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Food Rewards for Kids: Yay or Nay?

Originally published in 2013. Updated May 2020.

It’s not unusual for parents to use a little bribe to get their child to eat. In fact, food rewards for kids (also known as incentivizing with sweets or treats) is fairly commonplace in the parenting realm.

ice cream cones in Bribing Kids to Eat by Jill Castle MS, RDN

If you take another bite of chicken, you can have dessert.

Try it, and I’ll give you a treat.

Time and time again, parents do this in order to get their kids to eat better.

Today, the value placed on healthy eating, from clean eating to trendy diets like Paleo or Keto, puts a lot of pressure on parents.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How parents may use food-based rewards to get their child to eat or try something new
  • The research on bribing with food
  • Why incentivizing eating with treats and sweets is not a good long term plan

What is Rewarding with Food, Exactly?

Rewarding with food is also called Instrumental Feeding in the scientific literature on feeding kids.

It is a feeding strategy used by parents to manipulate or control their child’s eating behavior and food intake through the use of rewards, or incentives, which can be food-based (candy or dessert) or non-food-based (ie, stickers, praise).

Why Do Parents Use Food Rewards?

Whether you pressure your child to eat healthy food, police his sweets and treats, or –yikes! — force him to eat, the desire to have your child eat healthy is a driving force.

The truth is, you’ve probably succumbed to rewarding your child with food to entice his eating, whether you like to admit it or not. It’s a prevalent feeding practice and it’s done without thinking of the long-term consequences.

Why?

Bribing kids to eat is effective.

In the short-term, anyway.

Typically, when you use a food reward you’ll see an immediate result: a child who eats more, tries new food, or eats healthy food. 

In kids, the desire for sweets and treats is strong, so these are easy incentives.

Does Bribing Kids to Eat Affect Eating Habits?

My 15 year-old daughter and I got into the topic of healthy food for kids and getting kids to eat better. That conversation led us to the topic of using food as a reward.

I was mentioning the results of a 2010 study published in Appetite, about rewarding preschool children for trying new fruits and vegetables. The results of the study showed that preschoolers ate more fruits and vegetables when presented with a reward.

This carried over to meals without a reward (they continued to eat more fruits and veggies). Six months later the effects were still seen.

This was encouraging.

I was curious about my daughter’s opinion about bribing kids to eat.

I asked, “What do you think about rewarding kids with dessert, stickers or presents for eating their vegetables?”

She said, “That doesn’t work! When kids get older there’s not going to be anyone to bribe them with food, prizes, or stars. So kids will just not care about vegetables, because they won’t mean anything to them anymore.  Vegetables will still be on the list of things kids don’t like (and never did like) anyway.”

Interesting point.

According to her, bribing a child to eat is a lot of front-end work with little pay off in the long run.

Other Outcomes of Using Rewards for Kids

I looked into the research further to investigate what we can learn about food bribes. My gut was telling me this wasn’t the whole story.

In fact, it turns out that food rewards aren’t so great in the long run.

In a 2016 study out of Aston University in the UK, researchers looked at children aged 3 to 5 years and the feeding practices their parents used. The researchers followed up with these children at ages 5 to 7 years.

Their findings:

Children were more likely to be emotional eaters at 5 to 7 years if their parents had reported using food as a reward when they were younger. 

A 2017 review study in Appetite suggested, based on the evidence we have to date:

“…food-based rewards should not be used in order to make children eat everyday, well-accepted foods.” 

Using food rewards like sweets may decrease the preference for the foods kids already like, and increase their preference for the reward food.

Using small, non-food rewards for kids (ie, stickers) may help children get over the fear of, or resistance to, trying a new food.

Since tasting a new food is required in the process of helping kids learn to like new foods, non-food rewards can incentivize children to taste them.

One study did show, however, that use of non-food rewards may undermine a child’s ability to develop a natural drive and motivation to try new food.

So, be careful if you use non-food rewards. If you sense it is back-firing, then adjust your course of action.

I cover this in much more detail in my workbook, Try New Food, available here.

Do Food Bribes Impact Kid’s Food Preferences?

Rewarding children may get them to eat, or get them to try, but does it get them to like what they eat?

After all, what you choose to eat as you age reflects what you like.

Take, for example, my hubby. He still doesn’t like many cooked vegetables, but there are some he will eat. And guess what?  The vegetables he eats are the ones that he likes!

