A Healthy Relationship with Food: Food as Fuel, Not Incentive

We all want our kids to eat healthily. We know that fresh fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and dairy are good for them and boost their development. But teaching them to eat well goes beyond teaching them which foods are “good” and “bad.” It involves teaching our kids to use food as fuel to support their bodies and development. It also involves helping them develop a healthy relationship with food.

A healthy relationship with food means treating food with respect. There are no good or bad foods, but there are foods that benefit our bodies more than others. Focusing on what foods can do for us instead of the negative aspects of some foods promotes healthy eating.

There are No Good or Bad Foods

Erase the mindset of good and bad foods, or healthy food and junk food. The minute we label something negatively, it becomes enticing to our kids. Children love to push boundaries, do what they’re not supposed to, and push the limits; it’s part of their learning. If a child begins to think of specific foods as special or off-limits, they will want to have them more.

So, avoid making foods off-limits unless there is a dietary reason, like an allergy or religious restriction. This doesn’t mean you have to offer them ice cream every night. Instead, it means staying neutral about foods and sticking to the facts. Food is meant to be enjoyed, so take some pressure off the process of teaching your kids how food fuels their bodies.

Free Cheerful Asian mother looking at daughter eating ice cream Stock Photo

Instead of harping on the negative aspects of what we commonly think of as junk food, highlight what healthy foods do for our bodies! Feuling our bodies with the food makes us superheroes!

  • Protein builds our muscles.
  • Fruits and veggies keep us from getting sick and make our brains strong
  • Dairy gives us strong bones.
  • Carbohydrates provide energy.
  • Water keeps us hydrated.

Teach your kids about eating the rainbow. Element Nutrition Kids has an excellent blog on the benefits of various colored foods. It covers how red foods support our hearts, yellow and orange foods support healthy eyes, and green foods help protect our immune system—plus much more!

Free Top View of Plates Full of Fruits and Vegetables Stock Photo

Parent Tip: Make a dessert. Some nights, dessert might be fresh fruit or homemade granola bars; schedule things like ice cream, cake, or cookies less frequently. Or make every other night a dessert night and offer two choices each time.

Discussion Ideas for “Junk” Food:

  • “Ice cream is so yummy—you’re right! It also contains calcium, which helps our bones. But it also has a lot of sugar, which doesn’t give our body the best energy.”
  • “I know you like lollipops, but a lollipop won’t give your body the fuel it needs to focus during school. Let’s pick a banana or a yogurt to boost your body and brain power!”
  • “I love cookies, too! Cookies have carbohydrates, which give us energy. But a better snack before soccer practice would be a bowl of cereal or a granola bar full of energy-boosting carbohydrates.”

Involve Your Kids

Research shows that when children are involved with planning and preparing food, they are more likely to eat it and try new things! Offer fun, colorful choices and talk about the nutrients in each food.

    • Garden together
    • Visit the farmer’s market
    • Include them in making the shopping list
    • Cook together
    • Ask for their input on meals and snacks

Kids like to cook and bake; it teaches them math and science too! Plus, more than anything, they’ll love spending time with you. Cooking provides an opportunity for kids to get creative, learn about other cultures, and experiment.

Avoid Using Food as an Incentive for Behavior

Think of the last time you ate a bowl of ice cream, bought your favorite sugary drink from Starbucks, or ate a cupcake left in the office staff room. Was it becuase you had a rough day and deserved it? Conversely, have you gone out for ice cream to celebrate winning a game? Maybe you open a fancy bottle of wine to celebrate Friday evenings.

These are all examples of using food as incentives, becuase most likely, that is what you were taught growing up. “No dessert unless you have all your dinner.” “If you stop whining, I’ll give you this lollipop.” “Sit on the potty, and I’ll give you a piece of chocolate.”

selective focus photography of woman feeding baby

Sure, celebrating with delicious food and drinks is fun; it is also comforting sometimes to have a treat when you are feeling down; that’s why it’s called comfort food. However, using food to get our kids to behave or to reward them for positive behavior establishes an unhealthy relationship with food.

When food is used as an incentive, we teach our children that they deserve sugary, fatty, or sweet treats when things go well or poorly.

Use Time and Words Instead

So, instead of offering food as a reward or bribe, use positive reinforcement and memorable time together! You can absolutely go out for ice cream after your kid wins the game. But the reward should be the time spent together, not the food.

Likewise, if your kid uses the potty successfully, put a start on their chart, give them a high-five, and have a parade in the living room! These actions will go a long way in reinforcing the behavior you’d like to see, much more than a quick treat would.

What our kids want most of all is our time and attention. So offer special trips to the park, an extra bedtime story, or a fun movie night together instead of food when you are seeking to motivate your little one!

Developing a healthy relationship with food takes time and patience. Some kids are picky eaters; some won’t eat specific foods because of texture or smell. The more you expose your child to different foods prepared in various ways and discuss the benefits of the foods you want them to eat, the more you help your child create a positive relationship with food.

Check out our Fun Foodie Kneebouncer Games!


By L. Elizabeth Forry, May 3, 2024

written by

L. Elizabeth Forry 

L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with fifteen years of classroom teaching experience. She earned a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from The University of North Dakota and has a Bachelor of Arts in English and one in Music from Lebanon Valley College. She has taught children in Japan, Washington D.C., Chicago, and suburban Maryland. She is trained as a reading therapist, has a TEFL certification, and has done extensive work with children regarding mental health, social-emotional development, gender development. She has written curriculum for children and educators and has led training sessions for parents and educators on various topics on early childhood development. She is the mother of two boys and resides outside of Annapolis, Maryland.

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