What Rewarding Kids with Food Looks Like 20 Years Later

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on May 27, 2011

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I recently took Big A to the hairdresser, and, as usual, she didn’t want to get her hair washed. The hairdresser kept pushing it until I finally said, “Maybe there’s something we could entice you with, sweety.” While I was quickly brainstorming a reward, like a book, the hairdresser quickly chimed in with, “A lollipop — you can’t have a lollipop unless you get your hair washed.”

Before I could say anything Big A moved (more like sprinted) straight into the hair washing seat. As she was getting situated she got scared and told me she didn’t want to do it. The hairdresser said in a sing-songy voice, “Well, then you won’t get a lollipop.” And then Big A checked in with me: “Mom, can I still get a lollipop?”

“Yes, sweety,” I replied. The hairdresser glared at me, with a look of disbelief, and I told her that as a dietitian I can’t use food as a reward and then apologized.

What’s the big deal?
I touched on this topic of using food as a reward in my managing sweets series but I see it happening so often that it bears repeating. The truth? If I didn’t know what I know about nutrition, food and behavior, I would probably reward Big A with food. No doubt it would work. I’m sure she would do lots of things to get the sweet treats she loves — eat broccoli, do chores, be calm at the grocery store and even get her hair washed at the kid salon.

While I think a lot of parents know that using food as a reward isn’t the best strategy — they do it because it works in the short-term. As I discuss in my Best-Kept Secret to Raising Healthy Eaters, when we are short-term focused with feeding, we are more tempted to employ feeding strategies that are counter-productive for kids’ eating down the line.

We know from research that using palatable foods as a reward makes them even more appealing to kids. And on the opposite end, using healthy food as punishment, to get the reward, makes kids less interested in the healthy food.

But the real question, and the purpose of this post, is what does this do for kids’ relationship with food in the super long run?  You know, when they are adults making their own food decisions.

Kids who see food as a reward may turn into adults who seek food rewards
A 2003 study in Eating Behaviors, 122 adults were asked about their current eating habits along with their memories about food rules as kids. The adults who recall parents using food to control behavior through reward and punishment were more likely to use dietary restraint (restricting food practices such as dieting) and binge eat.

As a dietitian who has worked with adults for many years, I’ve seen how this plays out in adulthood. Many of the people struggling with eating and weight often see food as a reward for their hard work and stressful life. In fact, nights, when the busy day is finally done, seem to be the toughest. After dinner, people find themselves back at the fridge often grazing all night.

Is using food as reward or punishment during childhood the cause of this? No. While there is some research showing a link, this doesn’t prove cause and effect. But it makes you think about the association kids make with food, beyond hunger and enjoyment, and how they take this with them into their adult lives.

As parents, we help our kids develop the lens through which they see food. Will they see snacks as something to do when they watch TV or are bored or will they snack as a way to refuel between meals? Will they seek sweets as a reward for their hard work or look for other constructive ways to feel good?

The more frequently parents use food as a reward or punishment, the more likely it is their kids will grow into adults who eat in the absence of hunger. For more on this subject see 5 Times You Should Never Feed Your Kids.

Sometimes parents need a free pass
But just like anything, if we reward or punish children using food once and a while, it probably does little harm. When I was visiting some close friends up in the Bay Area awhile back, I had Big A with me. The kids were done with dinner and getting antsy while the adults wanted to hang out and talk. One of my friends mentioned getting ice cream to hold off the kids. I totally agreed and they joked that Ellyn Satter wouldn’t approve.

I told them she would totally understand that these things happen from time to time. But instead of telling Big A she had to be “good”to get her ice cream, I gave her the choice. I told her we could leave now or we could stay and talk….and get some ice cream of course. And she made the choice to stay.

So tell me, what have your experiences been with rewarding your kids with food? Did your parents do this when you were a kid?


Puhl RM, Schwartz MB. If you are good you can have a cookie: how memories of childhood food rules link to adult eating behaviors. Eating Behaviors. 2003: (4) 283-293.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Danielle Omar May 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

So true! My husband and I disagree about this constantly. He can’t understand why my 3-year should not be “rewarded” with sweets, or why she would “get to have” sweets if she didn’t listen or misbehaved in some way. However, even I am guilty of a lollipop to preoccupy in the store!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 27, 2011 at 9:27 am

Luckily my husband has been on board with all the feeding stuff since early on (plus he reviews my blog posts for grammar!) My daugther gets the cookie at the store — but only if it’s during snack time.


