Ok, so the title of this post is a little bit aspirational, but not using food as a ‘treat’ or ‘reward’ is definitely a goal for me. It’s quite hard to achieve, because chocolate is a cheap, readily available way to get my kids to do what I need them to do, but I digress.

Most of us probably grew up in families where we were expected to clear our plate. Some of us may have been told, ‘no dessert until you’ve eaten your vegetables’. It sounds like a pretty reasonable rule. However, there are a couple of issues with this strategy. . .

1. clean plate syndrome

Here I am, 35 years old, and I always clean my plate whether I’m hungry or not. Which is really common. Demanding a child finish their dinner is asking them to override their natural hunger cues. The child learns not to listen to their hunger cues and will eat to get the reward of either verbal praise, or the promised dessert. Over time, we don’t even need the ‘reward’, we will clear our plate out of pure habit.

2. The dinner power struggle

If you’re whinging, begging and bargaining with a child to eat their vegetables, that’s one heck of a daily power struggle you’re setting up. For parents of fussy eaters, this adds an enormous amount of pressure and stress to meal time. For fussy eaters who may literally have anxiety about sitting at the dinner table, the number one priority MUST be about making meal time an enjoyable experience. Banging on about eating a vegetable that your little one insists they hate is not going to achieve this. Instead try modelling positive behaviour.

“Wow these beans are so crunchy tonight!”

“I really love how good this broccoli tastes with a bit of butter on it”.

Our kids generally want to mimic whatever we are doing. If you just enjoy your food and don’t pressure them, you may find their interest is peaked and they try it for themselves. I also try not to show positive or negative emotion based on what they’ve eaten. Instead I praise effort:

“I really liked how you sat so nicely at the table.”

“I’m so proud of you for trying something different tonight.”

“That’s ok you didn’t like the carrot today, well done for having a go.”

I may be Mr Nice Guy at meal time, but I also don’t make different meals. I make sure there is something they like on offer so they won’t starve, but if they choose not to eat, that’s it. I’m not making toast. This is called ‘division of responsibility’ and I like it very much. The parent is responsible for what is put on the table, the child is responsible for what they choose to eat. And you have permission to carry zero guilt regarding what they choose to eat.

“That’s ok darling, but there’s nothing else for dinner. That’s what I made, you can choose how much you eat”.

If you’re worried they will be hungry later, set aside their plate until a certain time. Be clear that there’s no more food after that time. If you have a fussy eater in the house, you may also enjoy reading ‘Top tips for fussy eaters’.

What about dessert?

I still give ‘dessert’ regardless of how much dinner has been consumed. Dessert in our house is fruit and plain yoghurt, but even if it were icecream or a special occasion cake or pudding, I would still offer it regardless of what was eaten at dinner time and here’s why…

I don't want to put junk on a pedalstool

If the sweet stuff is constantly glorified, your child learns that it’s “better” or tastes “better” than healthier foods.

Are you full?!

Dessert should be a question of whether you’re still hungry, not whether you cleaned your plate. If your child has been forced to eat a large meal in order to ‘qualify’ for icecream, you are asking them to override hunger signals, which has implications for a person’s long term appetite regulation.

Emotional eating

When we use food as a reward, we’re setting up kids who think they ‘deserve’ a chocolate bar or some other junk food when they’ve been ‘good’. Many adults then fall into rewarding themselves with chocolate bars or take away foods because they’ve been ‘good’ eating healthy and going to the gym all week, or ‘good’ working long hours.

How we talk about food

Instead of glorifying sweet or ‘sometimes’ foods, talk about the benefit of different foods. Yoghurt is full of calcium for strong bones and good bacteria for happy tummies. Meat has protein and B vitamins to help you grow strong and have energy. Carrots have beta carotene, which is good for your eyesight. Green vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals to make our bodies work their best. Fish and nuts have good oils for our brains. We can explain that sweet foods don’t really help us to grow or give us muscles, but we enjoy them as a sometimes food because they’re yummy.

You can see the logic in not bargaining with food… but I know it’s hard. I’m often saying no to sweet foods – mostly because they’re offered so frequently to our children that I can’t say yes all the time. It becomes tempting to say yes when there has been good behaviour, or when they’ve eaten their vegetables. It’s a balance I’m still trying to get right too!