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Rewarding kids with active alternatives

Survived another week at work? Get home, crack a bottle of wine and get the cheese platter out. Got a promotion? Cake all round for the office! Daughter scored an award at school? Off you all go for ice-cream. Best friend’s beloved pooch passed away? Buy her a bottle of wine and the biggest box of chocolates you can find. Using food as a reward or comfort is so ingrained in our culture that we hardly notice it. While being aware of it can help us as adults, celebrating or commiserating with food is so entrenched that it’s hard to change. Although it’s not impossible, it’s much easier if you get ‘em while they’re young: As a parent, there’s still time to set those attitudes and it all starts with finding other rewards that don’t involve food.

We caught up with EatWell Australia’s Hannah Gentile, a Townsville-based mother who has just launched the Fussy Eating Solution online program, to find out about the psychology behind it, ways to show your appreciation without food, and what not to say.

“Historically, we only ever thought of food as something nourishing that kept us alive, but it’s taken on a new dimension now and kids are particularly open to that attitude”

What’s wrong with using food as a reward? By rewarding children with food you’re opening them up to seeing food beyond its nutrients – it starts becoming a psychological crutch. They then get taught that – in later life – if anything good or bad happens eating is a way to overcome that emotion. We do it all the time as adults – we say, “We got a promotion at work, let’s go and get takeaway”, where it’s not something historically that we would have done. Historically, we only ever thought of food as something nourishing that kept us alive, but it’s taken on a new dimension now and kids are particularly open to that attitude. Also, I don’t say this in a judgemental way as I do it too and have to pull myself up on it, but it is quite a lazy way of us congratulating or commiserating with a child, rather than saying, “Let’s spend time together”, because that’s something children rarely get anymore. You could say, “Let’s go do something active, let’s do something that makes you feel good and is good for you”, yet we turn around and say “Here’s a chocolate bar” instead – done – happy child.


Nutritionist Hannah Gentile with 15-month-old daughter Sofia at The Strand Waterpark.

So what are some of the non-food ways that we can reward children? We are really lucky in Townsville because we have so many brilliant activities we can do on our doorstep, particularly outdoor ones. I know in summer it gets really hot, but to be honest, with most children – as long as they are drinking lots of water and are SunSmart – they are pretty happy to go out and do whatever; especially if you are taking them down to The Strand for a scoot or a visit to the waterpark or the Rockpool; driving out to Crystal Creek for a walk and swim, or heading up to Hervey’s Range to have a walk and look at the trees and different creatures. Then you’ve got things like the trampolines at Launch Zone, Hotrock Adventure Centre [new rock climbing facility at Aitkenvale], roller-skating at Sk8way, taking them to the local swimming pools and learning some water safety. Northern Beaches Leisure Centre is building a water park too [to be finished by June/July 2015]. You just need to think outside the box because although it may not seem like much activity, think of the sheer energy it takes to run up slides and go down, and paddle through the water; it’s still movement. It doesn’t have to be going for a bike ride, or a walk, or playing a sport; it just has to be moving. And kids love that – they’d love for you to come sit and watch them go up and down a waterslide.


Heading out and getting active as a family is a great reward.

More fun, free and active ideas for kids in Townsville here: Things to do to beat the heat: (check out the “ongoing” activities)

With Mums and Dads being increasingly busy, do you have any tips on how can they realistically make it work? I think this is where reward charts come in handy, even with older kids. So instead of it being every single time you do something brilliant we are going to reward you with something, it’s, “OK if you keep up with ‘X’ amount of things throughout the week, then we’ll do one of these things”. I’d hope most parents would have an hour on the weekend, or even some free time once a fortnight, to offer time-based rewards that children can work towards – you give a sticker and say on Saturday we are going to do this particular activity. You don’t even have to tell your child what it is, make it a surprise (which gives you a bit of flexibility too!). It doesn’t have to be a big adventure or expedition either, it can just be, “You kids have been fantastic this week, so let’s grab a ball and a bat and head down to the park”, rather than saying “So, let’s go for ice-cream”. In saying that, if you go to the waterpark and it’s a hot day, the kids have been great and everyone has had a great time, there’s no harm at all in getting an ice-cream – it’s more that the ice-cream is not the focus. It’s not “We’re going to get an ice-cream because you’ve done really well”, or “We’re going to a fast food place”; the point is: “We’re going out as a family to spend time together” and if there’s an ice-cream involved – that may happen – but it’s not something that’s mentioned as part of it, as a reward. So it’s where you place the emphasis and it’s part of the bigger picture of what else are you doing to show your kids that you’re really pleased with something they’ve done.

