How to Reward Kids (The Healthy Way!)

My youngest goes gaga for store-bought donuts but I steer clear of my temptation to reward her with sweets. Food should never be used as a reward – or punishment. Children need to appreciate food as a means of nourishment and enjoyment. They should leave the table after each meal or snack with a positive dining experience.

My youngest goes gaga for store-bought donuts--but I steer clear of my temptation to reward her with sweets. Food should never be used as a reward (or punishment). Children need to appreciate food as a means of nourishment and enjoyment.

If you think rewarding kids with food isn’t a big deal, think again. It can lead to all types of unhealthy actions and behaviors:

Encourage unhealthy eats: Using sweets or non-nutritious foods as rewards sends the message that these types of foods are more valuable than other foods.

Empty calories: Foods served to your kids should contribute to their growth and development. But oftentimes foods used to reward kids aren’t carrots, watermelon and broccoli but fat- and sugar-laden processed foods.

Emotional eating: The child is likely to develop an association between certain foods and feeling good. Eventually this can lead to turning to those foods to feel good when she or he is down.

Reward Overdose: Parents end up rewarding children more than they realize, giving them the green light to eat more unhealthy fare.

Choose Non-Food Rewards

Yes, kids deserve rewards! They work hard in school, respect their elders, and are overall good kids (most of the time). So when the timing is right, here are some special non-food rewards you can offer:

  1. A bubble bath: Instead of the mundane shower or quick bath, pour in the bubbles and excite them with a pile of suds.
  2. Mommy and me time: A little extra time with mom (or dad) before bedtime is all the incentive my youngsters need. An extra story or song can be a special time for all.
  3. Movie night: A sit-down with the latest flick.
  4. Downloadable app: Some apps cost a little dough. Purchase them on occasion for as a reward to make them extra special.
  5. Outdoor fun: Sidewalk chalk or bubbles are favorites and also a way to encourage younger kids to go outdoors.
  6. Sticker book collection: Create a sticker book and reward your child with stickers that can be collected over time.
  7. Local field trip: There’s usually a special pond, lake, park, farmers’ market or local area that your child remembers fondly and wants to revisit. This is the perfect place to take your child as a reward and to build more happy memories.
TELL ME: What non-food reward do you give your kids?

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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