I got this question recently on my Real Mom Nutrition Facebook page from mom Kelli:
I do my best to feed my family mostly clean. I try to have snacks only when needed, foods like nuts, popcorn, cheese, whole grain crackers, yogurt, fruits, veggies, and hummus. I let my kids eat junk food at parties and events where it is served. I let them indulge a bit, but encourage them to have reasonable portions. The problem is that my 9-year-old son is starting to hoard bags of chips and other junky snacks that he gets from sporting events (he’s in football and swim team). He also eats at restaurants and pizza parties likes he’s starving and will never eat again! At school he sees kids eating crap for lunch and thinks he’s deprived because he’s not getting that stuff everyday too. When I talk to him about it, he says he feels left out and deprived. I want to teach him to eat healthy, but I’m so worried about making food a negative issue for him. Do you have any advice on how to handle this?
I understand where she’s coming from, since my 10 year old thinks soda and chips are the end-all-be-all. I asked two of my colleagues–fellow dietitian Maryann Jacobsen and my sociologist Dina Rose–to weigh in with their advice for this mom. Here’s what they said:
Maryann Jacobsen, RD, blogger at Raise Healthy Eaters
I believe it’s important for parents to help kids navigate the food environment in which they live. In some cases, the strategy this parent is using can work for some kids. But in this case, it doesn’t seem to be. When children start to eat large amounts of food outside the home and say they feel deprived, it’s time for a change.
I would sit down with him and ask him what he wants. Are there type of foods he would like offered at home? Is he satisfied with the food offerings? He may be hungry more often than food is being offered. Plus, puberty is coming! This may not be about the outside food as much as him not being satisfied.
Mom can listen and work on ways to sensibly include the foods he wants in order to decrease their power. When appropriate, these can be healthier versions. This is a great age to get children cooking, so if he wants a food item, he can help prepare it. When it comes to snack-type food like chips that he requests, consider adding a day or two a week when he can have these foods either in his lunch or at home along with healthy items.
Keep the conversation going about different foods and how they make him feel. Do the chips satisfy him or just make him want to eat more? Kids can learn a great deal eating food that we parents don’t love (here’s how my kids learn about healthy eating at their grandma’s).
Start to tie eating different foods to how he feels physically, especially as it’s connected to sports and activity. Maybe over time he will learn that these foods aren’t as great as he thought. He’s missing that lesson right now because he’s so fixated on the foods he’s not getting.
Dina Rose, PhD, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli
It sounds like this parent has done all the right things. She’s not banning snacks and treats. She’s put them into her child’s diet in the correct way, emphasizing proportion (the habit of eating fresh, wholesome foods more often than junky ones).
However, hoarding signals a problem. It is possible that the parents are creating more of a restrictive environment than they think. It’s also possible that this child is simply fixated on snacks/junk as part of his biological/psychological make up.
Mom should have a conversation with her son about why he’s hoarding junk food, in a non-threatening way, away from food, and during a quiet time. This gives the parents valuable information and helps to build trust.
Hoarding is a sign that trust has been breached and that the child feels the need to solve his “problem” in secret. There can be no punishing or even “we’re disappointed in you” kind of conversation. This will only drive the problem further underground.
If her son says “I don’t know”, she can offer possibilities and see how he reacts: Sometimes kids hide foods in their rooms because they don’t think their parents will allow them to eat it, or because they want to eat food at times that their parents don’t allow it, they want more food than their parents allow, or are afraid siblings will eat their favorites
Then consider doing the following:
- Ease up on the portion size restriction and focus on teaching the principle of proportion.
- Compromise on how frequently treats can be eaten. This might be more frequently than the parents desire at first. However, the lesson about proportion will help smooth this out over time.
- Create a snack/candy drawer so the child can choose when he has his snacks. Perhaps food should be labeled as his if there are other children in the house so this child has security in knowing that his food is his.
- Initiate a conversation about hunger and fullness to help the child get better at recognizing when he is hungry and when he is full and talk about different kinds of hunger (i.e. different motivations for eating including emotional eating).
- Talk about the importance of honesty and not hiding things.
- Talk about healthy eating habits and how to fit the the foods his friends are eating into his diet in a healthy way. Help him plan for when those “junky” foods will be available, by eating healthier around those times.
Maryann Jacobsen, RD, is co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School and author of From Picky to Powerful: Transform Your Outlook on Picky Eating and End Food Battles Forever!
Dina Rose, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator, feeding expert, mother, and the author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating.