I beg you, please stop doing this

Healthy food or unhealthy food?

Please, please, stop using food as reward and punishment for your kidlets. I am guilty of this in the past with my own children–promises of treats if they’re good while I’m on the phone; bribery of yummy things to come for patience while we’re in the store; threatening no dessert if they don’t eat their veggies; warnings of no goodies if they don’t behave.

I hear it all around me from fellow frustrated parents: “No snack for you if you don’t listen.” “Uh-oh, I guess everyone else gets a treat except for you because you made a bad choice.”

Food, especially “treats,” seem like a handy piece of leverage when our nerves frayed. Food is an easy tool for parenting control, but it’s dangerous. The problems with using food as reward and punishment is it sends messages that can cause dangerous eating habits later.

  • Message: Food is a privilege and it must be earned, whether we’re hungry or not. Food is not a right; it’s a basic human need, especially for kiddos whose little bodies are constantly burning physical, mental, and emotional energy. They need constant refueling, and if that need is attached to strings, it causes dissonance between internal body cues and external rules. It’s confusing: “Do I eat when I’m hungry or do I have to wait until I’m good enough–meet all the requirements such that I’ve earned my ability to satisfy my need?”
  • Message:  Food says if I’m bad or good. First of all, placing foods on pedestals as “treats” or “special” makes them that much more desirable. Who doesn’t want a little piece of something super special? And if we earn it, then we must be special too. We’re so good! But what happens if we don’t eat the veggies and don’t earn the special reward? Over time, food starts becoming associated with shame and self-esteem. “I didn’t get ice cream with daddy because I was bad today.” Food becomes less about feeding the body and more of a tool to cope with feelings of value–whether overeating because “I deserve it” or restricting it because “I need more control.”

There’s another angle to consider when putting food itself into “good” and “bad” categories. To a child who doesn’t like peas, peas are bad; dessert is good. Yet, as parents we tend to send the message that peas are “good” for you; the dessert is special because it’s actually “bad” for you. Treats should only be eaten at certain times and under certain conditions. In our house, we used to call dessert foods “sometimes” foods. Food rules regarding what’s good and what’s bad is confusing and interrupts a child’s ability and confidence to read h/her body cues regarding hunger and what sounds good: “I’m hungry and a cookie sounds good. Mom says cookies aren’t good for me and that celery with peanut butter is healthier. I don’t like celery and not in the mood for peanut butter. I guess I’m not hungry.”

  • Message: Eating means following rules and ignoring your body. As an adult do you typically eat food you don’t like? When’s the last time you forced yourself to eat tomatoes, even though tomatoes make you gag, simply because they’re “good” for you? I hate Lima beans and I won’t eat them if you paid me. Lima beans are chock full of amazing nutrients and I couldn’t care less. If my dinner order comes with Lima beans, I will substitute them out for something else, probably french fries.

Forcing your kiddo–using dessert as leverage–to eat everything on h/her plate or certain items because it’s “healthy” sets faulty internal rules: a) if I’m full, I still have to keep eating because there’s food on my plate; b) I have to eat things I don’t like in order to be healthy; c) certain food rules apply to certain people. Grown ups can/cannot eat foods as they choose; Tommy is allowed to pick off his tomatoes, but I’m not; in order to eat foods l love, I must endure foods I hate.


Kids are intuitive eaters by nature. However, when we use food as reward and punishment for control, nature takes a back seat and food habits are formed based on rules and emotional feelings instead. This is so dangerous and can lead to disordered eating habits that will have health implications. Good eating habits start when kids are kids. If you’d like information on  about developing healthy eating habits for your family, I highly recommend the Ellyn Satter Institute. When I went into recovery for anorexia, I was introduced to Ellyn Satter to help incorporate new habits for my whole family. Anorexia didn’t just harm me, it was harming my sweet kidlets too.

9 thoughts on “I beg you, please stop doing this

  1. patigard

    Guilty. All of that said, how would you address eating at meal time? There come a point in every household where it’s time to close the kitchen and move on to other family activities.

