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7 Ways to Reward Your Child Without Using Food

kids playing tug of war with their parentsAs a parent, you want the best for your child. Many of us (including me) have used food, usually sweets, to comfort or reward our child-a milkshake for a skinned knee, an ice cream for a scored goal, a candy bar to quiet a screaming toddler at the grocery store. And while occasionally celebrating with a treat isn’t a big deal, making a habit of it can lead to emotional eating and other problems in adulthood.

While food is certainly a pleasure to be enjoyed, it can become something else when it’s taught to be a source of comfort, to manage stress, boredom, etc. It is important that we also reward our kids in other ways while also helping them learn to properly express emotions and feelings. Here are a few ideas.

Do you have an unhealthy relationship with food yourself? Read here.

Give Them What They Really Need – Love and Attention

If a child comes to you with a hurt, or is proud of their report card, chances are that all they really need from you is reassurance. If they are hurt, give them a hug and reassure them that they will be ok. If they make straight A’s, give them a high five and tell them how proud you are! A hug, an I Love You, a smile, a high five, a reassurance are appropriate rewards for just about anything. You can also teach them to begin self-assurance by saying “Wow, you must be really proud of yourself!” or helping them to explore how they feel.

Get Active With Them

Another fun reward for kids is to play outdoors with them. My girls love for us to come outside and play a game of soccer with them. Another fun reward is a hike with our dog at the local nature preserve, where they love to explore and play. Other ideas would be bowling, bike riding, rollerskating, a family walk, batting cages, or miniature golf. Getting active as a reward for kids will give them a positive association with exercise that will stay with them through adulthood.

Is outdoor exercise better for you? Read here.

Help Them Express Their Feelings

It can be tempting to take a sad child who has had a bad day straight to get a milkshake at the drive-thru, but really the best thing you can do in this situation is to help them explore their feelings. Ask them how they are feeling, get them to talk through a tough situation, and try to validate their feelings without offering advice unless they ask for it. To validate their feelings, just repeat back what you are hearing them say: “You seem to be feeling really frustrated with your teacher.” Don’t judge, just listen. Just getting it out will help them more than any milkshake ever could, and they are learning a valuable lesson for adulthood.

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Heal With Healing Foods

When you think of being sick, you probably think of chicken noodle soup. However, the majority of the canned chicken noodle soup on the market has additives, chemicals, preservatives, even MSG. This can’t possibly really be good for our kids, and ESPECIALLY when they are sick. As a health-conscious adult, when I am sick I recognize that my body needs vitamins and minerals more than ever, so I load up on fruits and vegetables. Likewise, these are the foods I give to my children when they are ill. When my daughter is sick, she asks for apple slices now. Hopefully this means she is learning self-care, which she can carry into her adult life.

Do you give your kids soda or sports drinks when they’re sick? Read here for the shocking reasons not to.

Read With Them

Younger children especially LOVE to be read to. Even my 10 year old daughter likes to read her tween books out loud to me. Nurture a love for reading and imagination.


Another alternative to food rewards is to allow your child to have a sleepover or play date with a good friend. Teach them that one of the greatest rewards in life is friendship and connection with others.

Remember, You’re Raising a Future Adult

I once heard that one should never eat when they are upset….this might be a good philosophy for parenting as well. Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms and appropriate rewards, and you’ll be one step closer to raising a future healthy and well-adjusted adult.

How do you reward or comfort your children without using food?

  • Robin

    We just recently adopted our second daughter from China, and very quickly it became clear she had been comforted with food her first three and a half years of life. We’re working through how to provide her with other comfort mechanisms. Thanks for sharing these suggestions.

    • Deanna Schober

      Congratulations on welcoming home your daughter! You’re very welcome for the suggestions, I hope this helps!