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How to Reward Your Child Without Food: Unleashing the Power of Creative Non-Food Incentives!

April 5, 2023
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    Using a reward system can be a helpful way to encourage good behavior in kids, but the type of rewards you use matters. Many parents use food to reward their child's good behavior without thinking much of it, but there are potential downsides. Upon thinking of the way it can affect how kids eat or think about food, you may decide to use non-food rewards for your own kids.

    So, how do you know if you should reward kids with food? What are some non-food rewards that work for good behavior in kids? In this article, we'll discuss the pros and cons of rewarding children with food and alternatives to food rewards that work.

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    Should I Reward My Child With Food?

    The wish most parents have for their kids is to help them have a healthy relationship with food. Accordingly, it's important to state that not using food as a reward does not mean that the foods typically used as rewards are always “bad.” In fact, adding what we often see as "unhealthy foods" or treats into an otherwise healthy diet in moderate amounts can be a crucial part of creating healthy eating habits for kids, as it often helps kids see treats more neutrally. With that in mind, there are pros and cons to rewarding kids with food.

    Pros of rewarding kids with food

    First, let's talk about the potential upsides of using food as a reward. As with everything, there's nuance. Even if you want to stop, there are reasons you might've rewarded kids with food in the past. Here are a few reasons families may have a positive experience rewarding kids with food:

    • Often, they work. For many kids, food rewards are motivating, which is why many parents continue to use them.
    • Food rewards may not be harmful if used sparingly and in context. If your child gets other rewards the rest of the time, going to a child's favorite ice cream shop after a big exam will likely be a happy memory that causes little harm.

    Note that positive food experiences like cooking a meal together aren't quite the same as a food reward. Cooking and baking together is a positive memory many parents and their kids share, and it's an opportunity to teach kids mathematics and other skills. This can also help kids try new foods.

    Cons of rewarding kids with food

    While it can manifest in different ways, the downside of rewarding kids with food - especially frequently - is that it can negatively impact their relationship with food, affecting their eating schedules, emotional responses to foods, etc. Here are some ways that could manifest:

    • Food rewards may encourage kids to eat when they aren't hungry rather than sticking to regular eating schedules (which can be critical for neurodivergent kids who may struggle with eating regular meals) or following hunger and fullness cues.
    • Food rewards can teach kids that treats are "more desirable" than other foods. In some cases, food rewards may impact a child's eating preferences, making them gravitate more toward foods that have been used as rewards more. Often, this will include foods with little nutritional value, like candy, which may lead kids to desire more nutrient-dense foods less.
    • Some kids hoard foods they're restricted from or eat them in excess when available. If not getting a treat is punishment for "bad behavior," it may encourage a high level of emotionality surrounding foods or worsen these behaviors.
    • Similar to the above, food rewards can mean that a child starts to associate certain foods (e.g., dessert) with positive emotions. This can mean that a child starts to use foods to feel good or self-soothe when they are down instead of learning other coping skills and having a healthy, balanced, relationship with treats.

    Though it is limited, there is some research on the topic of food as a reward. Another downside of food rewards is that they shouldn't be used as a frequent or daily reward. But, since they're easy rewards, many parents slide into that pattern. This leads many parents to wonder what rewards for kids to use instead.

    What Can Replace Food As A Reward?

    If you've decided that food items like sweets aren't an ideal reward for your family, there are other effective ways to reward good behavior in children that work. Try these non-food alternatives to use as positive reinforcement for kids.

    Game Rewards

    Most kids love digital games and other types of technology. Accordingly, game rewards - whether that's a game that acts as a reward system itself by giving kids rewards for real-life responsibilities and behaviors, new items in a game that require small purchases, or extra time to play games and use screens - are effective for many children.

    Try Joon To Help

    Joon is an excellent and easy-to-use reward system for kids. Designed for children with ADHD and related disorders ages 6-12+, Joon is a perfect example of how game rewards can be effective for kids. Here's how it works:

    Parents sign up first with the Joon Parent App and create a personalized task list for their children. You can add unlimited tasks, including homework, chores, personal hygiene activities, or any other part of your child's routine. Kids connect with a separate app called Joon Pet Game. When kids complete tasks, they get rewards that allow them to take care of a virtual pet (called a Doter) and move forward in the game.

    90% of kids who use Joon finish all the tasks their parents assign. Many parents say that Joon has improved their parent-child relationship. Joon is rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars in the App Store, with over 4k reviews from parents like you.

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    Token systems

    What if the only non-food rewards your child wants are bigger or less suitable for daily rewards? Token systems might be an ideal option for your family. Token systems let a kid or teen work up to larger rewards, like new shoes, art supplies, or other more expensive items and experiences (e.g., seeing a favorite music artist in concert) that might not work as rewards on a daily basis. Your family may find that token systems are ideal if you have older kids or teens.

    Playing outside 

    Just as screen time can be a highly motivating reward for children, extra time for other desirable activities is a great reward. Depending on what's accessible to your family and what makes your child happiest, this could mean that kids get additional time to play outside at home, or it could mean that you go to another enjoyable outdoor space, like the playground, outdoor sprinklers (in the Summer), or a basketball court.

    Spending time with friends

    Fun activities with friends are another fantastic reward for kids, and they come with the added benefit of social interaction. Depending on factors like a child's age, specific activities might differ, but they don't need to be costly. You might allow a child's friend to come over as a reward, let a child take a friend to the arcade, plan a sleepover, or something else.

    One-on-one time with a parent

    To encourage good behavior in kids and get bonding time all at once, think of a rewarding activity you can do together. You might suggest:

    • Playing a child's favorite game together
    • Letting a child choose a bedtime story for you to read together
    • Doing arts and crafts together
    • Going to the beach
    • Going roller skating

    As with the other ideas on this list, the most motivating reward will depend on your child. The options are nearly endless, so consider what would appeal to them most.

    Arts and crafts

    Arts and crafts can be a fun bonding idea, but they also make great rewards on their own. If your child enjoys creative activities, consider offering novelty arts and crafts opportunities as a reward. For example, tie-dying clothes, making sand art, or something else that feels special.

    Verbal praise

    Verbal praise can be incredibly motivating for children, whether used independently or alongside other rewards. When you use verbal praise as a reward, practice naming the specific behavior you want to encourage. For example, "Thank you for brushing your teeth! Now, we can read a bedtime story."

    Small objects

    Small objects, such as stickers or temporary tattoos, are a great reward for many children. Especially with ADHD, immediate rewards often work best, and small objects make that possible.


    Rewards don't need to be tangible to work. Fun experiences are motivating for many kids. Experiences adults may present to children as rewards for good behavior can include things like a movie night, a trip to the children's museum, or something else that makes sense for your child's age group.


    While food rewards are largely normalized, they can come with pros and cons. Some possible downsides of using food as a reward include disruption in normal feeding practices and seeing treat foods as more desirable than healthier foods. There are ways to encourage kids to behave and practice positive behavior without using food as a reward. Game rewards like Joon, small objects, token systems, experiences, and verbal praise, are all examples of ideas that can work for kids. Be mindful of your child's age group and what will be most motivating for them.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.