Using Food As A Bargaining Tool : by Deidre

As the mom of an almost 3 year old little Bella, I TOTALLY understand the temptation to “bribe” or “punish” a child by giving or with-holding treats and pudding. There is NOTHING more frustrating than an hour in the kitchen being met with a stubborn refusal to eat. And to offer just 1 choc-chip biscuit in exchange for my kitchen-slavery being consumed is oh sooooo tempting!!!

Instead I have had to downgrade my Labrador and Golden Retrievers food to the Hill’s “healthy weight” diet food – to compensate for the Bella wastage that they eat as she throws it off the table with glee (a less than ideal situation).

As we think about the enormous implications of child protection week in our country, this may seem like such a trivial application.

The reality remains that promising or withholding dessert is not an uncommon parenting technique, and while it will likely work in the short-term, it has the potential to send a long-term detrimental message to your child.

Bribery and punishment with food can be especially detrimental to children.  

For example, bribing a child to eat vegetables shifts their mindset to get a treat, thus devaluing the importance of vegetables in your child’s health and losing the opportunity to teach your child about healthy food choices.  

Studies have shown that children who experience food rewards and punishments grow up to become adults who are more likely to need “diets” to regulate their eating behaviour and have a tendency to binge eat. It interferes with a child’s natural ability to regulate their eating. It also encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to gain the reward.  

Children who receive food rewards often become adults who seek food rewards and have a harder time regulating their own dietary behaviours in a healthy manner. These adults are more likely to make unhealthy eating choices when they feel stressed or when they’ve worked hard, often creating long-term dietary and weight issues that can affect self-esteem and happiness.  


Similarly, physical activity should not be linked to punishment or used as a reward. Punishing children by taking away jungle gym or trampoline time reduces their already-minimal opportunity for active play. Another counter-productive punishment is forcing children to do physical activity such as running laps or push-ups. Children often learn to dislike things that are used as punishments. Punishing children with physical activity might lead them to avoid activities that are important for maintaining wellness and a healthy body weight, due to the association with punishment.

As we draw our attention to Child Protection Week in SA, it is this potentially tumultuous adult relationship with food and physical activity from which we want to PROTECT our children.

SO, if we shouldn’t bribe or punish with food, what can we as parents do?  

  • Do serve a balance of healthy, age-appropriate foods at each meal.
  • Lead by example – children imitate the adults they grow up around and trust. Genuine enthusiasm for healthy food and trying new foods translates into an environment that is supportive for development of good eating habits.
  • Include children in cooking healthy meals; children who participate in making a meal are more likely to eat those foods. When it comes to dessert, it’s best to keep it a surprise that doesn’t come at the end of every meal with expectation. Or give children desserts separately from meals.
  • Don’t replace a favourite food with another because of behaviour. If the beloved item is on the menu, serve it, regardless of the child’s actions.
  • Don’t offer more of a particular food if the child behaves. Your role as the caregiver is to provide enough healthy choices at each meal to meet the child’s nutritional needs.
  • Give your children choices when trying to encourage behaviour- do not change the requirement, but find ways in which your child can have some control as well.  Let your child choose which vegetable she wants for dinner tonight.  Giving choices helps children develop self-discipline which ultimately leads to making better choices and happier life-styles.
  • Do create a warm, conversational atmosphere at mealtimes. Even with very young children, talk to them about what they are eating and use descriptive words like colours, textures, smells, etc. Talk about the day’s events and activities that are yet to come.
  • Don’t force children to eat. Children will eat when they are hungry.
  • Do allow children to leave the table or stop eating when they are finished eating. Keeping a child at the table until a certain amount of food is eaten sets up a power struggle between the child and caregiver. Encouraging children to stop eating when they are full allows them to exercise independence, and also helps prevent obesity. It is good manners to teach them to remain at the table until everyone has finished their meal, even after they have finished eating.
  • Don’t serve sugary, over-processed desserts. Instead, choose healthy desserts that can be served as part of the meal, such as fresh fruit. If a dessert is offered, ensure that every child receives it , in spite of prior behaviour

Alternative rewards

Parents can offer a number of other rewards, not related to food, to reinforce good behaviour.

One could also initiate a token or point system in which children earn points that accumulate – possible prizes include those listed above and: ƒ

Examples of beneficial (and inexpensive) rewards for children

Social rewards

  • “Social rewards,” which involve attention, praise, or thanks, are often more highly valued by children than a toy or food.  Simple gestures like pats on the shoulder, verbal praise (including in front of others), nods, or smiles can mean a lot. These types of social rewards affirm a child’s worth as a person. ™
  • A sticker with an affirming message (e.g., “Great job”) ƒ

Privileges and adventure or outingsƒ

  • Choosing a family movie or  family outing destination on the weekendƒ
  • Having an extra few minutes of TV time
  • Trips to the library, park, aquarium etc.
  • Movie tickets
  • Tickets to sporting or theatre events
  • Playing an educational computer or other game ƒ
  • Reading the bedtime story to siblingsƒ and extra story time.
  • “Free choice” time at the end of the day ƒ

Stationery (this one is particularly popular with girls)

  • Pens and Pencils: coloured, with logos, or other decorations ƒ
  • Notepads/notebooks ƒ
  • Boxes of crayons or Colouring books  ƒ
  • Stickers, stencils and stampsƒ
  • Bookmarks ƒ
  • Highlighters  and markers
  • Chalk (e.g., sidewalk chalk) ƒ
  • Glitter ƒ

Sports and outdoor equipment

  • Sports equipment, such as tennis racket, baseball glove, soccer ball, or basketball
  • Frisbees ƒ
  • Water bottles ƒ
  • Hula hoops ƒ
  • Skipping rope
  • Buckets and spades

Toys/trinkets ƒ

  • Yo-yos, marbles, rubber bouncing  balls, slinkies or Spinning tops
  • Finger puppets,  small dolls or action figures
  • Toy cars, trucks, helicopters, or airplanes ƒ
  • Puzzle games or playing cards ƒ
  • Bubbles
  • Board gamesƒ
  • Capsules that become sponges/figures when placed in water ƒ
  • A plant, or seeds and pot for growing a plant

Fashion wear ƒ

  • Temporary tattoos ƒ
  • Hair accessories (barrettes, elastics, or ribbons) ƒ
  • Bracelets, rings, necklaces ƒ
  • Sunglasses ƒ
  • Hat or cap ƒ
  • Shoe laces

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