Using food as a reward – short term feel good but what are you teaching children?

July 15, 2013 BY: LISA

An article in the Herald Sun reported research from Deakin University which stated that there was a link found between those parents who used food as reward for good behaviour and overweight/obesity in the child.

There were differing opinions as to the suitability of using food as a reward-whether it was actually a problem?

 As a Dietitian I see many people who associate food with emotions such as sadness, frustration, boredom, hurt and loneliness. This means that whenever these or other emotions are felt the learnt coping response is to turn to food to make everything better. How many times have you given a child food when they have hurt themselves? This is the beginning of this unhelpful association. If children learn to believe that food can actually make you feel better they don’t just lose this lesson as adult.

Do you have an issue with emotional eating? Do you tend to allow yourself treats if you have had a bad day, or a good day for that matter? Did your parents use food as a reward? The long term consequence can be a battle with weight as it’s a guarantee that life will throw up difficult situations and if the child has only learnt to cope with this by eating then that is what they will continue to do. Many of the adults I see describe feeling better in the short term after eating- which I believe is simply the psychological association with pleasant childhood memories rather than any physiological response- but the longer term feeling that comes out of emotional eating is guilt, particularly if the person concerned is trying to lose weight or is concerned about their health or body image.

For some people the action between feeling any kind of emotion and eating is so entrenched that they don’t even understand there is another way nor can they see the approach they use is quite illogical.

If you are frustrated or angry how do you expect a chocolate bar to fix this in any meaningful way in the long term? People argue that it does make them feel better in the short term but in the end they just feel guilt or disappointment particularly if they are trying to lose weight.

Using food as a reward for children gives them messages such as:

  •     If I have done well in the future I can reward myself with food
  •     If I feel down and want to feel better, I can eat.

These lessons create long term issues with food that last into adulthood, not to mention the short term weight gain as kids which arise due to having too much high fat, high sugar foods.

It’s a fair assumption that a lot of the foods given to children as rewards or to pacify them would fall into the category of discretionary foods. Documents associated with the recently released Australian dietary guidelines suggest that children get nearly 41% of their kilojoules from these foods, for adults 36% of the diet made up of these “extra” foods.  Discretionary foods have no nutritional value and are non- essential food and drinks. These foods can contribute many calories and very few nutrients to the diet and eating them may push out healthier food choices. Children have smaller stomach capacities so it’s important to ensure that the small amount of food they are able to eat is mostly good.

Is a place for these “extra” foods?  Yes, but ideally these foods are given not as rewards or pacifiers but simply explained as a food we eat sometimes not everyday.

For children up to 8 years of age the Australian dietary guidelines recommended these discretionary foods are best avoided or limited to no more than ½ serve per day- particularly if there are concerns re the child’s degree of overweight. If the child is taller or more active they could have somewhere between 0-2 serves per day.

The following are examples of 1 serve of discretionary foods.

High added sugar

High saturated fat

Higher saturated fat and added sugar

1 can soft drink 2 slices of processed meat salami or mettwurst ½ small chocolate bar (25g)
1 tablespoon jam/honey ¼ meat pie 2 scoops of ice-cream
Cordials and fruit juice ½ snack size packet of salty crackers or crisps 2-3 sweet biscuits
5-6 lollies (40grams) 12 hot fried chips 1 slice of plain cake or muffin


You are definitely doing children a disservice both nutritionally and emotionally if you teach them to associate food and emotions in any way. When I was growing up chips and soft drinks were party foods not something that we had everyday or in the lunch box and with a little imagination and firm parenting this can still be the case. Kids learn about healthy eating in pre-school/school so these messages can be reinforced at home- painting a clearer picture for the child about what a healthy lifestyle is.


Lisa Renn

Accredited Practising Dietitian. (APD)



National Health and Medical Research Council- Eat for Health-Educator guide 2013



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