To understand the reasons kids sneak food, we need to understand why they eat anything at all. Ever.
There are three reasons.
1. Physical satisfaction
They are hungry, tired, or have the desire to eat because their body needs nutrition and they want, probably unconsciously, to satisfy that need.
2. Emotional satisfaction.
Children eat because it makes them feel happy, or calms them down.
Emotional eating often gets a bad rap, but emotional eating in its pure sense is an important and healthy aspect of eating. Think of birthday cake. There is no physical need for birthday cake, but enjoying it as part of a social celebration is a healthy, emotionally rewarding activity.
The reason communal meals are part of every culture on earth is for the emotional satisfaction of eating.
Emotional eating gets a bad rap because of a small sub-set known as binge eating. Where emotional eating is pleasant and satisfying, binge eating is unpleasant and causes shame.
Binge eating, is caused by (but not limited to) perceived or real deprivation. If our children have limited access to a food group (perhaps we’ve placed limits on it, or food scarcity exists) our kids may find themselves sneaking, hiding, and bingeing on that food (or any food) when it becomes available to them.
Food scarcity is one of the reasons binge eating often presents in kids in lower socio-economic situations. It’s also highly correlated to homes where food is highly controlled and some foods are banned altogether.
3. Agency satisfaction.
What does agency satisfaction even mean? It means children eat to exert control or agency over their lives. Eating or not eating is one of the few things parents cannot *make* their children do (barring the use of force, manipulation or coercion).
If our children are not getting enough agency over the foods they eat (choose what and how much goes in their mouth without judgement or perceived control) or over their day to day lives, they will use eating as a means of gaining control over their world.
So what does this mean for us as parents who have noticed sneaky eating in our kids?
If you think of the above three reasons children eat like an onion, with physical needs in the middle, emotional needs next and agency needs on the outer, we need to approach feeding our kids from the outside in. Once we know our kids have strong perceived agency over what goes in their mouth, we can help them find healthy emotional satisfaction from eating. We can create situations where the eating experience is enjoyable, calm and boosts their sense of emotional wellbeing. Once we’ve established a positive emotional environment, we can gently steer them toward making nutritional choices.
One of the reasons I am strongly against teaching nutrition in schools is that the approach often goes straight to the middle of the onion. Teaching a child about nutrition if their agency is unsatisfied, or their emotional needs are unsatisfied, is likely to make their relationship with food worse, not better.
How can we move forward, starting at the outside of the onion?
One of the most powerful places to start, is to challenge our own reasons for wanting to control what our kids eat, instead of allowing them to figure out what works well for their own unique body.
Plus, we need to stop seeing nutrition as boxed into what kids *should* and *shouldn’t* be eating. Shucking off the judgement given to parents who *allow* their kids to stray from these tight ideals is also helpful (and feels incredibly liberating – I’m excited for any parent to experience this freedom).
Last, but not least, we need parenting skills that priorities our children’s need for agency first and foremost in the feeding relationship.
If you’d like to raise your child to have a good relationship with food at all three reasons for eating, anything, ever, I hope you check out the Raising Body Confident Kids online course.
It’s the only online parenting course (I can find) that address the three layers of why kids eat – and teaches practical tools to help you and your child navigate them.
You can find out more here.
PS. For a deeper dive into the science behind why teaching kids to trust their unique bodies works out better for them in the long run, check out this 25 min podcast interview with Evelyn Tribole.
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