Theresa Romano-Ross, RD May 27, 2011 at 9:04 am

I’ve been in similar situations. At the barber shop with my son (and daughter). Also at my daughter’s dance class. One of her teachers would reward with lollipops at the end of class. I had to pull her aside and express my concern as a parent and as a R.D. If my daughter is in her class she now rewards with stickers, stamps or bracelets. My daughter is 3 1/2 and knows the difference between candy (hard – unacceptable) and chocolate which is a more acceptable treat in our home.

I’ve been called a Mean Mommy at dance b/c I won’t allow food given as rewards. Some of the other mother’s bring in dunkin donuts munchkins for the girls (and mom’s) to snack on before and after class. (Another RD brings these in). It drives me mad, especially when 1/2 the girls are above their IBW and have BMI’s greater than the recommendation.
I feel your pain…. :)


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 27, 2011 at 9:26 am

Good for sticking to your guns! I do allow my child to have hte lollipop at the hair salon but she gets it regardless of her behavior. Luckily we don’t go that often ; )


Carol Roy May 27, 2011 at 9:35 am

I’m living proof that you’re correct. As an adult, my relationship with food has struggled over the years. As a child, I was rewarded with food. It was a case of “how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” And I was made to feel guilty about all the starving children if I didn’t finish my dinner. This “technique” my parents used translated into an epic battle with my daughter that we now, 20 years later, lovingly refer to as “the battle of the peas”. I made her sit at the table until she finished her peas and the little monkey sat there for 3 hours. I felt so sorry for her that I let her off the hook (shades of things to come Moms! Be aware! She’s still stubbon to this day ;o) Nope. Rewarding your children with food can only bring sad consequences for them later on in life.


AKeo May 27, 2011 at 10:41 am

I’ve thought about this a lot, being a teacher. Candy is the FIRST reward we use for behavior. Before becoming aware of the danger of using food to reward a part of healthy eating habits, I simply stopped using candy because of childhood obesity concerns and not wanting to aid in that.
Now that I am more of an intervention specialist, I realize that most reward-based systems of behavior management aren’t very successful long-term. And the short-term is just that – short! Kids need to be intrinsically motivated or they will only behave for a reward or to avoid a consequence.
It’s tough being a parent and trying to do the right thing!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 27, 2011 at 1:48 pm

AKeo — I forget that teachers do this too. This will be on my radar as my kids get older. I don’t think my daughter’s preschool does this.


Martha May 27, 2011 at 11:45 am

I agree with AKeo that reward based systems are not a good long-term model, but as a mother of a 5 year old and a 2 1/2 year old I have given in many times. While I strongly dislike candy as a reward, I’m also not happy with cheap plastic toys (like at the dentist office). We try hard to get our kids to do the right thing without a reward.

I have a question though – we sometimes have dessert at home after dinner. While we never make our kids “clean their plates” the way I had to as a child, it still doesn’t feel right to let them have ice cream if they didn’t eat any of their vegetables. We will tell them they have a minimum “dessert eligibility” requirement. It is perfectly fine for them to not finish their dinner if they are not hungry, but that means they don’t get any dessert. Does this count as using food as a reward? How do we deal with this case when we are trying hard not to use rewardw?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 27, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Martha — I get that question a lot and plan to post about it. I think it’s important to see dessert and dinner as separate. Dinner should be eaten for hunger, ejnoyment and to fill up but dessert usually isn’t eaten for the same reason. We usually eat dessert to fill that little sweet craving we have.

You can serve a small portion of dessert with dinner to try change the dynamic. What we do at our house is that we randomly have dessert. I treat the meals all the same and allow my kids to eat what and how much of what I give them whether or not dessert is on the radar. I don’t think you want your kids only eating the food so they can get dessert. Does that makes sense?


