Imagine thinking that your overweight child is making all the right nutritional choices, and then discovering a bag of potato chips or cookies in his dresser drawer. Or just when you think that he’s sticking to the rules, you discover that the snack foods that were on a high shelf in the kitchen cupboard have “mysteriously” vanished. In fact, plenty of school-aged children sneak food, often believing (or at least hoping) that they’ll never get caught. Quite often, they seem surprised when they’re confronted about their behavior. In fact, they may deny it at first before finally admitting that they’ve been doing it for weeks or months.
Sneaking food can be common in school-aged youngsters. Children of this age may sneak for a variety of reasons. Perhaps eating can ease the stress they’re experiencing over upcoming examinations or because they’re being teased or bullied at school. Maybe they just want to feel a greater sense of control over their environments.
When you become aware of sneaking behaviors, keep your own disappointment or anger in check. Let your child know that you’ve discovered that he’s been hoarding food, and talk with him about why he’s doing it. Remind him about the family goal of healthier eating, and offer to help him find other strategies to meet his emotional needs aside from food. Suggest positive ways for him to respond when he feels that he absolutely has to eat something, even when it’s not time for a regular meal or snack. For example, he can
Ride his bicycle.
Go for a walk with you.
Kick a soccer ball with a friend.
Read a book.
Paint a picture.
Exercise with a workout video.
Finish a crossword puzzle.
Set up a reward system and give your child privileges when he asks for food rather than sneaking it. He might earn points that he can accumulate for rewards like renting a DVD or video game. Talk about these rewards in advance, and stick to them. For many children, this system can be very effective in minimizing sneaking. Never punish a child for eating the wrong foods, even if this occurs soon after you’ve explicitly instructed your child not to do so. Removing privileges may be hard to resist, but resist them. In a year or two your child may become more naturally interested in controlling his unhealthy eating impulses. Do not allow negative strategies this year to jeopardize future possibilities of success.