What to do when you catch your child sneaking and hiding food (and why this might be happening).
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!”
An amazing teaching moment
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.
First step: 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 moreso 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, how can I fix this?
Find a time to bring it up. 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.
#1 Show empathy and be inquisitive, in a non-judgemental way:
Approach it from a “let’s talk about why this is happening, and how we can fix it together” way, instead of being judgemental 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.
#2 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.
Bottom line? 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.