Sam May 27, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Thanks for another great post. I often compare the use of food as a reward with giving in to a temper tantrum. In the moment, it’s easier to give the food or give in to a tantrum, but it creates more challenges down the road. I’ve found the comparison to discipline helps other parents understand a different perspective, and consider non-food rewards instead.


The Table of Promise May 27, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Great article. I have to admit I don’t offer food as a reward to everyday things that my kids should just be doing because they are important things to do, calm down from tantrums, household chores, etc. I agree it does more harm than good, and I HATE to see people doing that in public. But I think that comes more from my hatred of sugar than it does a concious desire to not use food as reward. I would rather do without sugar and candy totally!

However, I have the same dessert rule as Martha. Now, the only thing I am sure of in food and psychology is that nothing is true for all the kids all the time. One child in a family might easily be affected by food rewards, whereas another child might have no effects. I am mom to two boys, one almost four and one almost two. My four year old eats to live, but generally eats good healthy foods, a wide variety of fruits and veggies. And he doesn’t beg for food ever. He love love loves sweets though, and so to get some fruit or the occasional candy treat as dessert has been a very positive motivator during the long stretches of time when he flat out refused to eat because of bordem or a stronger desire to play, etc. His reasons for eating generally had little to do with the actual food. And it has been a great motivator to get him to try foods that he would have been too scared to try otherwise, foods that he ends up liking and will later continue to eat with no built in reward.

My two year old on the other hand clearly has food favorites. So he will pick at dinners he doesn’t like and overstuff himself on foods that he does like. I try to make sure that he gets a variety of things that he likes and that also challenge him. But he simply cannot be pushed like his brother (at least not at his current age). So we don’t push him that much. He is what I would describe as a kid who food rewards would really mess with his head. So we don’t do it. Basically, we tailor our parenting to the indiviual child.

But I have no qualms about putting a stipulation on dessert for a few reasons. We have worked hard in the last year to offer desserts that we feel good about and limit refined sugar throughout the day, so one piece of candy can hardly ruin a day of good nutrition. We also try to serve foods that we know the kids wil eat at least some of. In the last year on my blog I have challenged myself to get off processed foods, and the kids and I have a good list of foods that we both feel good about. We do not require plate cleaning, but we are good at knowing how much they can and generally will eat. So we don’t offer adult portions either. And finally, I always tell them that if they are too full to eat dinner, then they are too full to eat dessert. My oldest in particular is highly analytical and would definitely undereat dinner in order to save room for dessert if he knew there were no rule in place. My youngest seems more motivated by pasta than sugar, so again, it doesn’t end up being an issue in our house.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Thanks Christa. You are right that no two kids are alike and taking your own child’s temperment and food personality into account is key. I would just watch out for “knowing how much your kids generally eat.” Kids, espeically younger ones, do have erratic eating habits. Sometimes they eat much more (growth spurt) and other times are not really hungry. I think our society has a tendency to focus on eating healthy and forgets about teaching kids to really honor their hunger and fullness cues. I’m not saying you are doing that…just an important point to bring up when there are lots of food rules present in the house.


goodfountain May 27, 2011 at 8:30 pm

I don’t use food as a reward although I admit that when I made a prize bucket to incent my perfectly-capable and ready then 2 1/2 yr old to use the potty I threw in some dum dum suckers (among many other options) and she LOVED them and was potty trained in just a few short days thanks to those dum dums. (So far no ill effect from that. ;) ).

We don’t ever have dessert, but we do allow an evening snack. What I decided to do (after reading here I think or maybe Ellen Satter book) was to only ever offer healthy snacks, and we never tied it into how much they ate for dinner. So my kids regularly eat apples and carrot sticks as a snack. Sometimes pretzels or popcorn. My oldest daughter LOVES rice cakes so she’ll have those. Our snacks are very small.

On occasion I’ll make brownies or something and they can have those, but again I don’t tie into whether or not they ate a “good” dinner. And something I learned from Ellen Satter and I started doing this is on occasion (usually if they go grocery shopping with me) I’ll let them pick out a bag of cookies and then when we get home they can eat the cookies, as many as they want, and just enjoy it.