“A lot of people take it for granted as to how you are meant to feel around food – they think you’re meant to feel guilty if you have certain things, or go for a run or up the hill five times to make you feel better”


Is there anything parents need to be careful about saying? Little phrases that slip out without thinking…? I think we need to be careful about saying things like “You deserve it”. Just think about your own internal monologue, because whatever you’re saying to yourself is probably a by-product of what was said to you when you were young. So if you’re saying to yourself: “I deserve that piece of cake”, why are you telling yourself that? Not just looking at obesity, but looking at disordered eating in general, it’s a dangerous word. Yes, you have people who have anorexia and bulimia at one end of the scale, but then you have the people who sit in between that and there’s a huge percentage of the population who are there. You’ve got to be careful with children because you are setting up this mindset that they either do or don’t deserve certain foods. So not only does that gravitate towards them taking certain foods to make them feel better, but by the same token with kids that are a bit hard on themselves or perfectionistic, you set them up to start thinking they don’t deserve foods. They then can start restricting the foods they think they do or don’t deserve, and you wind up with a load of other problems.

“It’s starting at that right point with children to get them ready as early as possible so they are able to succeed as far as seeing food as a nourishing – and interesting – part of everyday life, rather than being in response to something”

I don’t think it’s just about saying to parents that your child is going to end up overweight if you do certain things, but you also set them up for having this psychological concern around food and it’s a lot bigger than what we allow ourselves to think. A lot of people take it for granted as to how they are meant to feel around food – they think they’re meant to feel guilty if they have certain things. They may also think they have to go for a run or walk up the hill five times to make themselves feel better. It sets up a really sad relationship with food – it’s punishment and reward and it goes back to what we’ve been talking about this whole time. There are so many diets out there and so many self-help books about losing weight and – yes – a huge part of it is understanding what foods are nutritious, but if you talk to 95% of people they’d be able to tell you what foods are healthy or not. Really it’s just a mind game. It’s starting at that right point with children to get them ready as early as possible so they are able to succeed in seeing food as a nourishing – and interesting – part of everyday life, rather than being in response to something.

Practical tip

Who’s guilty of saying, “If you eat your dinner you can have dessert”?

Hannah says this phrase is another example of reward, or negotiation. For example, “If you eat that piece of broccoli you can have dessert”. So – again – it gives the impression to a child that dessert is the thing they really want – the trophy at the end – but they have to suffer the yucky broccoli to get there.

“It’s really not teaching the child to enjoy their food as a whole thing, or that we can finish meals that we have for dinner and actually enjoy fresh and healthy food – which a lot of us do!”

“You’ve got to question what’s been taught to you growing up rather than taking it at face-value, and consider if you are sending that same message to your children.”

Get involved

Hannah has recently launched a whole online program dedicated to stopping the stress at mealtimes. Find out more and how to download the information sheets, meal planners, meal ideas, recipe books, sticker charts and videos here:

FussyEating-solution-side2 entropy-micro-scooters-side-ad


To celebrate the launch of the Fussy Eating Solution EatWell Australia is generously giving a 25% discount to ALL GOERS until midnight Sunday – woot! Just go to use THEGO as the discount code. Any questions, let us know at [email protected]

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Carly Lubicz

Carly Lubicz

Carly Lubicz is combining two of her great loves — writing and getting active. Previously working as a journalist, sub-editor, and editor in newspapers and magazines; she is editor and co-founder of TheGo Townsville. She stays active with the staples of road cycling and yoga, but has recently discovered triathlon. And become addicted (apart from the swimming part). She also has a Cert III in Fitness and is passionate about improving mental health through physical activity.


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  1. Rebecca wise 4 March, 2015 at 20:09 Reply

    I’m guilty of this. Trying to change my habits and I have some wins (sleepover in mummy’s bed as a reward), but when I’m busy I opt for the easy food reward. I will try and improve.

  2. Sarah 5 March, 2015 at 08:06 Reply

    I really like this article, particularly the “yucky broccoli” example. It is so hard to retrain your way of thinking from your childhood experiences. We have had success with using a sticker chart and family fun outings as rewards, more so than food rewards as the fun last longer.

  3. Melinda 5 March, 2015 at 20:37 Reply

    I too am guilty of food rewards. If I’m out an have my little boy in his pram he will happily stay in there doling as I keep giving him snacks. I do try healthy options but probably shouldn’t give food.

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