Using food as a reward – not a recipe for success by Tania Logan, Dietitian and Diabetes Educator

Christina ReynoldsDietetics, Dietetics & Diabetes Education

I was at an athletics carnival a few years ago, and heard a child boasting that she would be allowed to have one dessert over the coming week for every personal best she achieved in her events that day. I was absolutely astounded, but I probably shouldn’t have been. While the details are not always the same, this situation is not uncommon. More recently I was reminded that children at our local primary school are offered a free ice block from the school tuckshop after attending 6 mornings of cross country training.

Like a jelly bean after visiting the doctor, often parents, teachers and other caregivers offer special, “treat” food as a reward. Children are generally highly motivated by food, and it is unquestionably an effective reward for many children. But my concern is that while rewarding children with food may influence their behaviour in the short term, it may also have a significant effect on their behaviour in the long term, through childhood and into their adult lives.

There is a growing understanding that using food regularly as a reward, or a tool to modify behaviour, does not support healthy eating and can have a significant, negative impact on the eating behaviours of children in a number of ways.
• Food rewards are often “treat” foods which are in direct contradiction to the messages children receive about healthy eating.
• They may encourage children to eat when they are not hungry and/or contribute to overeating.
• “Treat” foods may promote a preference for sweets or unhealthy food.
• They have the potential to contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food.

I am particularly concerned about the impact that food rewards can have on the development of distorted relationships with food. Providing food as a reward to children teaches them that a positive action that leads to a positive outcome, results in being rewarded with food. This may encourage children to celebrate their successes with food as a reward, which contributes to distorted eating behaviours in the future. I frequently see this with adult clients I see who have an unhealthy relationship with food. They commonly report that eating less nutritious, “treat” foods is often triggered by thinking that they have “been good” and deserve a reward. How many of us, as adults, justify a glass of wine or some chocolate at the end of the day because we “deserve it”?

Food rewards also interfere with learning to eat according to our body’s natural regulators – hunger and satiety. Young children have a particularly good awareness of when they are hungry and when they are full, and will generally eat accordingly. As children get older, this is reduced somewhat, partly by having to eat at particular times, but also due to the increased exposure and susceptibility to other signals outside the body. Rewarding with food can reinforce that it is acceptable to eat without being hungry. By adulthood, many of us have become incredibly adept at overriding or ignoring our hunger signals, and we have developed many other cues to help us to decide when to eat, how much to eat, and what to eat. It is very common for me to see people that are so disconnected from their appetite, that it no longer plays a significant role in their eating behaviours.

Alternative rewards to celebrate success

Instead of offering food as a reward, parents, teachers, and caregivers can offer a variety of other rewards to reinforce good behaviour or reward success. These are 5 non food rewards that you might like to consider.
• Stickers are an excellent alternative to lollies
• Small inexpensive prizes like pencils, erasers, tubes of bubbles, or balloons
• Staying up a little later after bedtime
• Having a playdate with a friend
• Choosing a family outing to go on (for example going to the movies or the park)

As adults, it is also important for us to examine our relationship with food. If you notice yourself using food or alcohol as a reward, or you would simply like to set a good example for any little people in your life, here are 5 grown up non food rewards that you might like to experiment with.
• Buy yourself some flowers or cut some from the garden
• Indulge your creative side by drawing, painting, or colouring in
• Listen to your favourite music
• Take time for a massage, manicure or pedicure
• Run a bath, light a candle, and take some time to read a good book

If you would like more information on improving your relationship with food, please contact me. You can find my contact details and how to book an appointment on our website at You will also find information on our website about our exciting new Mindful Eating Workshop series.

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