The other day I was driving past a Jack in the Box restaurant and I noticed one of the signs in their window. It was a picture of their mascot (the funny cartoon headed guy) with a slogan that said (paraphrasing here), "Treat yourself...not to a massage or anything, just something off the menu." Food is not a reward, I repeat, food is not a reward. One of the things that most confuses us in our relationship to food is the belief that food is a reward. And worse than that, many of us believe, food is the only reward that we have.
If you think food is a reward, keep reading.
Maybe you were treated to an ice-cream for a good score on a test. At my son's school they have root-beer float, popcorn, and popsicle parties for jobs well done. We are given the message that food is the acknowledgment we get for putting in the effort or putting up with something intolerable. Maybe your mother told you if you went on boring errands with her you could go through the drive-thru of your favorite fast food restaurant.
All of us need reward, acknowledgment, and recognition for work well done. It's part of human nature. Sadly, food can become the most obvious and readily accessible form of reward we can find. Once we've found food, we stop looking for other creative ways to reward ourselves, and others. I work with people everyday that don't even know how they might reward themselves, if not with food. We work together to find other ways. And if you want to leave a big part of your overeating behind, you'll need to find other forms of reward, too.
Non-Edible Rewards for Children
As parents, we inadvertently give our children the message that food is a reward. It's almost unavoidable. Recently, my nine-year old son was put on a restrictive diet for medical reasons. He can't eat wheat, dairy, soy, or sugar. The simple solution of offering food to reward him is no longer an option. A carrot stick doesn't really seem like a tasty treat to a kid. His adherence to this way of eating makes him even more worthy of a reward. But what? Here are some suggestions: Movies, books, $5 to spend in a store of their choice, undivided attention, watching a show with them that THEY like, wrestling, playing a board game, doing an art project, taking them to a museum, looking at childhood photos or videos, building a fort, sending them an email telling them how proud you are.
Non-Edible Rewards for Yourself
As a single-mother I often don't have someone looking out for how much I've done or how tired I might be. In the past nine years, I haven gotten really good at finding ways to reward myself. I know many single mothers, who in the absence of a partner have made food their co-parent, their lover, or their friend. Here are some things that I do to reward myself. I keep Epsom Salts in the house for a pre-bed bath. I make sure I have a good book to read. Every so often I treat myself to a trashy magazine, a pedicure, or an afternoon movie. I go to bed early (yes, that can be a reward). I give myself a facial. I lie on the grass and read the cartoons from The New Yorker. I call a friend.
Non-Edible Rewards for Partners, Lovers & Spouses
The age-old act of romance is bringing someone you love chocolates. But is it really romantic to give someone confections that can make them overweight or fall into a sugar coma? Now, isn't that an enticing image? Candy is so fleeting. How about giving your sweetheart a foot massage, a love letter, a hand-packed healthy lunch with a note on the napkin, a complaint-free day, a valentine on a day other than February 14th, a drawn bath wit bath oils, a clean house, or an attentive listening ear. All of these other things are more likely to be remembered.
When we eliminate food as a reward, we can get pretty creative. We all deserve rewards but let's see what happens when we don't eat those rewards.