The last few weeks at school the teachers (first grade) have made Fridays a party day for getting their work done all week (to keep them motivated end of school year) and so they’ve had a lollipop party, a popcorn party, and today a popsicle party. Tuesday the day before the last day of school is ice cream party, and the last day of school is a pizza party. I don’t have a problem with any of these “parties” because the incentive is the “party” and when you have a party – usually there’s food involved (how many of us go to parties where there’s no food?) My daughter, however, in in speech therapy and I did ask the speech therapist to not use food as reward or incentive for her as I just wasn’t comfortable with it. She happily agreed.

Not using food as reward or incentive feels like it’s the minority position – but I agree with you that it’s a very short-term approach.

Oh, and I always let mine get a sucker after a haircut. I will take that over a balloon any day. I HATE balloons. The tears and drama when they get blown away


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Goodfountain — the short-term toilet training rewards are harmless — especially when kids are young and eventually forget. We don’t dessert all the time either — about twice a week. I prefer to have it has a snack so there’s not that push/pull at mealtimes.


clothespin May 27, 2011 at 10:01 pm

My 3 year old HATES the sounds of toilets flushing – the point of panic in public bathrooms as they flush really loudly. When we started potty training, she was flipping out in public bathrooms (please don’t judge parents of kids who are screaming in the potty at a store) the only way I could help her get past the fear was with a pack of Smartees… easy to carry in my purse and don’t melt like chocolate does. It works, she’s getting better about the fear thing and life moves on. That said, she only gets them for this situation…

The rest of the time at home, we don’t have sweets. Fruit and whole grain baked goods but that’s it. The most exciting thing for her birthday was the cake – because she only gets it at birthday parties.

But, banning candy in general takes the fun out of life! When I was a kid on the farm, an old neighbor man used to drive by our house. He’d stop and talk with us kids and do really cool stuff, like take his teeth out. Then, he’d tell us to stay “right there” and he’d come back with candy. So, we’d stay outside all day long waiting for Johnny to come back in his old blue truck…. sometimes he did (with a bag of candy) and sometimes he didn’t. And sometimes, when we were bored, we’d walk down the mile to his house to get candy. If he and his wife weren’t home, we’d help ourselves to the candy on their porch. We were the only kids around, so no surprise who the thieves were. :) All of us kids are adults who are normal weight and don’t have eating problems – but we do have great memories of Johnny!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Another good example of infrequent rewards. Sometimes food is all that works for a temporary stage…


The Table of Promise May 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Thanks for your response!

I apologize if I have given you the impression that we have alot of food rules in our house. Actually we have very few. The most important of them being ‘Eat Food.” I don’t really ban anything, although refined sugars and oils are limited. We eat full fat everything, and making this switch has been the only thing that has helped me silence my own hunger monster! But I won’t buy products with chemical preservatives, dyes, etc. I figure my sons will have exposure enough to that when they get older. Until then I will serve them real food and they can be the judge of how that tastes as compared to most factory produced fare.

I do appreciate your comments though about amounts of food. I should have clarified that I start with a given amount that I think is reasonable. The kids know they are welcome to ask for more. And I do not enforce plate cleaning. So I don’t get the feeling that I am denying them or enforcing anything. My kids are absent minded and often don’t eat because they are day dreaming. Reminding them to eat at meals only serves to keep them full until the next snack or meal time. I cannot actually force them to eat, nor would I want to! And I don’t like the endless round the clock feeding that happens when no one enforces any rules.

However your comment did remind me of a question to ask you. I feel like I get very conflicted answers from the nutritional science community on food rules. On one hand, the only food culture I ever had was “Buy in bulk and save”. But now that I am making a concerted effort to clean up what we are eating and involve my kids in the cooking and shopping and discussing of nutrition, I feel like I read so many people are writing to not talk about food too much. Don’t have too many rules. Don’t ban foods. (Not that you are doing this…I read various sources.) How can I as a parent teach my child that food is wonderful and should be enjoyed but that some things are better for him than others without calling some foods good or bad? Or having some food rules and having a truly open discussion about weight and health? There are certain foods like doritos and crap like that that I will ban from the house because I love him too much to feed it to him. I am so confused. I would love to read a post from you about this topic…I have a feeling I am not the only one who feels conflicted.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 29, 2011 at 6:46 am

Thanks for the question. By the way, I didn’t get hte impression you had a lot of food rules. I just wanted to bring up the point that sometimes rewarding with food can discourage kids from paying attention to what their internal signals.