    1. Leanne Post author

      Good question! Simply speaking, when it comes to feeding kids parents/guardians choose the when and what to eat; kids choose if they’ll eat and how much/little they’ll eat. The “what” to eat simply means giving kids all the choices–from the choices you give, kids decide from there. First, it helps if everyone is sitting together as a family at the table. With all the food choices on the table within reach, and all the people dining together in one spot there’s no need for any kind of wandering or getting up and down from the table. Secondly, remove any potential pressure. Reassure kids to eat whatever sounds good as they peruse their choices– make no judgement and encourage freedom to eat or not eat if nothing is appealing. Let them know it’s okay to take their time. Try not to rush meal time. When there’s no pressure to hurry up and eat; eat everything, or else…, dining goes much smoother and more quickly. Encourage and engage conversation. If you notice kids aren’t eating or are more interested in talking than eating, it’s okay to ask if they are going to eat and remind them to do so in an affirming way “Wow, you have a lot to say! Don’t forget to eat.” If meal time is stretching longer than you’d like, give time notice, “Okay, dinner bell rings in five more minutes, then it’s time for homework. Think about finishing up.” Our meal times naturally average about 20-25 minutes.

      1. patigard

        What do you recommend for those kids that don’t want what the family is eating? We’re not running restaurants. I run into this with your nephew. He’s hungry but he wants something other than what the family is eating. I’ll tell him that this is it, make a choice or go hungry but, this goes against using food as good or bad right?

        1. Leanne Post author

          Absolutely. We’re not short-order cooks, right? I’d say it’s really important to offer plenty of choices besides the main entree… (e.g. granola bars, yogurt, cookies, jello,) There’s bound to be something on the table he’ll like. Secondly, rather than presenting the alternative as a “threat”–either make a choice or go hungry–where it feels forced and he has no control, instead re-frame the choice with some affirmation:

          “Aw man! There’s nothing here that sounds good? Bummer. You must be really hungry.” (Affirmation) “Sometimes we have to eat what’s available even if we don’t want to so we can feed our hunger. I now when I’m at work and all I have is a banana and bologna I’ll just eat it so I have energy to get through my afternoon. If I don’t then my hunger gets really bad and it makes me cranky and dizzy. What happens to you when you get really really hungry?” Engage the convo so that he can articulate for himself what happens to his body when he’s hungry. This puts the choice back in his court.

          Also, if this is a consistent issue with him (I’ve never experienced this with him at our house), maybe in one of these conversations you say something like, “Hey, I notice when you come for dinner nothing we put out sounds good to you. What are some things you like to eat?” Then you guys can work together on developing choices he likes for future meals; he’ll feel like he has a say and that his feelings in the matter, matter. That alone will make a huge difference.

          I hope all this makes sense!

  2. andrew

    Very informative post and succinctly written. The last paragraph is so important in that kids naturally listen to their bodies in terms of food; over time our adult and societal food rules could not only derail this natural harmony but create an eating disorder. Bottom line: ice cream is equal to brussel sprouts….I think I’ve got the gist of it!

  3. Lyn

    I remember when, as a teenager, my mother put me on the cabbage and hard boiled egg diet to help me lose weight. Crazy! No wonder I spent a good percentage of my wages on chocolate, cakes and soft drinks. And, no wonder I’m still overweight. It seemed to me to be nothing but a punishment.

    1. Leanne Post author

      Oh man. Ugh. So do you have an aversion to boiled eggs and cabbage now? I have met another person whose dad force-fed boiled cabbage.

      And yes, when any nutrient, including fats and sugars, is restricted our body becomes deprived and literally goes into deprivation mode sending almost “mayday” type cravings for those nutrients, which can lead to binging. Then when you do feed your body what it’s been asking for, it’s been trained to know that it might not get those nutrients again for a while, so it starts to store those calories, turning down the metabolism to a slower burn. Deprivation of anything will mess up the metabolism. All this to say, give yourself permission to eat your favorite sweet treats, unless you are battling diabetes, in which case please please remain loyal to your body’s medical needs!

      Bottom line, deprivation is never a good solution. <3


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *