Tagged in: Move Live Learn Blog, Physical and Health Education, Wellness

Healthy Treats are Still Treats

Instilling healthy choices in children

This weekend was a big one. My 4.5-year-old had a goal all summer. It all started one day when I told her about a time when her dad and I would bike to coffee shops all over Charlottesville, VA while pursuing our doctoral degrees - so that we could study together. She said that her goal was to bike to the local coffee shop in our neighborhood and then read a book there. Every time we would drive by the coffee shop she would say with conviction, “One day I’m going to bike there mommy.” She practiced all summer. No training wheels. Just a kid in a mismatched outfit (that she chose) and a helmet. It was precious.

She seemed over tired last week and was having a bit of a tough time so I said, “Let’s you and Mum go on a date this weekend - just the two of us.” She said that she would love that and, as her eyes widened, she said “Let’s bike to the coffee shop, Mummy. I’m ready.”

The week went on as planned. There were three birthdays at pre-school last week (she attends three mornings a week). Three days her banana came home. Why? Well, other parents brought in cupcakes or oreos, etc. to celebrate birthdays. Then, Saturday night we celebrated her dad and uncle’s birthday and had cupcakes (they were healthy, but the frosting wasn’t...lol). I’m all for allowing my kids to have treats to celebrate special occasions and in moderation. But, what others don’t know is that this past week, because isn’t there always something to celebrate when one is four-years-old, it appeared my little one had such treats (high calorie, low nutritional quality) four out of five days in a row.

On Sunday we went off on our date (Daddy and Little Sis joined us as they just couldn’t miss out on the fun). We took lots of energy breaks (what my 4.5 year-old calls water breaks in the shade) and walked the bikes up a few hills.

Scottie cruising to Grandma’s.

I didn’t hear her say “I can’t”  and I didn’t hear her say “It’s too hard”. Yup. I think Dr. Angela Duckworth would be proud and conclude my big kid was demonstrating grit. I continued to tell her that she was tough and that I was really proud of her effort and her ability to really go for her goal. I was using words to let her know what she was doing was pretty cool.

Once we arrived at our destination, we parked our bikes and walked inside. She was so proud and told the barista that she just “made her goal”. The barista could not have been nicer - and offered her a cake pop as a reward. I shivered. Anyone else feel like they are the “crazy Mom” when they point out the insanity of the many unhealthy normalized behaviors in our culture? We punish with exercise. We reward with food. Then we grow up looking for quick fixes on how to feel good.

On the way into the coffee shop, I encouraged her to pick out a healthy snack because that would give her the best energy to continue to bike to Grandma’s house after. The snack was not meant to be a reward, it was simply a necessity - she would need more energy to continue on her travels. So, my daughter informed me that she was prepared to order a fruit cup. She looked up at me with her big eyes asking for my approval. The line was long, it was hot, people were waiting....

Do I just say “okay” or do I follow through with my lesson?

I asked my daughter “I would love for you to be a really strong kid and make the healthiest choice for your body since you had lots of treats this week to celebrate a lot of birthdays.”

She responded, “Thanks! But, Mom wants me to be strong and have energy. I’ll have a fruit cup....please.”

Amanda Quote-02

I looked down the line. A few folks were smiling. A few were rolling their eyes like I was the crazy health mom who deprives my kid. You see, people are only trying to be nice. They are doing what so many did to them - reward with food that is not nutritious. Yet, we know more than adults knew about nutrition when we were kids. Nutrition is an evolving area. I’m not here to criticize those who do it, I’m just here begging folks to simply reward with words - if you insist on rewarding kids. I think far too often we “reward” kids rather than simply acknowledging that it’s great they did the right thing, because a) it will make them feel good to do good, and b) the world needs more good.

You see, adults, you don’t know what my kid ate prior to seeing her on the day you are offering her something that is not nutritious. You don’t know what she ate all week.

snack time
Snack time!

Everywhere I look there is something to celebrate. I don’t bring food to her pre-school on her birthday. We celebrate with cupcakes at home for sure, but why do kids need to have several birthday celebrations? We criticize them when they grow up to be entitled yet we think it’s perfectly normal to celebrate one event in several areas (home, pre-school, etc.). Halloween last year occurred at gymnastics, pre-school, and swimming - heck, they were bored after going to three houses on the actual night of Halloween. Can we just keep some of these things out of school? Out of youth sport/activities?

I don’t want my kid to set goals (bike to the coffee shop) because she gets a food reward (cake pop). I want her to set goals because it will make her feel good about herself and it will help her to realize that she can attain most goals she focuses on (as long as she is realistic in how she sets them).

I’m not trying to make a huge deal that the kind barista offered her a cake pop. What I don’t understand is why we don’t think to offer the banana sitting on the counter instead? Why not offer her a cup of ice water? I was feeling like this fun mum until then. At this point, I felt like a big ol’ party pooper suggesting she decline the cake pop (this, by the way, is also okay - it’s not my job to be the fun mom, it’s my job to parent and I get that). I don’t want her to feel sad about not having a cake pop - I simply want her educated about moderation. I don’t want her to feel restricted in what she’s allowed to eat - I want her to feel educated and informed and therefore motivated and inspired to treat her body with the love and respect it deserves. Heck, it just allowed a four-year-old to pedal toward her goal. It’s not about looking a certain way, it’s about feeling great and having a much lower chance of developing many chronic illnesses if she grows up demonstrating regular healthy behaviors.

This is why I advocate for health promoting schools - schools that take a comprehensive approach to students’ health. They have quality physical education most days a week, and it is taught by certified physical education professionals. They also have policy in place that includes no rewards with food, adequate recess time, and classroom teachers teaching their content with physical activity involved (see here for some ideas on how to do this).

Parents: Please join me! Please write your school administrator and your child’s teacher today. Ask them to consider adopting a healthy school approach so that we can empower our youth to view physical activity as the reward, and food as fuel for their body to run efficiently. If you insist on taking things into school to celebrate your child’s birthday, please consider stickers or (my personal fav) volunteer to lead some physical activities on that day.

Physical education teachers: Please share information about why we shouldn’t reward children and youth with food on your websites and teach your students about the importance of making healthy choices. As teachers, we have a lot of influence and it’s important that we always use this influence responsibly. What a better way than reminding them to enjoy treats periodically as part of a celebration, but ask them to really understand what should be celebrated and how much is in access to healthy?

School administrators: Work with classroom teachers, parents, and community members to come up with creative ways to reward students. More physical activity in the form of extra recess, an extra physical education class, etc. is a good place to start! Rather than working to toward a pizza party, how about working toward a class bike ride on a local trail?

Youth coaches: Your athletes probably don’t need Gatorade! Encourage your families to check out TrueSport’s nutrition information. While you are on TrueSport’s website, check out all their other amazing information, too! Encourage health giving snacks and post participation foods.

With a health promoting school mindset, a population-level cultural shift will occur. Without it, people will continue to look at me like I’m an overbearing health crazed mother.

How about you?
Do you think we reward kids too much and then criticize them for feeling entitled?

Do you teach moderation?

What type of health promoting rewards to you offer in your classes? Schools? Families?


  • Patty Kestell

    Fabulous topic and perspective, Amanda! I am so happy you shared your experience, because that is how I also feel about promoting positive nutrition choices at school. I plan to share this with our staff, as well as our district student wellness committee! Kudos to your little one…love the determination and grit she is developing. What a great feeling she must have had working towards her goal and meeting it!

    • astanec

      Thank you everyone for these thoughtful comments! It’s amazing, isn’t it, how some schools have done away with food rewards / food birthday parties at school 10 years ago, while other school communities defend the stance to offer food in these capacities?@ Patty K – I told S that an incredible PE teacher said said “Kudos” and, after I explained to her what this meant, she grinned ear to ear.

      @ Patty C – We live close! You are right, folks hate change, don’t they? As an educator and a mum I see this as a no brainer and have thought long and hard about differing perspectives.

      @ Andrea – You could very well be right! I suppose the whole food in general as a reward is what I have the most issues with. When I taught elementary, the students only wanted chocolate milk until I did one lesson with them about the sugar content in it vs white milk and what this sugar did to their brain. A few diagrams, a white board, and some markers later and these kids were protesting when the cafeteria ran OUT of white milk and only sold chocolate on the last day of school. When people say they won’t eat, I say they will when they are hungry. But, I agree that at first many will choose not to accept.

      @ Lynn – thanks so much for taking the time to share your link. I think how your school adjusted will serve as great motivation for folks as they take this issue on at the local levels.

      @ Brian – So happy you can share it! I encourage you to follow @SchoolBites on twitter and through facebook. Her blog is really spot on and she will have lots of great information to share with your PTA as you move forward in this area.

      @ Stacy – You inspire a lot of us and I appreciate your sharing this post on your facebook page so much! Keep it up, mama!!

      @ Kathy – So cool to hear that your school district stopped years ago! Good for them!! Any tips for others looking to suggest the same in their own school districts?

  • Patty

    We have an elementary school that is trying very hard to provide a healthy learning environment for their students and families. They sent a letter home explaining their vision of having only healthy foods available. Unfortunately they received lots of backlash to the point of calling them “Nazi’s”. Cultural change is very difficult. Our school system is trying but we need more parents like you to get on board.

