• Melissa Genee, RD

The Truth about Food Bribes.. And what to do instead

“If you want dessert, you have to finish your broccoli!” “If you behave at the grocery store, you can have a cookie after.” “Stop taking toys away from your brother or else you won’t get ice cream later.” Sound familiar? Many well-intentioned parents offer foods as treats to get their children to do something or behave in a certain way. Why? Because it’s quick, easy, and most importantly, it works! … at least in the short term.


My child is now eating their broccoli or sharing their toys, so what gives? Research shows that these small victories may have more negative long term consequences on a child’s relationship with food. Sarah Remmer, Registered Dietitian, and an expert in children’s nutrition and picky eating, offers this advice when it comes to food bribes.


Bribes increase the desirability of dessert:

Making dessert dependent upon your child eating their broccoli, reinforces everything that your child already knows about that icky green vegetable - “it must be gross because I get something yummy for eating it.” Using foods as rewards teaches them to dislike the “healthy” foods, and like the dessert - the reward - even more. Eventually, your child will learn to eat the broccoli, not because they enjoy it, but because there is a reward at the end of it.


Bribes interfere with your child’s natural hunger and fullness cues:

Children intuitively know when they are hungry and when they are full. In many cases, food bribes are offered when the child is not hungry, leading to a disruption in a child’s natural ability to listen to their satiety cues. When children are offered treats as a reward for doing something good, it encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry, to reward themselves. This can lead to longer term health consequences such as mindless or emotional eating.


Bribes can lead to negative health concerns:

Treat foods are typically high in sugar and saturated fat, which when offered consistently not only replace nutrient dense foods, but can also contribute to health problems such as poor dental health, overweight/obesity and type II diabetes. If your child eats an otherwise balanced diet, treats (in moderation) can fit into a healthy diet.


Alternatives to Using Food as Bribes

Getting your child to eat healthy can be a challenge. Instead of using bribes or rewards, Sarah Remmer suggests to use positive and encouraging words to grow your child’s problem-solving skills. Instead of bribing your child with dessert to finish her plate of peas, use phrases like “I noticed you didn’t try your carrots tonight - we can try them again another time” or “it was really brave of you to try those green peas - you must be proud of yourself!” Phrases such as this will let your child know you notice their efforts and give them a sense of pride. Instead of focussing on the quantity of foods eaten, encourage your children to be mindful eaters by asking “how does your tummy feel?” and encourage them to eat until comfortably full.

Nutrition professionals do admit that they have used food bribes or rewards in some situations with their children. Where it becomes a problem is when food is used as a bribe daily or even weekly.


Take-Aways

Food should be reserved for feeding and nourishing your child, not for bribes or rewards. Food bribes can disrupt your child’s hunger and fullness cues, increase the “yuck factor” of healthy foods and other health concerns such as mindless and emotional eating. Try to limit food bribes and rewards and instead use encouraging and positive words to acknowledge your child’s efforts and abilities.

The FLIP program will be doing a series of blog posts on picky eating. Keep an eye on our blog and subscribe to our newsletter for more information on how to nourish and grow a happy and healthy eater.


More more information on general picky eating tips, check out one of our previous blog posts “Picky Eating: What is it and how to deal with it” or Sarah Remmer’s E-Book “Turning the Tables on Picky Eating”.

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