I plan to write about the topic you bring up as it is really important. When it comes to educating kids about nutrition you have to match your messages with their ablity to understand (child development). Children can’t think abstractly until middle childhood so when parents talk about fat, high fructose corn syrup and complicated nutrition messages most kids will boil it down to good and bad because that is just how they think. In the younger years I personally believe kids should not have to worry so much about what they are eating. Educating them about different foods groups and how we eat some more often then others works well. Also, teaching them about managing hunger and listening to their tummy is key. And taste is a huge motivator for kids — so you can tell them how you think some foods taste better than others. My daughter discovered she likes dark chocolate over skittles yesterday. Yeah!

Hopefully my upcoming series nutrition education with kids will help a lot of parents in this area. I agree with you that it’s hard to know what to say. It sounds like you are doing a great job!


mostlyfitmom May 29, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Now, if only I could get my husband, as well as my mom (“Grandma”) on board with this, too. Rewarding myself with food is a habit I’ve been struggling with breaking, but it’s so ingrained – it’s tough. And I definitely want to avoid passing the problem on to my kids, since I’ve had such a hard time with it. Great post.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 1, 2011 at 6:52 am

I hear ya mostlyfitmom! It took me a long time to break the habit but I think I finally did it!


Kat (Eating The Week) May 31, 2011 at 9:49 am

Interesting post & discussion in the comments. We don’t generally reward behavior with food, or set rules about finishing a meal before having sweets. I can’t claim it’s all for the most lofty reasons – our son just isn’t always motivated by food treats (he once threw a tantrum at age 3 because he didn’t want to go get ice cream, instead yelling that he wanted to go to church). Video games, now, that’s a different story…

We do follow the principle that most of the time, he should eat healthy foods and every so often can choose to have a treat. He understands that to mean that we don’t go to the corner candy store every day, but once a week is fine (same for ice cream, soda, etc). That’s not to say he doesn’t try to finagle more-frequent treats now and then, but in general, this system seems to work with him.


Ramona May 31, 2011 at 9:54 am

My girls’ current daycare uses food rewards…a lot…to the point that if they don’t have a sucker or candy when we pick them up I have total melt down in the car. I’ll take total melt down to teach them that a gratuitous sweet is not needed everyday. They also have a ‘Happy Plate’ rule where there is some form of treat, sweet I’m sure, if the kids make a happy plate which equals a clean plate. These strategies are beginning to undermine the fairly food neutral household we have. My husband and I are in constant conversation with our oldest that we don’t care if she has a happy plate. We want her to eat when she is hungry and stops when she is full, regardless of what food is eaten or left. She still wants that ‘good job’ for cleaning her plate and doesn’t get it why her parents aren’t giving out kudos for eating all her food.

Both my girls, 2 and 5, help where they can often while I am cooking and I try to talk the very basics on how some foods provide us with better nutrition than others, i.e. milk for strong bones and muscles, veggies for good eyes, muscles, skin, digestion, etc. They certainly have their favorite foods, but for the most part I wouldn’t consider them picky eaters. I just find myself in an almost constant battle with sources outside our home.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 1, 2011 at 6:53 am

Have you tried talking with them Ramona?


Ramona June 1, 2011 at 11:41 am

Maryann, I’m having a hard enough time trying to keep them compliant in not feeding my oldest food with red dye in it that I haven’t approached the ‘Happy Plate’ issue. My oldest will be in Kindergarten next year, and I’ve learned the daycare is getting a new director. My desire is to give the new director the link to this blog :). I wish more childcare/school administrators would educate themselves beyond what they are just accustomed to.

Last night at dinner proved that talking to our oldest about eating when hungry and stopping when full is working. She came to the table, I knew she was hungry, and promptly exclaimed “I’m going to make a happy plate!” To which my husband and I both told her if she was hungry enough to eat all of her food, then fine, but she should eat until she was full. She didn’t make a happy plate last night…and we were just fine with that.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 1, 2011 at 9:42 pm

It’s all about choosing your battles. But you are right, parents have the biggest influence. Glad to hear things are going well!


