, a special homemade ribbon or “certificate”

Privileges – extra story time at night, play date with friends, playing an educational game on the computer, special outing on the weekend, child’s choice for movie or music

Family rewards – game night, dancing together, hiking, playing outside together(everyone!), eating on a picnic blanket together, family reading time, art/craft time, puzzle time

Stuff – little things like school supplies, toys, and trinkets – do this in moderation.  Experts agree that the most effective rewards for children are time related not thing related.

To learn more about alternatives to food rewards, check out these websites:

Connecticut Department of Education http://healthymeals.nal.usda.gov/hsmrs/Connecticut/Food_As_Reward.pdf  

Center for Science in the Public Interest https://cspinet.org/new/pdf/constructive_classroom_rewards.pdf

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.  

Media Contact

Public Relations Department

(585) 275-3676

article hit counter