Need to know
- Understanding children sneaking and hoarding food
Most developing kids go through phases of eating more than usual and this often accompanies a growth spurt. You may notice that your child asks for more snacks or has multiple helpings at mealtimes. This is absolutely normal and not a reason to be concerned or to restrict access to food.
There are also rare occasions when your child might overeat or use certain foods to provide comfort; adults do this too, and if they are isolated incidents they are not necessarily something to worry about. However, if you notice that this behaviour is part of a larger pattern, which includes your child taking and hiding food, then it’s important to look into what else is going on.
Some key indicators that your child’s relationship with food needs further investigation:
- They eat a lot of food in a short amount of time
- They eat in secrecy
- They hide wrappers and containers of the food they eat
- They stash away food in their room
- They have big changes in their weight (up or down)
- They skip meals and then eat at unusual times (like late at night)
- They show a pattern of eating in response to emotional stress
- They lie about how what and how much they eat
Why it’s important
Food hoarding and eating in secret is not ‘bad behaviour’, it is a high risk factor in your child developing an eating disorder.
Don’t lock up cupboards or hide food because feelings of deprivation around food is a powerful motivator for disordered eating. Instead look into whether your child has an underlying condition like anxiety or ADHD.
Research shows a significant connection between ADHD and binge eating. The exact reason is not known, but some of the characteristics associated with ADHD such as impulsivity, inattention, self-control and self-regulation are believed to play a role in disordered eating.
The most common mental health conditions that co-occur with eating disorders are anxiety disorders. Studies show that about 2/3 of people with eating disorders also suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Take your child’s sneaking and hoarding of food as a sign that there is something going on that needs further investigation. Identifying underlying co-occuring conditions early can ensure best treatment outcomes.
Tips & strategies
- Make mealtimes regular, relaxed and enjoyable – a routine tells your child that there are set times for meals and snacks, removing the anxiety of “when will I eat”.
- Have a variety of food available – it’s important to have healthy food at home but it’s also OK to keep some sweets or junk food in the cupboards for the family to occasionally enjoy. This avoids your child over eating these things when they have access to them outside of the home because they are seen as “forbidden”.
- Make time to chat – approach your child about your concerns when you are both calm. Be empathetic, curious and willing to listen. Using something along the lines of “I am concerned about you and what’s going on for you when I see you [fill in the blank].”
- Get professional help – seeking help in the early stages of disordered eating can stop it from progressing into a severe eating disorder and gives your child a better chance at a full recovery
- Lock cupboards or hide food – this only increases the feeling of scarcity and further triggers negative behaviours and a preference for “forbidden” foods
- Accuse and shame – your child will only feel worse, they won’t trust that they have your support and will just try to hide and lie better
- Nag about food – a constant reminder that your child is making bad choices doesn’t help them to make better choices and will only result in power struggles
- Comment about body or weight – it is much better to focus on your child’s abilities and help build their confidence than highlight weight differences. The only words that should be used to describe a body should be strong and healthy