Pediatrics | Published March 30, 2015

Ask the pediatrician: Children sneaking food

Hi Dr. Collison,

At what age should I be worried that my child is still sneaking food? I know young children will "sneak a cookie from the cookie jar," but my 9-year-old daughter who has always struggled with weight issues is still sneaking food when I am not looking. I struggle with not wanting to push a complex on her when we discuss it. I keep healthy snack options in the house but portions are a problem. She wants lots of snacks, etc.

You are right in that this is a very challenging issue and one that is facing a big percentage of kids and parents these days. You want them to eat right and maintain a healthy weight but you don't want them obsessing about food, their weight, or to lose self esteem. You don't want them so worried about it that it leads to anorexia or bulimia or depression or eating to the point of obesity and all the issues that brings.

My opinion would be to openly talk about food and food choices and focus on aspects of health other than weight, such as a healthy heart, healthy immune system, and healthy growing (height). I believe that kids should be able to have treats once in a while but that snacks and meals should be as healthy as possible, with the treat following. This promotes both eating healthy meals and snacks and allows less healthy foods when the child is already somewhat full. This will hopefully keep them satisfied with a smaller portion of the treat.

I would suggest that you compile a list of healthy options that your child can eat as a regular, mid-meal snack (fruits and veggies are the best; occasional healthy crackers, low-fat yogurt, nuts if not allergic). I would also be sure that a good amount of water is consumed at the snack time to promote a full feeling; save milk for meal time. If your child is still hungry after a normal snack or meal, it is great to have some very low calorie  yet nutritional foods to fill up on, like carrots or celery that can be dipped in something to help improve taste. It would be great to talk about this with your child and develop the list for snack time.

I would be open about a "no sneaking" rule and that kids should not be serving themselves from the kitchen without permission. Maintain control over the portion size of the treat after they eat their evening meal and no bedtime snacks, except with special occasions. Make sure that you are promoting activity and exercise as part of being healthy; in my experience this is the most important aspect of managing weight and hunger issues. If you are consistent with the routine of healthy snacks and meals with occasional treats, hopefully you can maneuver the difficult task of keeping your child eating healthy without the psychological issues. I am a firm believer in communicating about the issues, focusing on the positive, and avoiding negative comments about body image. If this plan isn't working, I would suggest seeing your pediatrician and discussing other options, such as a nutritionist and/or a psychologist.

Hope this helps!