My child is secretly eating
Unraveling the mystery of why your child is eating in secret may be challenging. Initially, it is important to understand the underlying factor of a child’s need to sneak food. Children’s eating behaviors can be affected by an array of factors including parents and peers’ habits and attitude towards food, mother with eating disorders history, trauma, stress or bullying. Also, sometimes children find emotions simply too hard to handle, and they use food as a way to feel better.
Why is your child sneaking food?
When parents unintentionally label food as “good” or “bad” can create a scarcity mentality in children, making those foods either more or less desirable. If there is fear they are missing out, for example telling a child, “This is all you get”, or “You can’t have any more of that” makes the child want it more.
Also, labelling specific foods as “treats” gives special value to those specific foods. Treat foods usually become an addiction and when consumed it can cause feelings of guilt and shame and thus done in secret.
Children want to please their parents
Most of the time, children want to be “good” and please their parents, teachers or other adults around them. When their wants (such as having an “off limit” food) conflicts with what they know will please their parents or others, they may resort to engaging in the behavior in secret.
Signs that a child is secretly eating:
- Finding food wrappers in the child’s room or backpack.
- Unexplained missing food.
- Excess weight gain despite a child seeming to eat very little.
Why is secret eating a red flag for eating disorders?
This pattern of eating can easily become a vicious cycle with the child ‘hating’ themselves for doing it, but at the same time engaging in the habit more. Besides the health risks that accompany obesity related to excessive binge eating (diabetes, insulin resistance, high blood pressure etc.), those eating habits and mentality can also lead to eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
Signs of disordered eating behavior:
- a pattern of eating in response to emotional stress, such as family conflict or poor academic performance
- a child feeling ashamed or disgusted by the quantity they have eaten
- an increasingly irregular eating pattern, such as skipping meals, eating lots of junk food, and eating at unusual times (like late at night).
What you can do as a parent:
- Bite Your Tongue
Stop commenting on your child’s eating behavior (e.g. “Are you sure you want that for a snack?”).
- Never say, “Clean your plate.”
Don’t force your child to eat. Most kids self-regulate and will eat when they need to.
- Stop threatening, rewarding or punishing with food
You are losing the war when they know you care more than they do. There is so little that kids can control, it’s no wonder some of them use food to manipulate their parents.
- Don’t be the food police.
Relax. Put away your badge and enjoy your own meal. Paying too much attention to what your child eats might be one way to create eating problems.
- Break the shame
It’s really important to try and break the shame that your child heels towards food. Try to listen and be understanding, sympathetic and non-judgmental.
- Be a Brilliant Role Model
Don’t expect your child to eat nutritious foods when you don’t. If you eat with a bag of crisps to watch TV, your child will imitate you.
- Allow “Treats”
If your child ask for ice cream, go for it. But choose a small or kid-size portion, not four scoops. Nobody—and that includes you and me—needs that. Make it ‘’once-in-a-while’’ event.
- Stay patient and neutral:
Parents can get easily frustrated by a child’s obsessive behavior around food. Try not to unintentionally give verbal and non-verbal that might cause the children to feel embarrassed, guilt, or ashamed. Stay neutral and patient throughout the process.
Self-reflect on your relationship with food
If you don’t trust yourself to eat certain foods, this mistrust is likely also being projected on your children. Try to heal your own past struggles and relationship with food.
Go grocery shopping together.
Take your child grocery shopping. This can be a great multi-sensory brain-building experience if you approach it with patience and good humor.
Clinical Dietitian- Nutritionist, MSc