Secret Eating: Is Your Child Hiding Food?
December 3, 2021
Hiding food is a sign that something might be going on for your child. Is he still hungry after meals? Is he overeating? Let’s look at some reasons for your child’s secret eating.
Is your family going through cereal faster than usual?
Does your child disappear into the kitchen for long periods of time?
Are you finding food wrappers tucked away in your child’s room?
Your child might be sneaking food.
A child’s secret eating has a big impact on the child, the parents and the family.
There are several reasons a child might hide food that has nothing to do with hunger.
In this article, I go over some physical and emotional reasons children hide food from their parents and give you tips for a gentler approach to curbing this behavior.
Why Is Your Child Hiding Food?
Hiding food and secret eating is not misbehavior or defying the meal and snack guidelines the family has established.
It’s a sign that something is going on for your child and it’s important to get to the root.
Some children live with hunger because of neglect and food insecurity, and sneaking food or hiding food may be a way to cope, or a matter of survival.
Let’s dive into a few reasons for a child’s secret eating that’s not related to physical hunger.
Restricting and Controlling Food
Restricting food might be your first instinct when you discover your child hiding food.
That rarely works and may do more harm than good.
We all want our kids to eat healthy, but trying to control what a kid eats with pressure or by restricting snacks or “unhealthy” foods affects a child’s eating behaviors… and not in the way we might want.
When parents restrict food, children tend to seek that food and eat when they’re not hungry.
Instead of controlling your child’s food intake, encourage your child’s autonomy with food.
When kids are allowed to take part in the decision making, they are less likely to eat when they’re not hungry.
Parent’s Attitudes Towards Weight and Obesity
The fear of weight gain in our culture influences a lot of what we believe about food and eating.
Unfortunately, how parents perceive their child’s weight and eating habits affects the child.
One study found that a parent’s over-investment in their child’s weight affects everyone in the home, even more than the child’s weight or eating behaviors do.
Commenting about a child’s weight, how much he eats or about his body size affects his body image.
Feelings of shame, particularly when it’s related to a negative body image, may play a role in developing binge eating disorder (BED).
Another factor that increases the risk of a child binge eating is whether a parent has an eating disorder.
Children of parents with BED are more likely to binge eat compared to children of obese parents that do not have an eating disorder.
Furthermore, children of obese parents overate compared to children of healthy weight parents.
This supports what I see time and again.
Parents are the biggest environmental influences in raising a healthy eater.
There are many reasons to limit screen time.
More screen time usually means less physical activity (especially outdoors with friends!) and is associated with an increased risk of unhealthy weight.
According to a recent study, kids who spent more time in front of screens were more likely to sneak, hide and hoard food.
When you eat in front of the TV, kids can miss their hunger signals and feelings of fullness.
Also, feelings of shame that arise from negative body image increase the potential of binge eating in kids.
Television and social media can play a big role in how a child feels about his body.
How to Help a Child’s Secret Eating
You might be distressed and confused to discover your child is hiding food.
As a parent, it’s natural to worry about why it’s happening and want to correct potentially harmful behavior.
But when it comes to eating behaviors, it’s best not to make a child feel like he’s doing something wrong.
In my experience as a children’s nutrition expert, a strong reaction to how and what a child eats can negatively affect his relationship with food for years to come.
I have a few ideas to help navigate the situation if your child is hiding food.
Don’t shame your child
Embarrassing and shaming a child doesn’t help change behaviors.
It’s more likely to lead to a negative body image and an unhealthy relationship with food. Instead, recognize that something deeper may be going on.
It takes time to get to the root of secret eating and to help your child develop a positive relationship with food.
Check in with your food beliefs
Diet culture is everywhere.
Be aware of how you might impose your thoughts about weight and body size on your child.
Send Me The Do’s & Dont’s of Picky Eating!
Watching your child struggle with secret eating and hiding food, especially when you have an eating disorder in your past or negative food beliefs you’re still working through, can be challenging.
A professional like a pediatric dietitian or child psychologist with experience in disordered eating can help guide your child and give you a few more tools for your parenting toolbox to help you raise a healthy eater.
If your child shows signs of an eating disorder, consult with your pediatrician.
Learn more about common eating disorders that affect children and how to reach out for help in our The Eating Disorder Guide.