Reward Children with More than Food

Society has centered itself around food. Graduations, parties, get-togethers, family and life events – all of these are surrounded by food. Individuals may use food to reward themselves on a job well done, or to console themselves when things are not going well, or if they are feeling bad about something. Each person is different on how they use food in their lives. Nonetheless, food is a part of our lives and will continue to be so. This article is not about making a person feel bad about themselves at all; it’s about raising awareness for parents on other ways to reward children, and if anyone else can be open to these ideas, then that’s even better.

Growing up, I would get ice-cream if I ate all my dinner; a yummy birthday cake (which I still receive and love); brownies my dad would buy for me when a boyfriend broke up with me, and etc. When dad would come home from work on Fridays, we would get a special ice-cream treat then, as well. So, yes, life was given with rewards of food. No, not all the time, but we did celebrate many life events and occasions with food.

The challenge is breaking away from that and finding other ways to reward ourselves and, of course, our children.

Extra playtime with parents: A majority of parents are working full-time and long hours, kids are in school and have a lot of homework – all of this is taking away time with the family. So, playing extra with children is very rewarding. Plan family outings, playing board games, and engaging in imaginary play are all ways for children and you to enjoy time together. The wiggles get out, family is connecting, memories are created and the family bond is being strengthened.

Reward without using food: This can be challenging because, again, food has been a part of celebrations for a long time. I am not saying to not reward with an ice-cream or a special dessert, but it does not have to be the main choice for a reward. Again, extra time playing is rewarding to both child and the parent. You might also provide alternate rewards, such as allowing extra TV time on a weekend, or removing a chore from the child’s list for that night, having him/her pick the next family activity, letting the child to be the “boss” for one particular evening, giving them stickers to recognize their accomplishment, etc.

Increase physical activity: If your child is already active with sports, that’s great! If your child focuses more on TV or video games, then there are areas where change can happen. I am NOT saying to disallow TV or video games, but sedentary people tend to have difficulty staying at a healthy weight. Make a schedule for TV time, but balance that with a physical activity. So, if your child plays a video game for 30 minutes, have him be physically active for 30-45 minutes. Together, start doing jumping jacks, running in place, play an active Wii game together, or go outside for a walk. It is said that any type of activity is good, and I agree, but the focus is about physical activity for an hour at the minimum. PARENTS: lead by example. Break out an old work-out video and do it with your kids. Again, if any physical activity is beneficial, so would be short bursts of exercise.

Help children put feelings into words: Not every person can express themselves well, and this includes adults as well as children. Sometimes, those who aren’t good at displaying their emotions may choose to express their feelings via food, because food does not talk back, it’s always there and it can be comforting. Sometimes, Kraft Mac&Cheese sounds really good on a cold night or when I do not want to cook. I have to watch this too. When a person feels bored or is watching TV, they are prone to excessive eating, and may consume too many calories without realizing it. If a person is hurt or angry, he/she may turn to sweets or dessert foods. If we teach our children how to express what they are feeling, they may not turn to food for comfort. As their parent, children do watch and learn how you respond when having a bad day, so you will need to be mindful of how you relate your feelings and what you eat.

Model “downtime”: We are all busy with jobs, school, house, friends, etc., and life can be hectic. When we are busy, we are not mindful of what we are eating. When we give ourselves “downtime”, we can re-center ourselves, catch our breath and pause. Teaching children to pause and relax may help them to become more aware of their actions, responses and actual hunger. Children can be mindful of their feelings and come up with ways to resolve them. This is something that YOU, as a parent, need to model for them. Downtime can help in a lot of areas.

Find healthy alternative foods: There are a lot of recipe sites on the internet, and finding a healthier chocolate cookie recipe can be a healthy tool, but you will still need to set a limit. An overabundance of healthy alternatives could still have a negative affect on a person.

Instill a healthy concept of food: Food is good for you, and sometimes, even the not-so-healthy food can be good. Moderation is key, and each person will have to define moderation for themselves to a degree, although three pieces of cake realistically would not be moderation for anyone. When a person has a healthy concept of food, then there is a healthy balance. How you view the purpose of  food and what it can do for you will determine how you relate to food. If you see food as fuel for your body, then you may make healthier choices. If you see food as a means of comfort, then you may eat unhealthy foods. Parents can help or hurt a child’s perception of food based on how they themselves think of food.

These are just a few thoughts and ideas of how you can reward your children when they do well with something besides food. I am sure you will be able to come up with other ideas.

Related Articles:
When Not to Say “No” to Your Child
Food vs Kids
Family Resolutions

© Copyright 2011 by Kelly Sanders, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lizanna

    December 28th, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    I am so into this! I hate to see those parents who bribe their kids with a piece of candy or a cookie to get the behavior that they want. Do this too much and you are seriously contributing to society’s problem with obesity!

  • halton

    December 29th, 2011 at 5:40 AM

    Am I wrong to say that I “reward” my dogs with treats, but I EXPECT my kids to behave, no treats necessary They know my expectations and live up to them.

  • JON

    December 30th, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    I was always rewarded with food as a child.I love good food but do know my moderation.I am healthy and am at the right weight too.But I would like to change this rewarding technique when I have kids of my own.

    A lot of people I know reward their kids with food but as you have mentioned,there are far better alternatives in that regard.While food rewarding is not bad,it could start off an eating disorder and would prevent the host of benefits that these alternatives provide :)

  • Clarke

    December 31st, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Why not give them a healthy experience with food, and show them that food is not something that you turn to for joy or to cope? That food is just food, energy, nothing more, nothing less. What happened to that kind of attitude?

  • Marielle G

    January 2nd, 2012 at 8:01 AM

    The point here is not that we reward or don’t reward our kids. The point is that we have to do a better job of teaching them about living a healthier life as a whole. Our kids have become so sedentary and we as parents have completely accepted this as a way of life. I remember my mom and dad telling us to go outseide and that we better not dare come back in unless someone was sick or dying. But we have let computers and tvs and video games become our babysitters and look at wat it has done to the health of our nation. Too much, and not in a good way at all!

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