Are You Setting Up the Healthy Habits Your Child Needs to Thrive?

Take The Quiz


Hiding Food: Why Kids Sneak and Eat in Secret

Hiding food or secret eating is a sign that something might be going on with your child. Are they still hungry after meals? Are they overeating? Let’s look at some reasons why your child hides food or eats in secret. 

Is your family going through cereal faster than usual?

Does your child disappear into the kitchen for long periods?

Are you finding empty food wrappers tucked away under the sofa, mattress, pillow, or in your child’s room?

Your child might be sneaking food.

The child who is food hoarding and eating in secret has a big impact on parents and the family.

There are several reasons why a child might hide food or participate in secretive eating which has nothing to do with hunger.

In this article, I go over some physical and emotional reasons children hide food from their parents and eat in secret, and give you tips for a gentler approach to curbing these food behaviors.

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.

Why Is Your Child Hiding Food?

Hiding food and secret eating is not misbehavior or an act of defiance. 

It’s likely a sign that something is going on with your child, whether it be negative emotions for which food is providing solace, or easing boredom. But it’s important to get to the root.

Some children live with hunger because of neglect and food insecurity, and sneaking food may be a way to cope or a matter of survival.

Let’s dive into a few reasons for hiding food that’s not related to physical hunger.

Restricting and Controlling Food

One of the possible reasons children hide or hoard food and eat in secret has to do with food parenting.

We all want our kids to eat healthy, but trying to control what your child eats with pressure or by restricting snacks or “unhealthy” foods affects their eating behaviors… and not in the way you might want.

When parents restrict food, children tend to seek that food and eat when they’re not hungry.

Restricting food might be your first instinct when you discover your child is hiding food. 

That rarely works and may do more harm than good.

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 around food (rather than take control), they are less likely to eat when they’re not hungry.

Adult Attitudes About Weight and Larger Bodies

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 size and eating habits may affect their child’s body image and eating behaviors.

One study found that a parent’s over-investment in their child’s size affected everyone in the home.

Commenting about a child’s weight, how much they eat, or about their body size negatively affects 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 becoming a binge eater is whether a parent has an eating disorder.

Children of parents with BED are more likely to binge eat compared to children of larger-bodied parents who do not have an eating disorder.

Furthermore, children of parents who are larger overate compared to children of average size parents.

Parents are one of the biggest environmental influences in raising a healthy child.

Screen Time

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 developing health conditions.

According to a recent study, kids who spent more time in front of screens were more likely to sneak food, hide food, and hoard it.

When you eat in front of the TV, kids can ignore their hunger signals and feelings of fullness.

And, television and social media may play a role in how a child feels about their body.

How to Help a Child Who is Hiding Food

You might be distressed and confused when you discover a lot of food in unusual places. Or, maybe you haven’t found evidence, but your child is mysteriously experiencing excessive weight gain. First, take a deep breath. While this is disturbing, it’s not insurmountable.

As a parent, it’s natural to worry about why it’s happening, to promote healthy eating, or even put your child on a more restrictive diet. All this is normal because you want to correct any potential eating disorder behavior.

But when it comes to emotional issues and 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 healthy relationship with food for years to come.

I have a few ideas to help navigate the situation if your child is hiding food.

Regular Meals and Snacks

First, rule out physiologic reasons for hunger. Are meals and snacks happening every three to four hours? Are they nutritious and filling? If not, rectify this. Your child may be more hungry because they’re not getting their basic needs met – enough food and filling types of food throughout the day.

Positive Food Parenting

Next, check in with yourself and make sure you’re not being too restrictive or controlling with sweet foods or treat food. When you become restrictive (and this can happen when we see our kids being overly interested in food, or overeating), a vicious cycle happens.

You take food away, and your child wants it more. This desire can turn into food-seeking behavior.

The opposite can be happening, also. You don’t have enough structure and boundaries in the home food environment and your child (who may be more food responsive) has a hard time controlling themselves in the presence of food access. 

Negative Experiences

Check in with your child. Did something happen that has them emotionally upset? Were they bullied? Teased? Or is your child struggling with low self-esteem or mental health issues? 

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.

Be patient

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 body shape and body size on your child.

Watching your child struggle with secret eating and hiding food, especially when you may have had an eating disorder in the past, or negative food beliefs or body biases you’re working through, can be challenging.

A pediatric dietitian or mental health professionals 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 child with a healthier relationship with food. 

If your child shows signs of an eating disorder, consult with your pediatrician about seeking out the expertise of an eating disorder specialist. 

Learn more about common eating disorders that affect children and how to reach out for help in our The Eating Disorder Guide.

Related Reading: 10 Reasons Your Child Eats Too Much

The Eating Disorder Guide
Are you building the healthy habits your child needs to thrive? Take my quiz and find out!

Last Post

Teenager Not Eating Lunch at School? (Here's Why + Tips)

Next Post

7 of the Best Supermarket Popsicle Brands to Buy, 2024