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Toddler

What Food Rewards Really Teach Toddlers

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
January 3, 2019 . 3 min read

Toddlerhood can be a landmine of food jags, food refusal, and general picky eating, making parents even more intent on getting their toddlers to eat well. To this end, some parents will use food as a reward to get their children to eat. After all, it works most of the time.

We know that giving children too many prizes and presents has been associated with an increased likelihood of materialism, so what does rewarding young children with food teach them?

The reward is most important

In several research studies looking at children and how they view food on a hierarchy, experts have found that food rewards, especially desserts, become more valuable to children when used as a motivator to eat. When researchers looked at the dessert for vegetable model (i.e., “If you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert.”), they found that children ended up preferring dessert over broccoli and placed more value on the reward, which in this case is dessert. Bottom line: rewarding with food may elevate the reward food (dessert) to a higher level than the healthy food (vegetables). Over the long run, the healthy food may even become de-valued or even disliked.

How to like sugar, salt and fat flavors

Kids are known to naturally gravitate toward sweets, since they are born with an inherent preference for them — this sweet preference is hardwired. It is further reinforced by breast milk (naturally sweet) and other sweet foods that are offered to young children as they grow (fruit, flavored yogurt, juice, and desserts, for example), especially in the first five years.

When sweets are used as a reward, this further enhances a preference for sugar. If salty and fatty snacks are used, these flavors are also reinforced. Rather than solidifying preferences for flavors that may draw away from a healthy diet, parents can use non-food rewards, such as reading a book together, outside playtime, or other non-food items to incentivize children to try new foods.

That “food tries” need to be rewarded

Some parents believe their child won’t even try a new food unless there is a reward attached. They may use one food to entice their child to try another food (think about having seconds of one food if the child tries to eat a new or different food).

But what parents forget is that toddlers are curious creatures and will often explore on their own, especially when there is low pressure to eat. If toddlers are allowed to get their hands dirty and dig into new foods, they may naturally take a bite. Finding ways to let them play with food, help prepare it, and independently eat it as much as their self-feeding skills allow will increase the chances they will try new foods without having to use rewards.

How to overeat

Children often reject eating food when they are full. Young toddlers most commonly communicate their fullness by throwing food off the tray, shaking their heads “no,” and showing signs of disinterest.

Yet, some parents will misinterpret these cues and continue to encourage more eating. They may plead, negotiate, and entice eating with sweets or other favorite foods. In the end, these efforts teach them to ignore their natural signals of fullness and may lead to overfeeding. Overfeeding can skew the diet to calorie overload and unwanted weight gain.

If you can encourage new foods and healthy eating without using food as a reward, your child will be better at eating for hunger, stopping when full, and not become overly sensitized to sweets and other reward foods.

Sources:

  • Castle JL and Jacobsen MT
  • Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • Jossey-Bass/Wiley; 2013.
    Birch L, Savage JS, Ventura A
  • Influences on the Development of Children’s Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence
  • Canadian journal of dietetic practice and research
  • 2007;68(1):s1-s56.
    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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