Written by Brittany Steffen, MS, LMFT at PRO Medical
As a counselor who works with adult participants in the 20/20 LifeStyles program, I’ve noticed that clients frequently report that they have a habit of rewarding themselves with food. Often, this habit becomes a focal point of their sessions because it comes up on a daily basis – at work and at home. Changing habits in this area can be quite a challenge! Typically, this habit has been part of their lives for years, even decades.
As kids, these adults were rewarded with food at home, at school, and at community activities. This habit becomes ingrained to the point that many parents inadvertently pass it on to their children, who are offered food, sweet drinks, and candy as rewards for accomplishments or as an incentive to follow the rules.
Using food as a reward is solidly part of our cultural climate, in which achievements and social events are marked by eating. Many of the foods we use as rewards have little or no nutritional value, but are quick and easy, cheap, and can help reinforce short-term behavior change. Of course, as our 20/20 LifeStyles clients learn, using food as a reward can teach kids to eat when they’re not hungry. This can be a habit that lasts well into adulthood and contributes to weight gain and weight-related health issues.
While it’s a significant challenge to push back against this cultural practice, it’s important for parents (and schools) to provide children with opportunities to develop positive lifelong habits for better health. If you do want to reward your kids with food, consider healthier options such as fruit paired with string cheese or nut butter. PRO Medical Registered Dietitians can provide guidance for a wide variety of healthy options to fit any household. Better yet, consider the following non-food options as a reward or to reinforce behavior:
- Make a craft together
- Read an extra story before bedtime
- Plan a special activity like a game of basketball or a visit to the zoo
- Allow extra electronic time
- Give praise and compliments
- Start a sticker chart
Involving your kids in this process to shift away from using food as a reward can be a great way to create buy-in. Rewards don’t have to be extravagant or costly. Let your children know what your non-food rewards will be, and ask them what they might like to try as a non-food reward. Just make sure that your child is motivated by the incentive. Some children may appreciate extra time to read, while others may want to have extra time with their favorite video game.