Anyone who’s raised children knows that food is an easy way to motivate better behaviour or quiet a tantrum (second only to an iPad). And since the neurochemistry of our species predisposes preferences for sweet and fatty foods, these are usually the foods that produce the desired results. French fries in a restaurant? Candy bars on a long road trip? Colas at the mall? Been there, done that?
“Rewarding a child with food seems like an easy tool for most parents but it can lead to lifelong unhealthy eating habits,” says Mitun De Sarkar, a Dubai-based clinical dietitian and founder of Simply Healthy Foods. “We put forward conditions to our children such as, ‘Finish your broccoli or else no dessert for you!’ Here broccoli seems like a punishment and desire is the reward. So we end up associating punishment with food. But this pattern and the consequent negative associations with food lead to unhealthy eating habits that can possibly affect their lifelong well-being.”
Using food as a reward is an easy fix, but the downside is that those children grow into adults with unhealthy eating patterns, where food becomes an emotional comfort in stressful or challenging situations. Eating prompts the brain to release feel-good hormones called endorphins, and overstimulation of this neural pathway has been associated with obesity.
But, we hear you. Reaching for food is so easy, you say — and we concur. Do the experts agree? To improve our chances, we put the questions to experts here in the UAE. Our panel comprised three professionals in the field: De Sarkar; Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of Lighthouse Arabia; and Dr Shireen Khanum, Paediatric Resident at Belhoul Speciality Hospital, Dubai. Here’s what they had to say.
Should parents use food as a reward for children?
Khanum I don’t think so. Food needs to be treated simply as food and not as a behaviour-management tool. Inasmuch as rewarding bad behaviour by bribing children with sweet rewards becomes the norm rather than the exception. Food rewards are not a good idea at all. It encourages a child to eat even when they aren’t hungry. This could lead to obesity and obesity-related disorders.
There are many alternatives to food rewards. For example, a star chart that adds up to a certain number per week/month at the end of which a prize could be given, such as a small toy, stickers or a visit to the zoo.
De Sarkar It really is important for parents to set a healthy association with food from the start of childhood. Short-term rewards get the job done temporarily but in the long run children will associate high-sugar and high-fat foods with comfort when feeling low or treat it as a reward when they feel they deserve it. If such habits continue to develop, these kids turn into adults who end up being subjects of emotional eating, being overweight, have unhealthy relationships with food, make poor diet choices and develop illnesses.
Afridi Food should never be used as a reward for good behaviour or for comfort. We need a relationship with food of sustenance, care and nurturance. In some cultures food is seen as a medicine to keep the body strong and healthy. We need to teach ourselves and our children to be attuned to and listen to their body and eat when hungry — not when we behave well or are sad.
What rewards do you advise?
Afridi I think the best reward a parent can give to their child is undivided attention and time spent together doing something the child enjoys doing. Doing activities, watching their favourite movies, building puzzles — the important part is to allow the child to pick the activity. Positive and encouraging words also go a long way in reinforcing positive behaviour.
Khanum There are many alternatives to food rewards. For example, a star chart that adds up to a certain number per week/month at the end of which a prize could be given, such as a small toy, stickers or a visit to the zoo. This works exceptionally well when trying to potty train or stop bed-wetting at night.
We’ve all grown up in different family environments and some patterns that are set early become very difficult to change.
De Sarkar It’s important that parents realise they are role models themselves. Eating well-balanced meals at home, constant counselling, introducing new healthy foods, including children in cooking healthier meals, allowing favourite foods sometimes as a part of the diet — that is what it takes to build a healthy relationship with food right from early days. Children are the biggest fans of their parents and they will ape how they treat their own body and health.
Do you see people struggling with eating patterns learned in childhood?
I think the best reward a parent can give to their child is undivided attention and time spent together doing something the child enjoys doing.
Afridi Absolutely. Most eating patterns and habits start in childhood and adolescence. They usually come from households where food was a central part of their family time, their social gatherings, and often used to celebrate or comfort each other. Imagine a child coming home from school who says they’ve had a bad day; the caregiver might immediately walk towards the kitchen and say “Let me make you a sandwich.” This teaches a child to eat when they are sad, and eventually the pattern of comfort eating is established.
De Sarkar We’ve all grown up in different family environments and some patterns that are set early become very difficult to change. Let me give you a small example: Indians and Arabs love their karak chai, which is tea boiled and brewed slowly with lots of milk and sugar for a very long time. Tea has rich antioxidants called catechins and epicatechins, but these are destroyed by long boiling and the addition of milk and sugar, leading to acidity and bloating. It’s difficult to make them drink a pure cup of green tea or plain black tea instead.