What do you do when you catch your child sneaking and hiding food? Why is this happening? I answer these concerning questions and more.
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You start noticing food empty food wrappers under your child’s pillow, or that all of a sudden the freezer cookie stash has dwindled significantly (and there’s a trail of crumbs to your child’s room). You realize that your child is being dishonest and sneaking and/or hiding food. You probably feel angry, confused, and concerned. Instinctually, you feel like addressing it right away by disciplining your child, and perhaps even setting even tighter boundaries around snacks and treats. But is this the right thing to do? Or will this perpetuate this issue and lead to more sneaking and dishonesty?
Be careful not to react negatively or shame your child
First off, it’s important to know that this is normal. Kids who sneak a cookie here or there, or take a quick dip into the chocolate chip bag while you’re not looking–all normal behaviours and as long as it doesn’t become a regular occurrence, nothing to be concerned about.
The most important thing is to not react negatively, or shame your child. Make sure that your child knows that they are not in trouble, and are allowed to have those foods WITHOUT having to sneak them. Saying something in a playful, loving way such as “Hey hunny, instead of taking a handful while mommy isn’t looking (that’s silly!), let’s put some in a little bowl and enjoy them together!” Even though it might not be dessert time, it’s more important to drive home the message (in the moment) of you are allowed to eat this food. It’s not forbidden or tightly restricted. This way your child doesn’t feel ashamed that they want to eat something yummy, and it takes the desire or allure for that food down a notch. Your child will learn “oh, so I can have this and enjoy it without having to sneak it or feel guilty. Great!”
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Figure out why your child is sneaking food in the first place
It’s really important to stay calm. Take a deep breath and know that there are ways to stop this from happening and ensure your child doesn’t feel like they have to sneak food anymore. If you approach it promptly, lovingly and mindfully, you can turn things around.
Here are some common reasons why your child might be sneaking food:
- Is my child hungry, and not getting enough at mealtimes? Maybe they’re going through a growth spurt?
- Are they eating for reasons other than physical hunger (boredom, emotion, habit?). In other words, are they eating in the absence of hunger?
- Am I restricting certain foods or amounts of food?
- Am I keeping tempting foods out on the counter or in full view, which might trigger temptation even if my child isn’t hungry?
- Am I too tightly limiting access to sweets?
The tricky part is when they confuse boredom or emotion with hunger. This happens more so in older kids (older than 5 or 6 years old). If you gently question your child’s hunger (maybe because they have just finished eating a full dinner and it seems unlikely that they are actually still hungry), you can help them tune in to their appetite and identify true physical hunger versus eating in the absence of hunger or emotional eating. This concept aligns well with teaching your child to eat “intuitively” too.
The truth is (and research shows) that restricting intake and limiting access to sweet foods increases a child’s preferences for those same foods. This is called scarcity, and it’s when children feel food is restricted, so they want it more. The same goes for us adults! Think about the dieting… as soon as we feel restricted, we just want it more!
So, what are some solutions if your child is sneaking or hiding food? Let’s get into it.
Ask yourself: Does our feeding dynamic need to change?
Now, if your child is sneaking and hiding food often, there is likely an underlying reason as to why, and it’s important to address it in a positive way. You may need to change the feeding dynamic (eg. how you talk about food, timing of meals and snacks, how you’re serving food, how many treats/desserts are offered etc.) to facilitate a more positive experience with food, and nurture a more positive food relationship long term.
To be honest, it’s an amazing opportunity to address any dysfunctional feeding dynamics going on (restricting or forbidding treats = sneaking and hoarding them almost always), create more trust, and foster open honest communication around food. This is a perfect time to help your child develop a positive long-term relationship with food without feeling as though they need to sneak food, ever.
Find a time to bring it up in a calm manner
Approach your child about it gently and lovingly, when both of you are calm and happy. Don’t make it a huge deal, and try not to attack or get mad at them. Say something like “I noticed when I was cleaning your room that there were a few wrappers under your bed. I want you to know that you’re not in trouble, but it’s something we should talk about and figure out together.” You don’t want your child to feel threatened or like they’re “bad” for sneaking food. You want them to feel safe to open up to you about it.