  • Andrea

    Congrats to S. on meeting her goal and on a job well done! It’s unfortunate, but, I think the majority of the time if a barista offered kids a banana or fruit cup over a cake pop the kids would turn it down. :( not saying its right not to offer the healthier option, just think that is the unfortunate cultural norm.

  • Our school district adopted your philosophy about 10 years ago. We took heat for the first year. How dare we take away “cupcakes!” No food can be brought in from outside and their are no more holiday celebrations that include food. Classrooms are allowed one party a year and it is usually at the end. The food at these events needs to be purchased through the school cafeteria. The district held strong and was adamant that not only is it excessive but too many students have food allergies. Food brought in from home puts these students at risk and/or isolates them as the one student that can’t have. Here is the link to our policy if it will help your cause. http://www.hufsd.edu/assets/pdfs/resources/health/2014/district_wellness_regulations.pdf

  • Brian Devore

    Absolute perfection! We are fighting this battle right now at our school. I’m going to forward to out PTA.

  • My wish is that every parent, school administrator, educator, PE teacher, and youth coach would read and embrace read this post. When people offer a child unhealthy food, I know that they are usually trying to do something nice. But as you say, they don’t know what else the child had to eat that day. Last spring, my 2nd grader was given junk food (two cupcakes and a brownie) without my knowledge or permission three times in one day (twice at school, once at his after-school program). Fortunately, he said no to one of the desserts (by that point, his tummy hurt). I can talk to him about moderation and saying no but young kids aren’t really capable of reasoning that way.

  • Kathy Putta

    Thank you for a wonderful and validating article. Our school stopped food as a birthday treat about 10 years ago. I was thrilled!!! It is so unnecessary.I really appreciate your article!

  • Kim

    This is a great post. I am raising my granddaughter and she is 20 months. She is in preschool and we eat very little sugar, try to be gluten free, don’t eat meat or dairy (with butter as an exception) and no processed food. I give her a treat from time to time but I too am looked at as the health crazed parent. When it comes to daycare, any food that the children need other then what they serve on a regular bases has to be purchased by the parent and brought in as an extra expense to the parent. I am very grateful for your post. People need to read this and others like it. Its time to stop rewarding out kids with things that are bad for them and teach them how to be good to themselves and that doing that isn’t loading your body with something that is potentially harmful. Kudos to the writer. <3

  • Robin

    Hi Amanda! I just wanted to offer a quick comment. Instead of using food as a reward, I set up a reward system where classes would earn points. When they reached a certain point total they were able to “cash in ” their points with me for a class reward. As a class they would be able to choose an activity or game etc. This worked great for the older kids. I also went to my local $ store and purchased various school supplies, for example, erasers, rulers etc. that kids could earn in place of food/candy.

  • Kim MacVicar

    So true Amanda! I love the quote and can’t wait to read more… Kimmy S

  • CDS

    It’s been a while since I’ve checked in to your site, but as always, am so glad I did.1. YES.2. YES.3. Screen time, a new book, a bike date with mom or a running date with dad (my eight year old is now running, like honest to goodness training for races, loving this stage).

    My kids are eight and six. If I had a dime for every school/sports/extracurricular event that has been kiboshed by sugary food, I would be able to retire at the grand old age of 37. No joke. I have the same ethos as you re food as fuel, not reward. In addition, our daughter has a life threatening peanut allergy. So, I’m not just the mean mom who eschews McD’s, I’m also the one whose kindergartener was crying after dance class when another dance student brought the almost ubiquitous freaking bday cupcakes to an evening class…and I couldn’t ensure that they were safe, so she couldn’t partake. Yup. Exclusion due to food. Not fun.

    Or how about the Winter Olympics fun day at the kids’ school earlier this year, with tons of great activities…followed by…hot chocolate!? I kid you not. When I emailed the principal to ask why an opportunity for physical literacy was being trumped by cocoa, she didn’t even respond. And no, I wasn’t brave enough to try and raise the point again or in person. =(

    Thank you for articulating what I have been thinking for years as a parent but can’t say aloud: why do bdays need to be celebrated five times over?? Another related phenomenon: by the time my son was seven, many of his peers were having serious dental woes. These are kids from high income, “two university educated parent” households with excellent access to health care. But I strongly suspect that juice and candy and “food as a reward” were the real culprits.

    Clearly, I could go on. I love what you wrote. I’ve lived it and I will live it again. By the way, congrats to your daughter on setting and reaching her goal! Truly remarkable!