Nicole June 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm

I have been guilty of it. Everytime my kids did something well at school gradewise, birthdays, etc.new always went out to eat. Quick candy rewards as well. We have stopped it now because my daughter is overweight and we are working on it in a program and as a family. At the time, rewarding with food was how I grew up. It is a process to stop it and change my daughter’s and the rest of the families mindset.


Stacy June 3, 2011 at 5:58 am

I agree, but this one is difficult to follow through on because it works in the short-term. What can an adult do to combat years of viewing food as a reward?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 6, 2011 at 8:02 am

Sorry for the late response Stacy. It took me a long time to stop rewarding with food but I first had to change my outlook on sweets. Once I saw them as an allowed food I could have anytime I no longer looked for excuses to eat them — like parties, Friday, after a long day, vacations etc. So I think you have to look at your relationship with food and ask yourself WHY you use food as a reward and try to make changes to the way you view it. Make sense?


Stacy June 3, 2011 at 6:01 am

Great blog post! One more comment I have :), I never tell my kids that they have to clean their Plate to get dessert, but they do have to eat at least their veggies to have a dessert, otherwise they would only eat dessert every night for dinner.



Kathy Gillen @ Wellness Roadtrip June 5, 2011 at 11:45 am

My kids are a bit older 17, 15, 12, and 9. But when my oldest two were very young I fell into the dessert after dinner as an award mentality. Soon I realized I was teaching the wrong concept. I quickly adopted an afternoon “treat time”. There would be no desserts after dinner. Now as they are teens and make their own decisions, they almost never eat anything sweet directly after dinner. Maybe later in the evening they may have a cookie or sweet, but nothing outrageous. Sweets in our house are a couple times a day food, not all day.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 6, 2011 at 8:00 am

Kathy — you bring up a good point about having dessert every night — it it’s such a struggle parents can move sweets to another time like you did. I don’t want my kids to make that association so sometimes we have it and sometimes we don’t.


christine September 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I completely agree with this, im 17 and my brothers 11, we were bought up the same , made to sit at the dinnertable until we had finished the whole meal, otherwise we wouldnt get pudding and offered sweets to be quiet. I’m luckily still quite slim though i know my diet is bad because i take every opportunity to eat sweets or calory packed foods. But my brother is now full on obsessed with food, he’ll stand in the kitchen and watch my mum make dinner, or if shes going to order in a takeaway he’ll moan until the door bell rings, how do i help him?


tealizzy April 17, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I’m curious about your opinion on a few related points.
1: I have explained to my son that certain types of foods have “nutrients,” which we need to grow and be strong, and some are just for tasting good, and that he needs to eat the ones that have nutrients first. Specifically, although I am definitely not a member of the clean plate club, I do generally require that he eat a decent amount of a protein and a vegetable, and drink his skim milk. Do you think this draws “good” and bad associations and could be dangerous?
2: I usually don’t serve the kids dessert, but after I noticed we weren’t really getting enough fruit, I started serving some after dinner and calling it dessert. The kids are totally on board with this, but is it bad to build the habit of something sweet after dinner, even if it’s watermelon?
3: I don’t allow my kids to have dessert (real dessert, in particular, less so the fruit) unless they’ve finished their dinner, or at least a reasonable portion thereof, on the grounds (which I’ve explained to my five-year-old) that if he doesn’t have room for his green beans, he doesn’t have room for cake. Do you think that’s a bad idea? Does it show him that he shouldn’t eat past fullness or encourage him to cram? Should I tell him we can keep the dessert for tomorrow if he’s too full now?


Sara Lambero July 6, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I don’t remember my parents using food as a reward for me, but they certainly used it as a reward for themselves after a hard day and as a de-stresser.


Sarah January 2, 2013 at 9:55 pm

I recently started teaching elementary school and I was shocked at the near demand of the students for candy and other sweets in order to do as they were asked. They were in for nasty shock. I replaced a teacher about a third of the way through the year and the previous teacher was constantly bribing the kids with candy. In my “former life,” I was a dental assistant and helped place child crowns, fill an abundance of cavities and saw so many obese- not simply overweight- children that I vowed I would NOT use food as a reward for my own children or my students. Beyond that, the mentality that you only do something because you’re going to get an immediate reward really burns me. Thank you for this article! I’m hoping to share it with the classroom management coordinator for our school who also thinks that candy is an appropriate motivation :/


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 6, 2013 at 8:36 am

Thanks Sarah! It really takes educating people in a positive way. I’m doing the same thing at my daughter’s school. The more of us that take action, the better!