Some people will eat vegetables for their health properties (me), but not all people roll that way. In my experience, kids are more like my husband than they are health-conscious adults.

While you may think that rewarding or bribing your child to take another bite of that uber-healthy food is the path to a healthy diet, the reality is it probably doesn’t work this way.

What does work for long-term liking is building in frequent exposure to new foods without pressure to eat them.

And remember what the study above found. Using food bribes, especially sweets and treats, may change the food hierarchy in a child’s mind, making the reward food (sweets) far more important than the food you’re trying to get him to eat.

Picture of a sprinkle donut in Bribing children to eat by Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Keeping Perspective on Kids’ Eating

This topic got me thinking about several things. First, rewarding mostly comes from a good place: parents want to build more variety and have their kids eat well.

Because they really want to raise a healthy eater.

Parents hear the message: Increase exposure to vegetables and you’ll get your child eating them before you know it. I think the word ‘exposure’ has been misinterpreted to mean “get them to eat it.”

Correction: Food exposure is smelling, seeing, licking, tasting, chewing, touching…not necessarily eating.

Second, my daughter’s perspective reminded me that we disregard how kids might feel and the long term consequences when food rewards are used.

Kids may feel good initially (food rewards generally elicit excitement), but their “scooby-sense” may go on high alert. They may perceive these bribes as manipulative and look for a way out, or maneuver in ways that increase the ante.

(Give me more if you want me to eat that!).

What my daughter was getting at is this:

If you want kids to eat something, they need to like it. When a child likes something, she will eat it on her own, without rewards. In other words, she’ll be internally motivated to eat, and not reliant on exterior motivators like food bribes.

Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables

Are you getting your child to eat vegetables using food rewards?

Or are you taking a different route and working for the long term payoff of having your child like vegetables?

There are many routes to getting a child to like vegetables. Patience, understanding that it takes time to like them, repeated and neutral exposures, role modeling, enhancing their flavor, and varied preparation methods can get your child on the road to eating a wide variety of vegetables, eventually.

What do you think?

Does bribing your child to eat work for you (and your child) or not?

Share your experiences, I’d love to hear.

Need More Help with Feeding Your Child?

Feeding kids isn’t easy! I’ve created some other resources you may find helpful:

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  1. We rewarded my kids with attention when they engaged in healthy eating and it worked. We were careful to ignore picky eating to avoid rewarding that with attention.

    Next time, try asking Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center and 2008 President of the American Psychological Assn. His has been helping parents change picky eating for more than 30 years. He uses basically the same method I used with success on my 2 kids. He has written a couple of parenting books that you would do well to read.

    See this study which contradicts your daughter’s opinion:

    …the children who received praise appeared to interpret their choice as internally motivated and therefore continued to select the healthy option even in the absence of reward.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666312002048

    1. I agree that ignoring negative behaviors works. This article summarizes the latest in feeding research, and specifically looks at rewarding with food, specifically desserts, which is unfortunately common practice amongst parents. Thanks for your perspective.

  2. Thanks for your detailed and evidence-backed discussion Jill!

    I agree entirely that parents need to realize what they accomplish by using rewards to get more veggies into kids (or other adults!). If short term consumption is the goal, then it works – and probably makes parents feel better! I believe that it is much more important to focus on the long term, and to raise children who will independently choose a diet that is healthy when they are given the freedom to do so.

    As you said, kids can “smell a bribe” a mile away, and rewards have the potential to backfire.

    I work with young children in school and community settings, to expose them to the beauty and magic of the “rainbow” of vegetables and fruits all around us. I don’t focus on “nutrition” in my programs; we just have fun and explore all the colours, tastes and textures of these fabulous foods! I have watched young children happily chow through vegetables that their parents insisted they hated, and have heard feedback that they have continued requesting broccoli and zucchini at home long after our adventures!

    I completely agree with you that “liking” veggies is what we’re after!

    1. Thanks for all the work you do, Janet, with kids! We need more people like you teaching about nutrition, without the “nutrition angle!”

  3. We don’t directly reward our daughter for trying new food. We put the new food on her plate, and if she eats all of the other food first and wants more, she has to try the new food. I never make her a separate meal–she eats the same dinner my husband and I eat. I am also learning to eat different vegetables, so it helps for me to say, “You know, I don’t think I like brussels sprouts either, but I’m going to try them. We have to try them many times before we really know whether we like them.”