Developing healthy eating habits in a child is no easy feat for parents. It is an achievement finding any food item your child actually enjoys, and will happily consume without putting up a fight.
That said, does that make it okay to use these foods as a ploy to get children to exhibit good behavior in other ways? “Bribery implies ‘IF you do this, then I will do that,’ ” Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook co-author Melanie Potock tells PEOPLE. “Kids get a lot of power by ‘not doing it’ and they quickly learn that if they hold out on the parent’s request, they might even get something bigger and better in return!”
Most experts recognize it is a common parenting practice to bribe children using food, and you may not need to stop it entirely, but it’s worth exploring as a last resort instead of using it as the default method to get children to do what you need them to do. As Potock adds, “We want kids to learn to love a variety of foods through positive food experiences, not because they were bribed with a treat.”
We spoke to parenting specialists to answer questions about when and/or if bribing children with food is an acceptable practice.
If you have to resort to bribery, what foods make sense?
For many families, using food to negotiate with children is already the norm. If that’s the case, it becomes more a matter of what foods should be used to come to an agreement. Parents using a child’s favorite food item should also consider folding in something new to introduce in an effort to encourage them to actually try it.
“Trying it doesn’t mean they need to love it,” says Senior Pediatric Dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital, Kristi L King. “It means they need to see it, smell it, taste it and describe it. My hint is roast vegetables in the oven with a little oil and salt and your kids will be asking for more!”
Sticking only to things that your child already enjoys can backfire and create picky eating habits, Potock adds. “Instead, focus on food exposures by cooking together, having regular family mealtimes, and keeping all food experiences (even dessert) positive,” she suggests. “It’s the positive memories associated with all kinds of foods that help children become more adventurous eaters.”
What about using dessert?
Dessert is often a child’s favorite part of a meal, and includes foods that are some of the easiest to get children interested in. But as King notes, just because it works doesn’t mean it’s something that should be incentivized.
“We want to teach our kids that dessert fits into our dietary pattern and having some every now and then is okay,” she tells PEOPLE. “Because dessert is not served every night after dinner, it might be served on a night in which your child truly isn’t that hungry or he/she doesn’t like a majority of the foods presented at the main meal, and that is okay.”
Potock explains that it can be dangerous to put such high value on getting dessert. In doing so, kids are taught that some foods aren’t good, but dessert is always the best. “Sure, dessert is delicious, but so are other nutritious foods that help kids grow,” she says. “Serve a small piece of dessert with the meal, if dessert is a tradition in the family, or try limiting desserts to just the weekend as a special treat without making it a contingent upon eating ‘healthy’ foods. When we don’t make dessert such a big deal in our family life, kids learn it’s a food that we can enjoy on occasion or in small amounts, along with a variety of other foods.”
How do I curb snacking, especially after meals?
Children are often far more invested in snacking than enjoying their actual meals. It’s easy to give in and let them have the small bites to keep them behaving, but that can come at the cost of the lunch or dinner you are working hard to prepare for them.
Children are, or will be, on a specific eating schedule at school, so Potock suggests making that the norm at home, too. “Grazing all day long means kids don’t come to the mealtime table hungry to try new and nutritious foods, and contributes to long-term picky eating,” she says.
“For toddlers to school-age kids, introduce the concepts of eating times and growing times,” Potock adds. “Eating times are breakfast, lunch, dinner and very small snacks in between. But in between those set times, once the plates are taken to the counter, it’s growing time. If a child requests a snack immediately after lunch, just state what’s on the schedule.”
King agrees it’s imperative not to stray from the plan. “Especially for younger children, it is important to have set snack times so that your child knows what to expect,” she advises. “Be sure your child is hydrated because many times they think they are hungry and in fact, they are actually thirsty. If your child states they are hungry and want to snack, give them a glass of water and a task to do and if they are still hungry after that, allowing low-calorie fruit and vegetables will provide additional fiber which will help fill them up until the next meal.”
Does using food as a reward or punishment set a bad example?
The concern for many using bribery is what sort of effect it has on the child. What are they learning from this exchange, and how does it affect their expectations going forward?
“We want our children to develop a healthy relationship with food and not associate certain foods with ‘punishment’ or ‘bad feelings,’ ” explains King. “Again, seeking a reward for eating (which is something we do multiple times a day) can set them up for disappointment and an unhealthy relationship with food.”
Using one kind of food to get kids to do what you want, or to get them to eat something they aren’t excited about, flags to them that only the food they want is delicious or enjoyable. “The truth is there are no bad foods, but we want kids to learn how to balance the more nutritious foods with the occasional treat,” says Potock. “If we are using an outing as the reward, such as a trip to the ice cream shop with Dad, the focus should be on the fun we are having together. When we make the food the focus, it diminishes what’s most important — teaching kids to value time with Dad, or another special family member. “
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Will this affect their eating habits when I’m not present?
The eating habits and behaviors parents teach their children when they’re young will follow them even when the parents aren’t around. This is something parents need to be mindful of when a child is developing their relationship to food. Are these behaviors they’d want the kids to exhibit without their supervision? If a child is used to getting their way in regards to food, they won’t have any awareness that things may not be the same without their parents in their presence.
In order for children to become accustomed to the outside world, it’s important they develop an honest understanding of food and how it affects them at an early age.
“According to research, kids will have greater a preference overall for high fat and sugary foods if parents used food as a reward,” points out Potock. “They were less likely to prefer unhealthy foods (high fat, high sugar) if parents made healthy options available to their kids and modeled healthy eating themselves.”
Are there long-term effects of using food as a bribe?
Healthy eating habits are imperative to avoid long-term food issues. As King mentions, using food as a bribe on a continuous basis will lead children to expect rewards at all times, and that’s the least of the potential issues children could face down the line. “In a recent 2020 study, it was shown that having strong preferences for sweet and fatty foods seems to be ‘one of the important factors to determining’ if a child will be overweight or obese,” reveals Potock. Setting foods up as ‘good or bad’ from the start can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.
In a child’s mind, foods are ranked and they won’t understand why the foods they don’t like are still necessary for their well-being. And if food is only seen as a means to an end, does it lose all its value?
“Giving your child a participation trophy for eating may likely set them up for disappointment in the long-run when no one congratulates them as an adult for eating a Brussels sprout,” points out King. “Long-term this could most definitely cause eating disorders to develop, including anorexia or binge eating.”