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Milton Hershey School elementary schoolers

How to Promote a Healthy Lifestyle Without Food Rewards

Food rewards are common in many homes, schools, and youth activities. It seems harmless to offer a child a special food reward for a job well done, good behavior, or eating their vegetables. The child is usually excited for the special treat and the adult likes making the child happy. On the surface, it sounds like a win-win.

But what about long term?

Milton Hershey School’s nutritionists shared some of the messages children perceive when food is offered as a reward.

We’re teaching one message about good nutrition, but giving a different message with our actions.

As adults, we teach children that eating healthy food is key to feeling your best. However, when children do their best, they are often rewarded with unhealthy food. The result is a confusing nutrition message—what children are being taught is not shown in real life.

The best way to promote healthy lifestyles is showing those behaviors in action and giving children the chance to practice them.

MHS elementary schoolers being active outside

We’re not supporting the best health.

Many foods that are given as rewards are high in energy and sugar. In many cases, children eat them when they are not hungry which can affect their natural ability to respond to feelings of hunger and fullness. Food rewards also may decrease the intake of other foods that provide key nutrients for kids. Giving a treat outside regular meal and snack times also can increase the risk of cavities.

We’re teaching kids to eat when they are not hungry.

Food rewards can promote the habit of rewarding and comforting oneself with food. It promotes eating in response to a feeling other than the feeling of true hunger. The habit of using food to comfort or reward oneself can be a difficult habit to change later in life.

We’re increasing the desire for sweets.

Children’s desire for food increases when given as a reward, which can lead to kids preferring foods that are high in energy and sugar while low in nutrients.

MHS elementary schoolers being active outside

Helpful Alternatives to Food Rewards

There are so many ways kids like to be rewarded that promote a healthy lifestyle. Be creative and make a list of rewards that will work best for the children in your life. For older students, ask them how they like their positive behavior to be rewarded. You may be surprised at their response.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Share praise and positivity
  • Assign a special task your child enjoys such as getting the mail
  • Call a family member or friend
  • Make a healthy meal in a special way—such as an indoor picnic
  • Plan an outing with friends
  • Have a reunion with family members
  • Take a trip to the park or library
  • Read an extra book before bed
  • Play their favorite games
  • Do fun puzzles
  • Plan colorful crafts
  • Dance indoors to music
  • Choose an item (not food) from a special treasure box
  • Earn a certificate or ribbon
  • Listen to music or an audiobook

By finding creative ways to offer rewards without food, we are encouraging students to live fulfilling, productive lives and commit to health and wellness.

MHS food services

MHS Professionals Blog

No matter what level of interaction MHS staff members have with students, everyone’s work contributes to our goal of building brighter futures through  a top-notch education. Read the blogs of our professionals and hear from the talented individuals who live out the  school’s mission.

Read More MHS Professionals Posts

Human Resources
P.O. Box 830
Hershey, PA 17033-0830

(717) 520-2000
(800) 322-3248

GPS: East Governor Road & Meadow Lane


Founders Hall
P.O. Box 830
Hershey, PA 17033-0830

(717) 520-2000
(800) 322-3248

GPS: East Governor Road & Meadow Lane


Enrollment Management Center
430 East Governor Road
Hershey, PA 17033

(800) 322-3248


665 Brook Drive
Hershey, PA 17033

(717) 520-2808