No-Sugar Rewards for Kids

“You can have candy after you eat dinner”

“You went potty! Here’s a mini marshmallow!”

“A+?!?!? Time for ice-cream!”

We’ve all done it– using food as a reward, especially sweets. It’s easy, convenient, and we truly see it as a treat that we look forward to. But is it the best option?

I’ve struggled with a sweet tooth all my life.  It’s taken a lot of discipline and self-regulation to keep it at bay. I know how hard it can be, so I want to provide my daughter with the tools necessary to be smart about sugar. So, I try to limit using food as a reward. 

No-Sugar Rewards for Kids

What’s so wrong about sugar?

We’ve all been exposed to the unhealthy sides of sugar and know we should eliminate or control it. The less, the better.

What’s so wrong about using it as a reward? It’s not all in the health factor, but mostly in the psychological and behavioral consequences.

  • It can develop emotional eating, associating sweets or salty food with feeling better.
  • Encourages eating when not necessarily hungry, which inhibits the development of self-regulation or intuitive eating.
  • More time sitting and eating can lead to less time moving and being active.
  • Sugar highs and hyperactivity leads to sugar crashes and mood swings.

Grabbing 5 M&Ms is so easy! I know, I do it too! If I have the time, I’ll propose that we bake cookies; this way it encourages a little activity, experimentation, creativity and patience. I’ve also been known to have her sort her fruit snacks into colors before eating them! I do try to minimize food rewards, though, to develop a healthy food relationship on my daughter.

Here’s some non-food rewards ideas I’ve used in the past.

Immediate rewards.

Be verbal! A “thank you” or “great job” can go a long way in a child’s life, plus it develops self-esteem. Verbal praising is always encouraged. Don’t forget about the excitement of a high five, fist pump, special handshake, a hug or a dance off

No-Sugar Rewards for Kids

Treasure chest.

Fill it with goodies they can choose from. Just like a dentist’s office. It can be filled with stickers, pencils, crayons, small crafts, small toys, anything from the Target dollar spot, etc.

A rewards chart.

Give them points, stickers or money to work towards a big reward: a movie outing, eating at their favorite restaurant or getting a new book.

Outdoors activity.

“If you do all your chores we can go on walk.” Propose riding bikes, going to a park or going on a nature hunt. Obviously this one would require a time commitment and appropriate weather; you can’t splash in puddles without rain.

No-Sugar Rewards for Kids

Change of scenery or routine.

How about books before bath time, dinner in an indoor picnic, play inside a makeshift fort, outdoor movie night, etc. Anything that is a change in norm will be exciting in little one’s eyes.

Extra technology time.

Yes, we don’t want to encourage extra screen time either, but sometimes an extra 10 minutes is better than 2 more scoops of ice-cream.


Give them the chance to choose which toy to play with next, which book to read, wear pjs or slippers to run errands, etc. Note: when giving options, make sure you are good with what they chose!

No-Sugar Rewards for Kids

It’s all about balance. Sometimes a food reward is just convenient, and with correct balance, that’s okay! 

What reward techniques are your favorite?

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Paola, originally from Puerto Rico, came to Iowa to study at Iowa state University where Ryan, an Iowa native, won her heart and they’ve been married for five years. They now call Cedar Rapids home and work as landscape designers in North Liberty. They love watching their toddler, Olivia, grow and are excited to see her as a big sister in the Fall of 2019. Paola's hobbies include crafting, running, yoga, baking and anything handmade. She recently opened Pikosa Creations to share her creativity with the world. Her passions include family, kindness, desserts and vacations to the beach.