Show empathy and be inquisitive, in a non-judgmental way
Lead with curiosity and open-mindedness. Approach it from a “let’s talk about why this is happening, and how we can fix it together” way, instead of being judgmental or making your child feel ashamed. Leave it open-ended for your child, allowing them to explain why, and being careful not to assume why they are sneaking food. If they can’t articulate their reasoning, offer thoughts like “is your tummy still hungry after dinner time?” or “is there not enough foods that you like at meals?” or “are you eating foods when you feel sad, or bored, or mad?” or “do you feel like mommy and/or daddy don’t let you have these types of foods, so you need to sneak them instead?”. Once you’ve gotten to the route of why it’s happening, show empathy and compassion and acknowledge how they feel and why they’re doing it.
Figure out a solution that feels fair for everyone
Let your child know that they shouldn’t ever have to ever feel as though they need to sneak or hide food. All foods can fit, and no foods are “forbidden.” Try the following suggestions:
- If your child is still hungry after meals: Make sure that you’re involving your child in meal planning and preparation, and that they have a say in what is served. Ensure that there’s at least one food at the table that your child will eat, and that you’re not restricting the amount that they can eat. Include foods from each food group–veggies/fruit, whole grains/starches, protein-rich foods and foods containing dietary fat. Protein, fibre and protein are all nutrients that help to keep tummies full, so make sure there are food options that contain these nutrients.
- If your child feels that certain foods are forbidden or highly restricted: Let your child know that all foods are allowed, and that nothing is forbidden. Acknowledge that maybe some foods have been too-tightly limited (oops!) and come up with an amount that feels fair to both of you. Let your child know that you as the parent are still ultimately in charge of what food is served, and the timing of eating (meals and snacks), but that maybe, for example, you could offer a sweet treat more often than you have been. Or maybe you could add a little treat into school lunches (if you haven’t been doing that). You could even suggest offering dessert WITH a meal (this might feel fun for them!). Your child should always feel as though they can ask for a food, but they need to know that their request won’t always be granted right then and there. The answer might be “yes,” but not at that exact time or place. Parents are in charge of timing.
If you notice that your child is sneaking or hiding food regularly, know that there are shifts you can make and changes to your family feeding dynamic that can turn things around. Staying calm and not reacting negatively is the first step, followed by empathetically (and calmly) exploring why your child is sneaking food. When you’ve gathered that information, you can make a plan going forward that works for everyone and that helps to heal and nurture your child’s long-term relationship with food.
Commonly asked Questions About Sneaking Food
First, seek to understand why. Approach your child about it gently and lovingly, when both of you are calm and happy. Don’t make it a huge deal, and try not to attack or get mad at them.
First ask yourself, “does our feeding dynamic need to change?” Some possible reasons your child is sneaking food include:
– Is my child hungry, and not getting enough at mealtimes? Maybe they’re going through a growth spurt?
– Are they eating for reasons other than physical hunger (boredom, emotion, habit?). In other words, are they eating in the absence of hunger?
– Am I restricting certain foods or amounts of food?
– Am I keeping tempting foods out on the counter or in full view, which might trigger temptation even if my child isn’t hungry?
– Am I too tightly limiting access to sweets?
It’s important to know that this is normal. Kids who sneak a cookie here or there, or take a quick dip into the chocolate chip bag while you’re not looking–all normal behaviours and as long as it doesn’t become a regular occurrence, nothing to be concerned about.
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AnnMarie Adams says
I’m not sure this is the correct place….we adopted our daughter at 8.5 months from China. She was discovered at about 4 days old, stayed in the orphanage for a month and the rest of that time in a foster home in the city.
She is 11, almost 12. Every time we clean her room I find little packages of food wrappers and trash tucked under book shelves, dressers, etc. Snack size zip lock bags, a sock. I found multiple zip lock bags with a sock, broken pencil, hair ties, wrappers, maybe a note.
All together I pulled 3 kitchen garbage bags of just garbage out of her room.
My daughter has always been a free spirit, full throttle explorer. I’m first born….I finger painted with a spoon. My Spicy Dragon used side walk chalk paint to paint her entire body one hot afternoon in Texas. She never blinked an eye at getting messy, digging, climbing, always dancing and twirling.
