How we think about food starts at a very young age. When we reward behavior with food – any food - we teach kids to eat for the wrong reasons, at the wrong times, and in the wrong amounts.
And let's be honest: the foods we use as rewards aren't usually baby carrots and apple slices, are they? Offering highly palatable, sugary, salty, snacky foods as treats teaches kids that good behaviour is only necessary (and only worth doing) when a yummy snack is on the other side. The emphasis is on the food rather than the merit of behaving well because it's what is expected of us.
This can also translate into eating to reward oneself later in life, for successes, as comfort in disappointment, and in emotional situations where 'winning' can only be achieved through eating.
For the sake of longterm habits, we can shift our response when encouraging desired behaviours: rewarding with things other than food means everyone wins in the long run.
Rather than doling out the snacks for good behaviour (either to motivate it or after the fact), consider one of these:
- an extra story at bedtime
- delayed bedtime by a few minutes (even 5 minutes can seem exciting)
- an incentive chart, where kids earn stickers towards a bigger reward (like a book or a toy)
- a ticket they can exchange for a one-time exemption from performing a chore
- a backwards dinner – serve (a small) dessert first, main course second
- the opportunity to select a favorite meal for dinner the following night (even though this is a food reward, the reward is the decision-making power and your child isn’t immediately earning the food for behavior)
- game time with you
- the privilege of determining one of YOUR meals the next day (this is a great way to open up a dialogue about choosing foods for fuel, combining foods, and which foods parents like – leading by example!)