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You can have an ice cream if you sit still at the hairdresser.

Here’s a lollipop to make you feel better after getting your needle.

There’s no dessert for you if you don’t use good manners at the dinner table.

When it comes to rewarding, comforting or punishing children, food is often one of the first tools parents reach for.

Giving a child a sugary snack for doing well at school or denying them a treat when they’ve been naughty seems harmless in the moment, but could it be teaching children unhealthy eating habits that could affect their lifelong health?

We spoke with clinical and research dietitian Jessica Freese about what happens when we reward, punish or comfort kids with food and what parents might try instead.

What’s the harm?

Our relationships with food, either healthy or unhealthy, often have their roots in childhood. This is one reason why Jessica says that it’s important to consider what we’re teaching children about food from a young age.

She explains, “It’s really important to set the child up for success right from the start. We know that long-term food habits and relationships with food are established in really early childhood.”

While bribing a child with a treat to get through a shopping trip might reap short-term rewards, the long-term effects can be damaging to their health and happiness.

“The harm of rewarding, comforting or punishing children with food is that the child can then associate the provision or denial of certain foods with behaviours, emotions, or comfort,” says Jessica.

“It can contribute to the child forming unhealthy relationships with food, like eating ‘sometimes food’ when they feel down, or when they’ve done something that they feel proud of as a reward. If those habits do carry over into adulthood, it can lead to emotional eating, where food is used as a reward, coping mechanism or just to provide comfort.”

Because it’s often discretionary foods, like lollies, chips or ice cream, that we use as a reward or punishment for children, it can set them up to make poor diet choices as they grow up.

Jessica says, “Not only does it create unhealthy relationships with foods, but it can also contribute to weight gain, with the excess consumption of high fat and high sugar foods.”

Girl eating a biscuit

I need to make a change – where to start?

If you’ve read the above and panicked that you’ve already ruined your child’s relationship with food – don’t worry. Small steps can make a big difference when it comes to creating a healthy relationship with food, for both your child and yourself.

“I always say it’s never too late to start,” says Jessica. “You can start at any stage.”

Use your words

One of the first things Jessica recommends parents and carers do is think about the language they use to talk about food.

“A lot of parents and carers fall into the trap of referring to a food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’,” says Jessica, “which can be really confusing to the child. All that we want them to know is that there are no ‘bad’ foods – there are just foods that we eat sometimes, and food that we eat every day.”

You can read more about ‘sometimes foods’ or discretionary foods, and how they fit into a healthy diet, here.

Have other reward options up your sleeve

Jessica also urges parents to take food out of the equation when it comes to rewarding their child or punishing them.

“Food isn’t the only option,” she says. “There are heaps of other ways to reward children.

It’s important to remember that praise, encouragement and time spent with parents is really, really valuable to the child. You don’t have to go out and do extravagant things; it can be as simple as acknowledging the child’s good behaviour verbally, going to the park in the afternoon, or playing a family board game.

You just have to make sure that you’re completely present in that moment, because that’s going to add value and meaning to the praise that you’re giving to the child.”

You can learn more about how to praise children in a meaningful way and how to use praise to change behaviour on Raising Children.

Be a conscious role model

Children look to their parents and carers as role models, and this is especially true when it comes to their relationship with food.

As an adult, it’s easy to reward yourself with a favourite food after a hard day of work, or deny yourself something you want because you didn’t go to the gym. But these behaviours not only impact your relationship with food, but that of little ones who are watching on, too.

“Parents need to remember that their child is their number one fan, and they look to their parent for guidance and support,” says Jessica. “As a parent, they need to set an example and be an excellent role model. These changes can be important for the parent’s relationship with food as well.”

Jessica encourages parents and carers to think of other ways they can reward themselves, that are healthy options for the whole family.

“It could be that they change from having a chocolate when they get home from work, to going for a walk with their dog and child, because that benefits everyone.”

Make mealtimes positive and encouraging

“It’s the parents’ responsibility to provide a variety of healthy, nutritious food to their child,” says Jessica. “It’s also their responsibility to make eating relaxed and encouraging.”

If the stakes are high during mealtime – which can happen when a child has to eat a certain food as a reward, bribe or punishment – it’s hard for them to learn about other important aspects of eating like getting nutrients, understanding when they feel full, and spending time with family.

Try to make mealtimes an environment where children feel comfortable trying and eating a variety of foods without any extra pressure. A fun way to do this is by creating colourful and healthy meals, check out these pretty plates for some ideas that your child will love.

You can read more about structuring positive mealtimes in our article 7 dinnertime habits to improve your child’s health.

Be patient with yourself and your child

Jessica acknowledges that changing the way you talk to your child about food won’t happen overnight.

“It is difficult for parents. I think the first thing is establishing where it’s used most. Is it when you come home from school and you say, ‘You were really good at school today, let’s have a chocolate’? It could be changing that behaviour to just verbally acknowledging that, ‘I’m so proud of you today, you’ve done a great job concentrating at school.’”

Child eating a sweat treat

What about celebrations?

We all have foods we associate with certain events: cake at birthdays, mum’s roast dinner on weekends, holiday treats while on summer vacations. Should we nix all celebratory ties with food?

Jessica says this isn’t necessary. Food is a large part of many cultural and family traditions, and there’s no need to break these ties. What we need to teach children, however, is that food is not the only reason that a celebration takes place.

“It’s okay to celebrate with food,” says Jessica, “but you just want to be cautious that you’re not using food as the celebration. So, for example, a birthday: you want the child to celebrate their birthday with delicious food and cake. But you don’t want that to be the main attraction of the event.”

More information

7 dinnertime habits to improve your child’s health

How to get your kids to more eat fruit and veggies

Department of Health – Making mealtimes positive, relaxed and social

Eat for Health

Jessica Freese is a clinical and research dietitian at the Queensland Children’s Hospital and the Centre for Children’s Health Research. Thanks to Jessica for sharing her expertise with us for this article.