My pantry is open. I have fruit, veggies in the fridge, chocolate syrup to make chocolate milk. She can have chips, crackers, popcorn….she can make/bake anything she wants.
She hasa brother we adopted when he was 4 – also from China. He was emotionally and physically neglected and was the size of an 18 month old.
My philosophy has always been to have a place for snacks for both kids. They could have whatever they wanted. They could ask or not.
Especially after my son came home – I wanted him to know food was available. He had to not asks strangers (when he first came home it was a habit we had to stop).
Covid sucks. The kids have lost so many social and emotional connections. My daughter has been able to continue to dance and made the company dance arts theater team this fall. We’re in Washington and the classes are via zoom. Obviously no Nutcracker this year, no spring production last spring.
Both kids are in counseling- their dad and I divorced 3 years ago after a 25 year marriage. He was an officer in the Army and a deployment in 2006 combined with toxic stress during his childhood led to him making some choices that ended our marriage. He masked it with alcohol. I had to have command get involved spring 2019 to get him some help or we wouldn’t have him. The counseling was part of my request to the additional parenting plan I went to court for after he was ordered to in patient rehab.
So…..lots of things that could be adding anxiety and stress to my daughter.
We’ve talked about food. Both kids love to help me cook, make their own breakfast and lunches. I work remote in early intervention.
My daughter is a good student, manages her online schedule well and even though I check in daily I do not need to micromanage her work load.
I’ve worked hard at keeping both kids active, engaged with friends and we have 2 friends here doing remote with us (we’re both single moms and since I can work from home I offered to have them here instead of child care).
The kids have journals, dairies, access to art supplies and I move my truck from the garage so they can create ninja warrior course year round.
Help…..how do I help my daughter with this need to stash trash and randomness throughout her room. I don’t even care that there are candy wrappers, chips bags….I am most concerned about the action of packing it into small containers and stashing it.
We are Western Washington, USA
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Ann Marie! Thanks for reaching out with this difficult struggle. I know so many parents can relate. I feel this would be best talked over in private with me or my team. Feel free to email me here: https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/
Ok, so I have a 12 year old boy, allowed to have any snack he asks for, eats sweets fairly regularly, not quite daily, has been talked to 3 times already about this subject in the least judgmental way possible. Just found out he is still taking food without asking and constantly has food trash in his room. Anybody got any advice?
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Jennifer, that is a tough situation to be in. I’m sending you so much compassion right now! Without understanding all the nuances of this situation, it’s difficult for me to provide advice. I’d highly suggest you contact our team here so we can help you: https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/
Marlene Palacio says
I can relate! My daughter will be 7 in June. Within the past couple weeks I’ve noticed wrappers or food hidden in her room. I told her she didn’t have to be sneaking food i just didn’t want her leaving the wrappers or food all over her room. My husband and I both work full time, my daughter and son go to a sitter while we are at work. Well yesterday the sitter text me saying that my daughter had snuck around and took some candy from her daughter. When they asked my daughter if she ate it, she denied it and blamed someone else for it. We got home yesterday evening, my husband and i both talked to our daughter. I talked to my daughter again this morning before i dropped them off at the sitter. Well the sitter text me again about an hour ago that my daughter snuck around and took some candy and ate it also lied about it at first. I don’t know what to do. We don’t keep junk food in the house I’m thinking that is why she sees it and takes it. Help! I’m sorry I’m all over the place, I can’t focus at work I’m just thinking about what I can do to help my daughter. She is a little heavier for her height and age so we try to keep junk food out of the house.
