Should You Offer Dessert As A Reward For Dinner? Experts Explain How It May Sour Your Kids' Eating Habits

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As a parent, you may have planned exactly how you would raise your kids, but often enough, it doesn’t work out exactly the way you thought. You end up learning from trial and error, throwing a bunch of stuff out there, and hoping something will stick. If you are struggling to get your finicky eater to finish their meals, you may find some things work better than others, including using sweet treats as a reward at the end. But with all the epidemics surrounding children's health, you may want to know, should you offer dessert as a reward for dinner?

Romper reached out to family nutrition expert, Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, author of How To Raise A Mindful Eater, who says that it’s not a good idea for parents to use food as a tool to manage a child’s behavior because food can get tied in with emotions and eating can become problematic. She says that research shows that children rewarded with food are more likely to emotionally eat, binge eat, and diet later in childhood and as adults. “When parents repeatedly reward their children with food to eat healthy,” explains Jacobsen, “they come to value the dessert more than the healthy item.”

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Jill Castle, MS, RDN, childhood nutrition expert, dietitian, and author of Eat Like a Champion and Fearless Feeding, tells Romper that rewarding kids for eating is a prevalent practice, and sometimes parents can do it without thinking. She notes that even though rewarding with dessert will get your kids to eat foods they don’t like, it won’t necessarily help them in the long run. “In getting kids to eat vegetables, a reward may be effective,” explains Castle, “but using a reward to get kids to like vegetables can have a negative effect, especially if the food is already liked.”

So if your child is rewarded with a dessert they like, the only goal they are accomplishing is finishing that one meal, not actually enjoying it. But for some parents, especially the ones who struggle at every meal to get their kids to eat, even these small accomplishments may feel like a feat. But instead of dessert, you may want to think of other reward options. Castle says that researchers agree that while offering desserts like ice cream as a reward for eating vegetables is not the best method, you can use stickers or praise to encourage your kids to eat and taste foods.

No one wants to eat foods they just don’t like, including adults, so it shouldn’t be hard to understand why kids will prefer some foods over others. Castle says that if you want kids to eat something, they need to like it. “When you like something, you will eat it on your own, without reward,” she explains, “and liking what you eat helps your satisfaction level after eating.”

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Castle suggests that there are lots of ways to get a child to like vegetables. She says that patience, repeated and neutral exposures, role modeling, and various flavor enhancements and preparation methods can eventually get your child on the way to eating healthier meals.

My daughter, now 12, has texture aversions when it comes to foods, so most fruits and vegetables make her gag. I needed her to eat healthy, so I just kept trying new preparation methods and offered her a variety of options until I found the foods that she liked to eat. The only way she tolerates veggies is if they are soft and pasty, so I just slather mashed avocado on toast, or blend green veggies into her mac and cheese sauce. At this age, she knows she’s eating vegetables, and she enjoys them in these particular ways, but I still continue to offer her new varieties in hopes it will widen her palate.

If your child refuses to eat certain foods, just continue to introduce them to a broader range of healthy food options. Like you do with most things as a parent, present all the healthy foods you can at them, and just hope that one of them will stick.

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