Chris January 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I was with you until the second to the last paragraph when you ask you child for permission to hang out and talk with your friends. However, my question is when do kids get dessert/sweets? I try to have treats now and then for no reason at all, sort of just for fun. But, when do they get dessert? I make a complete meal they don’t touch any of it and then ask for dessert. Your thoughts?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 29, 2013 at 4:03 pm


I have a whole managing sweets series you might want to check out. http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/category/managing-sweets-series/ It addresses all of your questions. thanks for reading!


Joey Jo Jo May 27, 2014 at 6:34 am

I’m glad for this discussion! I see people all the time use desert as a bargaining chip for obedience; and it becomes an embarrassing battle of wills. Usually it boils down to, “if you eat two bites or vegetables you can have ice cream”, and when they get the ice cream, it’s a big adult-sized portion is as big as their whole dinner! Super unhealthy in every way. I’m a little confused how loving parents can willingly feed their kids so much junk.


Julie August 17, 2016 at 7:03 am

I wanted to say thanks for posting this. I feel so lucky to have grown up with parents that basically let me eat whatever was in the house. They never ate anything without sharing it, never a word was mentioned about eating everything or anything really on our plates. If my mom worked hard cooking a dinner she would beg us to “at least try it, please” but if we refused she would just look hurt, sometimes leave in tears because she was upset (now, as a parent, I understand her reaction) but often times just let it go. We were never forced to eat anything. Most nights, as teenagers, we’d eat a box of cereal instead of what she made (obviously she quit cooking dinner most nights). But consequently, my brothers and I are now some of the only adults we know that don’t struggle with food, that have excellent and healthy diets with no source of emotional attachment to food. This is amazing, considering our parents are extremely obese and our own mom grew up with all the traditional food issues and more. It’s been so sad to watch her, she absolutely cannot overcome the emotional attachments around food (her own dad was alcoholic, abusive and asperger like, so it was more than just bribery). I cannot even believe how many of our educated, wealthy friends restrict food for their kids and partake in what I consider very unhealthy ways to raise kids around food. On other notes, it IS hard to watch kids eat the trashy food that’s out there. But I figure that assuming you are home with them or your daycare is on board, its actually a short period in their lives that they’ll actually eat pure junk food and beg you to get it for them at the store, and you’ll have less input as to what they eat. In our experience, it started with our oldest around age seven, followed closely by his sister at age 6, asking for candy at the store. I only keep stuff in the house that I’m good with everyone eating, anytime. The candy is addicting for them, so if we start eating it at all, it takes a while for me to (unknown to them) wean them off of it so they don’t crave it everyday. When I’m getting them off their candy kick, it goes like this…sometimes you do run out, and chocolate is a healthier substitute so we use that, or healthy black bean brownies, then lots of dinner I know they like, and a few weeks later, they’ll want candy if you ask them but they’re not asking YOU for it. Anyways, it’s tricky with all the outside influences, but please parents, know that food as a reward is so terrible! Model how you want the kids to eat and quit controlling how much they eat! I promise you they will eat healthy on their own in a few years.


Julie August 17, 2016 at 7:10 am

PS, I want to note that my mom did have her limits on what she would buy at the store. We would beg her for things throughout the store and she would say no to some, for reasons…usually things like, there’s too much plastic in those, they’re so wasteful. Or occasionally there’s so much sugar in that (but really rarely used that one). It’s too expensive was another good “excuse” that she used to curb our wants. And I did go through a period after high school where I sort of “rebelled” (it was more like omg, I have my own money to spend, I can buy whatever candy I want!). interested to hear if there’s any way to avoid this stage of a persons development. Maybe these are residual food issues popping up from my moms childhood? Nonetheless, it didn’t really matter in the long run…I’m a happy, healthy eating adult!


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