Alternatives to food as a reward

When our oldest son needed to have a cavity filled when he was 7 years old, my husband volunteered to take him to the dentist and then out for ice cream afterward as a reward for good behavior. Something didn't click: ice cream as a reward for getting a tooth filled?

Parents spend a lot of time making sure our kids eat a healthy diet containing fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Yet we still hear ourselves saying "If you're good in the grocery store, you can have a cookie" or "Let's celebrate a great report card with pizza!"

A 2003 Yale University study found that adults who remember their parents using food to control their behavior have higher rates of binge eating. They are also more likely to be excessively concerned about their weight and find themselves stuck in chronic dieting. In my work with adults I often find that they've learned to use food to satisfy a variety of emotions, including sadness, boredom, anger, and joy. They've learned to comfort themselves with food, and I often hear things like "I deserve to eat a brownie because I exercised this week" or "I'm going to reward myself for losing 5 pounds with a special meal."

According to the Action for Healthy Kids, a national network of 70 organizations focusing on improving the health of our children, there are many disadvantages to using food as a reward:

It teaches kids to eat when they're not hungry.

It sends the message that celebrating achievements and eating go hand-in-hand.

It can undermine healthy eating habits taught at school and at home.

It can establish bad habits that last a lifetime.

Foods used as rewards are typically "empty calorie" foods - high in fat, sugar, calories and salt with little or no nutritional value.

Instead of teaching our kids to equate awards with food and potentially setting them up for a lifetime of struggling to learn healthy eating habits, try these fun rewards suggested by local parents:

Meaghan Kennedy Philip of Danby uses books, Hot Wheels cars and extra time on the Wii as rewards for her two young boys.

Tracy Gaudette rewards her kids with letting them choose a movie, or an active play reward such as going to the park or rock climbing.

Jackie Ryan-Thomson's girls enjoy books, craft kits, and fun family activities for rewards.

In Dina Janis' family, tickets to the movies or iTunes gift cards are favorite rewards.

Laurie Fronhofer is a mom and a teacher, and her kids love getting stickers and pieces of bubble wrap

Gail Acosta's children are grown, but one of her family's favorite rewards was special time alone with one or both parents - without their siblings.

"Rewarding children with unhealthy foods undermines our efforts to teach them about good nutrition. It's like teaching children a lesson on the importance of not smoking, and then handing out ashtrays and lighters to the kids who did the best job listening" states Marlene Schwartz, PhD, Co-Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University.

Lynn Grieger, RD, CDE, cPT is a health, food and fitness coach in Manchester and online at Her oldest son went to the park to play instead of getting ice cream after having the cavity repaired.


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