March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
What parent doesn't want good behavior and great grades?
Rewarding children for good choices is an effective way to encourage behaviors that adults value, says Marina Chaparro, RDN, CDE, MPH, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Unfortunately, adults sometimes reward children with sweets and other food because "junk food tastes good, it's cheap and easy to buy anywhere," she explains. Even though bribing children with candy to clean their rooms and eat their vegetables may lead to a clean room and a clean plate, there are many negative long-term consequences.
When food is given as a reward, children start to connect it with something good or bad, rather than to see food as fuel for their body, says Chaparro. In the long run, this could lead to emotional eating as adults and generate an unhealthy relationship with food. Food rewards also teach kids to expect food when they've done something well, which can lead to poor nutrient intakes, eating when not hungry and excess calories. And it teaches them that the food rewarded is more desirable than other foods. "Kids need to establish a healthy relationship with food at an early age," says Chaparro. It's up to the parents to set the proper stage for this, so non-food rewards are a wiser strategy.
Non-Food Rewards Kids Love
Praise is highly effective and costs nothing, Chaparro says. Take time to identify additional non-food rewards that motivate your children. If your children are old enough, brainstorm a list of incentives with them. Here are several to consider:
- Play date with friends
- Sleepover with friends
- Special time with parents or grandparents
- Sitting at the head of the table for dinner
- Trip to the park, zoo, pool, skating rink, bowling alley or movies
- Time off from chores
- More screen time (computer, tablet, TV, video games)
- Additional minutes on the cell phone
- Additional car privileges
Non-Food Rewards at School
You may have a successful non-food reward system at home, but food rewards in school might send mixed messages to your children. Discuss your concerns with your children's teachers, says Chaparro. Explain the downsides of rewarding children with candy or celebrating a class victory with an ice cream party. Then, offer other options such as temporary tattoos, student of the week awards, eating lunch in a special place, additional time for recess, class field trips and watching movies.
Instead of using food as rewards, use outdoor activities that encourage physical activity like going to the park, riding the bike or playing basketball, says Chaparro. "Show your kid you enjoy these activities and be a good role model for them to follow," she says.
By emphasizing healthier rewards, your children will strive for those.