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Marlene, first of all, thank you for having the courage to reach out. Second, I am sending you so much compassion during this difficult and troubling time. I would love to help you. Have you heard about my Mealtimes Solved course? We talk about issues like this that relate to feeding kids from pre-school to pre-teen. I think it would be perfect for you. https://www.sarahremmer.com/shop/mealtimes-solved-2/
If that is not the help you’re looking for, you can schedule a call with me here and I’d love to help you: https://www.sarahremmer.com/book-an-appointment/
Nicole Bailie says
I’ve been searching the web on how to help my 11 year old daughter and stumbled on this post. First off thank you, the way you write and your advice makes me feel not as horrible as I did before reading. My daughter has been overweight for the last 5-6 years, at first I just thought it was puberty and she’s grow out of it. She never was very interested in sports and as she’s become less and less interested in any physical activity lately. She’s always hidden food from times I was getting her ready for school and she had cookies under her arm (in her dress) to wrappers of chocolate mints under her bed. She’s never cared much for any kind of repercussions as long as she could eat. When we have big family events with lots of desserts we talk about having smaller portions so she can have more then one option but she ends up lying about how much she’s had so she can have more. She is going to be 12 this summer and I’m just scared for her health, she’s 5’1” and weighs 172 lbs. this morning I found out when she was alone with her older sister (18 yo) for a few hours she climbed up and ate the Frosted Flakes my husband keeps up high and eats for a “dessert” sometimes and also ate some leftover birthday cake, in the morning. My husband thinks I need to take stronger actions and that nothing I’ve done has worked and we are not helping her. I know something needs to happen but I’m so lost as to what. I’m scared to death to scar her permanently when it comes to body image and food. I’ve never dealt with this with my older two and I just don’t know where to start.
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Nicole, first of all, I am sending so much compassion your way. My heart goes out to you as I know how difficult this can be. The fact that you are researching ways to help your daughter with a do no harm mindset is amazing, so thank you for reaching out. I’d prefer not to provide specific advice over a blog post, so I’d ask that you please contact me here https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/ or you can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope that helps and I look forward to hearing from you. Sarah XO
David wallace says
I am a single dad of two great boys I adopted both of them at 4 and 2 I had an issue with my older son when he was 6yr old sneaking food but that didn’t last long (about 2mo) we talked and I told him it’s ok to be hungry YOU just CANT get up and not wake me up so fast forward to my other son who is now 6 and he’s sneaking I have said the same to him wake me up and we can get a snack then go back to bed
Well it’s been almost a year and he’s STILL raiding the kitchen yes he gets into trouble for being awake and not telling me I’ve tried to baby gate the kitchen but he climbs it he knows better but I’m not sure WHY he insists on NOT waking me up
I tell him it’s ok to be hungry but YOU CANT walk around the house at night alone
I’m at my end with this kid besides putting a door on the the kitchen and locking it I don’t know what else to do
Any advice would be greatly appreciated
Sarah Remmer says
Hi David, thank you for taking the time to reach out to me. This is quite common and very concerning for a lot of parents, so please know you are not alone. One thing I would ask is, what kind of foods is your child sneaking? It may be that these foods need to be less restricted during the daytime. I have an entire section dedicated to sneaking foods and how to fix it in my new book, Food to Grow On: https://www.sarahremmer.com/food-to-grow-on/ I know this will really help. If you still feel stuck, you can contact me here: https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/ Sending you all the best wishes.
My daughter, 10 years old, is a very happy, relatively active child. She likes food though and particularly sweets. We have a healthy household but allow small amounts of chips and daily dessert in small portions at lunch and dinner. She is big boned, but getting heavier and I think most is due to the sweets that she sneaks. When I catch her she denies it bc she’s embarrassed. I have always had a healthy relationship with food and a positive self image and I am terrified of 1) her getting older and realizing she’s chubby and 2) harming her relationship with food. I generally speak to her about it after I catch her and tell her she can’t sneak food, she can’t lie and that it’s not good for her body or her teeth to sneak treats. What should I do short of keeping all sweet out of the house which seems unhealthy too?
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Sara, first of all, I’m sending so much compassion your way. I know how hard this is to deal with. It’s really important to take a deep breath and know that there are supportive ways to help your child from feeling they have to sneak food. If you approach it promptly, lovingly and mindfully, you can turn things around. I think the other important thing to remind yourself is that her weight does not determine her health. If she is otherwise healthy and happy, her weight will fall where it needs to be. Unfortunately, society tells us otherwise! Have you purchased my book Food to Grow On? https://www.sarahremmer.com/food-to-grow-on/ I have an entire section devoted to sneaking food and solutions around this. Have a look if you can. If you do not want to purchase the book, please send me an email and we can discuss this further! https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/
Bonnie Hayward says
I was happy to find your web site.
