Food Rewards Set Kids Up for Emotional Eating

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

A new study suggests that emotional eating likely begins in the early years of a child’s development, and parents may be helping to establish that food pattern.

Parenting is challenging

Growing up happy and healthy are two things any parent would want for that child. Part of that positive upbringing is making sure that the child eats the healthy foods put on their plates. As part of exposing children to choice and opportunity, parents might want to offer new foods for children to try, want them to get good grades, and possibly reward children for success in addition to consoling them when they are disappointed. For one, some, or all of these behaviors, you offer your child a sweet treat or junk food or a soda. Or you woo them with pizza or a visit to a well-known fast food restaurant “if they just eat their dinner this time.” You mean well. You actually consider this a necessary and appropriate part of parenting. But it’s actually not, an new study suggests that food lessons in a child's early development can influence how they interact with food.We are raising emotional eaters

There is a fine line between preparing and serving mostly healthy, nutritious foods, and then designating only junk food as treats. Fruits and vegetables with dips, or yogurt with berries and nuts or a waffle with peanut butter can also be a treat. But when a parent is overly controlling and forces a child to “eat their vegetables,” to then reward them with a cookie, it can send a very mixed message to the child. Similarly, so can consoling a child with food.

The studyResearchers at Loughborough and Birmingham Universities conducted a longitudinal study that examined how parents used food, especially focusing on feeding practices between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. The researchers then followed up by meeting again with the children when they were between the ages of 5 and 7, to see how the earlier feeding practices impacted emotional eating in the children. Specifically, the researchers watched to see how likely a child would reach for a toy or food when they were clearly not hungry, but rather mildly stressed.

The researchers found that if the parents reported using one or more foods as a reward for various behaviors, and if they strictly controlled meals and snacks, the children were more likely to be emotional eaters.

The manner in which the parents interacted with food, and the food lessons these children were exposed to when they were very young, likely taught them to self soothe with food. And these children clearly began to associate certain feelings with the food rewards and with the foods they “had to eat.” The researchers concluded that the children learned to use food to help them cope with a variety of emotional feelings.

If we look at our own behaviors, then it’s likely that we are probably doing the same thing, and handing off the behaviors early on, to our kids. We celebrate with food, we reward ourselves with food, and we assuage disappointment, stress and anxiety with food. Many of us are overweight or obese because of these entrenched feeding patterns.

More research needed

Despite the indications from this study suggesting that emotional eating has its beginnings in early childhood with certain parenting techniques, more research is needed to investigate the implications of how early childhood food interactions influences long term feeding patterns.

Recognizing better ways to interact with food Since child and adult obesity rates are still increasing, the lead researcher of the study, Dr. Claire Farrow, feels that it’s important to balance how we engage with food and how we teach our kids to interact with food.Relationships with food are established during the toddler and very early childhood years. If you constantly identify healthy foods as necessary and foods high in salt, sugar and fat as unhealthy, but then comfort or bribe your child with the unhealthy foods, you are setting them up for emotional eating and elevating their risk of developing obesity. Dr. Claire Farrow believes that if science can understand why certain people grab for certain foods at times of stress and anxiety, then research can be used to begin to find ways to help people to avoid unhealthy eating practices.

Based on the study, here are some tips to help you limit emotional eating:

  • Analyze your own behaviors with food. If you struggle with emotional eating, then consider consulting with a psychotherapist and nutritionist to resolve your own issues with emotional eating.

  • Do engage your kids in food selection and preparation, and have discussions about how food is fuel and how certain foods provide vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

  • Avoid terms like “good food” and “bad food.”

  • Remember that little children need small feedings and they too have natural hunger and satiation cues.

  • Don’t force -feed your child. It is normal for kids to be reticent in trying new foods or finishing all the food you serve them.

  • Hydration sources should mostly be water and low fat milk. A serving size of any drink for a small child is about 4 ounces. Soda has no place in a child’s diet and one serving of juice daily is appropriate.

  • Junk food and fast food should be limited and never used as a reward, but simply identified as a special treat moment, interspersed among mostly healthy food options.

Recognize that your child will have exposures to unhealthy foods outside the home. Those are natural treat moments. Home base should be filled with nutritious and healthy foods as part of their regular diet. Let healthy food form the basis of their diet and let the natural celebratory moments be special moments of treat foods.

Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”