What Food Rewards REALLY Teach Our Toddlers

February 5, 2018
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Many parents of toddlers would understand the mission it can be to get their little ones to eat.

From food refusal to general picky eating – it makes parents even more intent on getting their toddlers to eat well.

To do so, some parents will use food as a reward to get their children to eat. Obviously, because it works most of the time.

Giving children too many prizes and presents can be a bad thing and has been associated with an increased likelihood of materialism.

So then what does rewarding young children with food teach them?

A number of studies that looked at children and how they view food on a hierarchy, experts found that food rewards, especially desserts, become more valuable to children when used as a motivator to eat.

When researchers took a look at the dessert for vegetable model (i.e., “If you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert.”), they found that the child ended up preferring dessert over broccoli and placed more value on the reward, which in this case is dessert.

So basically, rewarding with food may elevate the reward food (dessert) to a higher level than the healthy food (vegetables). Which means that over the long run, the healthy food may even become de-valued or even disliked.

Children naturally gravitate toward sweets, since they are born with an inherent preference for sweet things. It is further reinforced by breast milk ( which is naturally sweet) and other sweet foods that are offered to young children as they grow (fruit, flavored yogurt, juice, and desserts, for example), especially in the first 5 years of life.

When sweets are being used as a reward, this further enhances a preference for sugar.

Much the same if salty and fatty snacks used, these flavors will also be reinforced.

Instead of solidifying preferences for flavors that may draw away from a healthy diet, parents can also use non-food rewards, such as reading a book together, outside playtime, or other non-food items that will incentivize children to try new foods.

Some parents think that their child won’t even try a new food unless there is a reward attached. so they may use one food to entice their child to try another food.

What parents forget however, is that toddlers are curious and will often explore on their own, especially when there is low pressure to eat.

If toddlers are given a chance to get their hands dirty and dig into new foods, they may naturally take a bite. Finding ways to let them play with food, help prepare it, and independently eat it as much as their self-feeding skills allow – will increase the chances that they will try new foods without having to use rewards.

If you are able to encourage new foods and healthy eating without using food as a reward, your child will be better at eating for hunger, stopping when full, and not become overly sensitized to sweets and other reward foods.

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