My great niece is 9 years old and has not only started to sneak food and lie about it, but she is always smelling her food.
Her home is one that health meals and snacks are available but her actions now are upsetting.
She has been a healthy, very active child but now with sneaking food she is gaining weight.
Any suggestions or guidance is appreciated.
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Bonnie, thank you for reaching out to me about this. It’s such a difficult situation and can be uncomfortable for everyone involved. Is it possible that there are unintentional restrictions on food, so that she feels the need to sneak food? I would highly suggest you join my course Mealtimes Solved. We talk about sneaking food and weight gain. https://www.sarahremmer.com/shop/mealtimes-solved-2/ It’s cheaper than seeing me one-on-one for counselling. Please let me know if you have any questions by contacting us here: https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/
Michelle Hutchison says
I have a 14 year old boy that I cannot keep out of the treat cupboard. He is not having a few, he is gorging on the junk food in the middle of night. Last week I found 11 cheese and cracker packages in his room among other things. This is every night. Enormous amounts of food, all treats for lunches. I do have other children in the house. He is getting up in the middle of the night once we are all in bed. I have given him access to the fridge so he can have fruit and vedges (as much as he wants) as well as items to make a sandwich. I have even zip tied the cupboard and he will cut the ziptie. I am at a loss. This is an incredible amount of junk. I dont want to take it all away. I have other children that get to have treats as well. Suggestions??
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Michelle, thank you for sharing this incredibly challenging situation. The odd time if this happens, it’s fairly normal and nothing to be concerned about, but if it’s happening regularly, it’s likely a sign that your child feels deprived of something or feels like they don’t have enough access to certain foods. It might be a form of emotional eating too. It can definitely lead down a path to disordered eating if dealt with in the wrong way, so I’m so glad that you asked! I’m here to support! It’s hard to say exactly why it’s happening without more background, but as a first step, I’d highly recommend you join my course called Mealtimes Solved. We discuss all of this and more. It’s very affordable (cheaper than a nutrition consult with me!) https://www.sarahremmer.com/shop/mealtimes-solved-2/
My daughter is 10 and comes from 10 years of emotional and physical abuse from her father’s family.
I gained emergency custody in May of 2021, across state lines.
We live in a house with 8 other people, my parents and family and other non-related renters.
She has been caught constantly walking around at 2 or 3 in the morning, stealing my food and stealing the food from her grandparents and even stealing food from the renters. It is not only sweets, she once ate a whole stick of butter.
She has breakfast, a mid morning snack at school, lunch and a snack after school and dinner.
Today, she had a full plate at a dinner party, lamb chops, rice, a big salad, hummus and garlic bread and two servings of blueberry pie. We do not forbid foods, but we believe in everything in healthy moderation; for example you cannot eat straight junk food all day.
An hour later, I find her going through another renter’s food, trying to shove sweets in her mouth.
The renters pay money to live here, they have their own separate kitchen, and pay for their own food.
So why is she stealing food from everyone?
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Rani, first of all, I am sending you so much compassion. This is not easy and can be so scary to work through. Based on the limited amount of information I have about your daughter, it sounds to me like it is about more than just food. It sounds like the trauma she endured (and didn’t know how to deal with) is surfacing and her coping mechanism is food. But it sounds like she needs other, more helpful ways to cope. This is beyond what I can suggest in a single comment. I highly recommend you reach out to us so we can point you in the right direction. You can email us at email@example.com
My daughter will be 15 years old soon and she still hiding snacks in pillows, under bed, her backpack. Her backpack always full of garbage and snack trash. In every pocket she have some trash all the time. When she was younger she wasn’t eating her lunch so she was bringing home and hides in her closet instead of throwing out to the garbage. She never keep clan her room or herself. If she eats cookies or some stuff that I buy for other children she eats all by herself, never sharing with anybody. It’s just so hard to deal with her . I don’t know what to do anymore
Sarah Remmer says
Hi Ariana, that is a tough situation to be in. I’m sending you so much compassion right now! Without understanding all the nuances of this situation, it’s difficult for me to provide advice. I’d highly suggest you contact our team here so we can help you: https://www.sarahremmer.com/contact/