Food can be a powerful tool when it comes to parenting.
It can calm a tantruming child, it can be used to coax a child into behaving a certain way, it can create peace when confrontation arises, and it can distract a child when he has fallen and hurt himself.
As the parent of a three-and-a-half-year-old and one-year-old, I know how tempting it is to use food as a parenting tool (and I have used it before, trust me!). It is an instantaneous fix. A sigh of relief. But when we use food—something that is meant only for nourishing—to discipline, distract, reward, or bribe, it can have lasting effects on not only our kids' health, but their lifelong relationship with food.
As parents, we often put our "short-term lens" on when it comes to feeding, especially with young kids. We are often in a rush and want our kids to eat something NOW or behave a certain way NOW, so without even thinking about it, we turn to what works—food. Maryann Jacobsen, Registered Dietitian and co-author of "Fearless Feeding" says on her blog "when we are short-term focused with feeding, we are more tempted to employ feeding strategies that are counter-productive for kids’ eating down the line." She wrote a terrific post on what rewarding with food looks like 20 years later that is definitely worth reading.
Although it can be challenging, it's extremely important that we learn to put our "long-term lens" on when it comes to feeding, as to help our children form positive core beliefs (something that YMC's Psychotherapist Andrea Nair talks about often) about food for life.
After working with kids and adults in my nutrition counseling practice; some who either have severe picky eating issues, disordered eating patterns or full blown Eating Disorders, it has become clear to me that when parents use food as a parenting tool, kids form negative associations with food. Andrea Nair agrees, and urges parents to "stick to using food as body-fuel." She says that "when food is used for things like bribes, distraction, rewards, praise or punishment, a negative association might be created between food and a particular experience. When this happens, the risk of food avoidance or food addiction goes up."
I remember standing in a grocery line recently watching a mom with a preschool-aged boy who had just fallen and scraped his knee in front of me. His mom, trying to console him (and stop the crying), reached into her purse to grab a lollipop. immediately, her son stopped crying and excitedly unwrapped his treat.
We've all been there—our child enters the throes of a tantrum in public or hurts himself and screams/cries at a playground and all of a sudden all eyes are on you and your child and you're desperate to make it stop.
Distracting your child with food works short term, but it also hinders your child's ability to work through his negative feelings (Andrea Nair wrote a great three-part series on how to deal with tantrums if you'd like to check it out). It also encourages your child to turn to food as a coping mechanism. As your child grows, instead of working through tough times in a healthy way, he may turn to food for comfort or to distract himself.
When we reward a child for good behaviour with food ("you were such a good girl at Grandma's house, now you can have an ice cream cone!), a child will begin to associate food with being "good."
Most of the time, reward foods are sweet and delicious (treats), therefore, foods that are already "fun" are put on a higher pedestal and become even more desirable. Often, kids who are rewarded with food learn to use food as a comfort tool. Later in life, this may translate into late night binging after a tough day at work (or with the kids) and then subsequent dietary restriction the next day—I've seen this time and time again in my practice. Andrea Nair agrees by saying "instead of looking at food as an enjoyable way to feed hunger, children might start to associate food with making themselves feel better. These associations can be hard to break later in life."
When it comes to healthier ways to reward your kids, Andrea Nair states that "the process of using words that inspire a child to cooperate rather than tricking them to comply will grow their problem-solving skills instead of their defenses. With a calm, friendly tone, parents can teach their children to move through their big feelings without involving food."
What I've noticed with my own preschooler, is that saying "I noticed that you were sharing really well with Nate" or "I saw you protecting your baby sister there" goes much further than rewarding with something like food. It lets him know that I noticed his good behaviour and gives him a confidence boost and sense of pride, which helps to encourage the behaviour again.
I often see desperate parents who are pleading with their children to stop misbehaving by offering a treat food, or by withholding a treat food: "No dessert tonight if you keep whining" or "if you want dessert tonight, you better start listening to me."
It is most certainly a quick and easy way to get your child to behave a certain way, at least for the short term and so many well-intentioned parents do it. Bribing your child with food once in a while will likely not cause any harm, but if it happens regularly, it may have long-term consequences. It may interfere with your child's natural hunger/fullness cues, it will encourage emotional eating, it will increase your child's desire for sweet foods and it will increase your child's chances of health concerns such as overweight and obesity. Here's a post with more information about the consequences of bribing your kids with food.
This may occur less often than bribing, rewarding, or distracting, but nevertheless, it does happen. Kids, especially when they reach preschool age, may start to ask for certain foods over others (treats over healthier foods) and may even start to sneak foods if they feel as though they shouldn't be having them. More commonly, they may eat only one type of food (perhaps starchy carbohydrates) at a meal and leave the rest. If this sounds familiar, you may have unintentionally shamed your child by saying something like "your brother eats his broccoli, why don't you?" or "I'm disappointed in you for leaving all of the vegetables in your plate" or "you are not allowed to have that cookie! I've told you a million times—no sneaking food!!"
Making your child feel ashamed for eating certain foods over others, sneaking food or not eating a certain food will not only hurt his self-esteem, but it will also create negative associations with food and perhaps encourage long-term picky eating, binge eating or other forms of disordered eating. Know that food jags (only eating one food over and over again), sneaking food, and avoiding certain foods is COMPLETELY normal. These are food phases that will pass, and it's important that we as parents support our kids through them without damaging their relationship with food. Here's a post that will help you navigate food jags, and food neophobias (refusing to eat certain foods).
When it comes to sneaking food, the key is to not react in a negative way, because if you do, your child will desire that food even more, and the sneaking will continue (and may even continue into adulthood). Instead, take a deep breath and calmly approach your child by saying something like "I see that you're enjoying some treats buddy...those look yummy. You do not have to sneak food in our house — all foods are allowed — fun foods too! But if you'd like to continue to eat your treat, you're going to have to sit at the table. You also have the choice of saving the rest for later, because this will be your treat for the day. It's up to you when you have it." Or something along those lines. When you approach it this way, you will dodge a tantrum and you will also decrease the chances of your child sneaking food again, because he knows that the food is not "forbidden."
If this was helpful, you may be interested to find out what the #1 feeding mistake that parents make is and why cereal may not be the best breakfast choice for kids
I post daily nutrition tips and resources for families over on my Facebook Page, so please feel free to check it out!