Using rewards is a popular approach to motivating performance or desirable behavior. Rewards can certainly motivate people to continue along—or even improve—their performance path.
But when food is used as a reward, things get complicated.
The scenarios are familiar: getting a child to try something new at dinner with the promise of dessert, or encouraging a child to eat more veggies with the promise of ice cream. The promise of a treat for good behavior or eating something healthy is enticing, but is it effective? Is it harmless?
Food rewards can have a surprising effect on your child’s experience with, and liking of, food.
A 2012 review study in the Journal of Obesity looked at the impact of reward food on children’s food intake, their self-regulation (knowing when to eat and when to stop eating based on appetite), and food acceptance. They summarized that children are better able to self-regulate the amounts of food they eat when they are encouraged by their caregivers to pay attention to what their little bodies tell them about hunger and fullness.
While a food reward may increase the amount of food that is eaten, it doesn’t necessarily result in motivation to eat that food later. For example, Billy may eat broccoli with the promise of dessert, but it doesn’t mean he will eat broccoli at a later time on his own, without a sweet reward, or even learn to like broccoli.
Research suggests that rewarding children with food may teach them to eat more than their appetite dictates. Food rewards encourage eating for external reasons, and the path to overeating may be slippery. That promise of ice cream after three more bites of broccoli may actually teach your child to overeat.
Also, rewards like a lollipop at the doctor’s office may cause an association over time that links pain or discomfort with food, which may lead to coping or comforting oneself with food later in life.
The research is out on food rewards: it’s a big no-no. When young children are given a treat for a certain behavior, a task, or their eating performance, they learn that the reward of food (often a dessert) is more important than the behavior, task, or food eaten in the first place. Food rewards have the power to shift a child’s food value system to favoring sweets or other treats over healthy food. Often, this is opposite of what parents are trying to achieve.
If you want to encourage your child to try something new to eat, look to experiment with non-food rewards, like stickers or extra reading time.
- Food rewards, especially sweets, may over-ride a child’s natural appetite regulation and strengthen their food preference for sugary foods.
- Using dessert as a reward for eating healthy foods may backfire, leading to overeating and a preference for sweets.
- Non-food rewards can help children try new foods without shifting their food preferences.