Should food be used as reward or punishment?

Finicky Eating 5 min

Tips for teaching young children to develop a healthy relationship with food.

By DFC - PLC, Nutrition Team
Unhappy young girl
Unhappy young girl


  • The power of words
  • Their impact on atmosphere and children’s needs
  • What to say and do
  • Dealing with dessert

The importance of words...

Adults can sometimes manipulate their children’s emotions and feelings of guilt when they refuse to eat certain foods. Sadly, in the long run, this could lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.

“Do it for me. You’re two years old—take two more bites!”

“Eat half your meal if you want your dessert!”

“Finish your meat and you can have more rice.”

“Eat more veggies if you want to go play!”

These phrases are unfortunately are all too common during mealtimes. People say these things to encourage children to eat, but, in reality, they don’t teach them to like food. 

Are meals and snacks enjoyable?

In the previous examples, it’s unlikely... Children can develop anxiety and stress associated with certain foods or even meals. Over time, they can become fearful and anxious during mealtimes, further reducing their appetite.

Are children eating according to their needs?

Young children risk eating too much or too little if, they don’t listen to their body’s hunger and fullness cues. For example, children might eat to please an adult or out of guilt, even though they’re not really hungry. This may teach them to associate food with a reward or punishment.  Over time, this could affect their behaviour and they may seek food as a reward for good behaviour or good grades.

What’s the right thing to say or do?

Encourage children to take a bite of each food served, without pressure, and not withhold dessert. The secret to making this work. Be a positive role model by eating the same foods as them.

Here are some ideas of things to say:

“I’ll put a little of everything on your plate, just like mine. Try it—you’ll see that it’s delicious!”

“I love mealtime because I get to discover so many different and delicious foods. It smells good. Are you excited to try it?”

“I love soup. My grandma makes a delicious one too. What does this meal make you think of?” 

“Wow, an omelette! Yum, I love omelettes! Do you know where eggs come from?” 

“Did you know that tastes can change as you grow up? When I was young I didn’t like mushrooms, but now I love them!”

“If you haven't tried something, you can’t know if you like it or not! I’m going to take a bite and see if I like it. Want to try it with me?”

“Way to go! You tried a new food!”

“Amazing! You took a bite of beet, even though it’s not your favourite vegetable!”

Serve dessert anyhow?

Yes, no matter how much of their meal children eat! 

Using dessert to bribe children can also interfere with their ability to listen to their hunger and fullness cues. Children will force themselves to eat more of the main course to get dessert, causing them to eat more than what their body tells them they need. Children then put dessert on a pedestal and view it as the ultimate goal of finishing the meal. In turn, it becomes a reward, rather than part of the meal.

All foods should be treated the same way because things that are forbidden are always more attractive!



Multi level
Finicky eating
Table manners

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