So you caught your child in the closet slamming granola bars? Or you found them out in the garage drinking juice boxes you just bought for the birthday party? Yep, yep I have been there too! Catching your child in the act of sneaking food can be a great learning opportunity for both of you. It may also bring with it uncomfortable feelings. Along with challenge your relationship or beliefs around certain foods.
Please know you are not alone and this is a very normal childhood behaviour.
What to do when you catch your child sneaking food?
Here are my ideas on how to approach this situation when you witness them sneaking food. I hope this gives you a framework to ground yourself from.
- First take a deep breath – attempt to center and ground yourself
- Recognize what this is stirring up for you. What are the worst-case scenarios you are going to? Take a pause to reflect. Are you seeing yourself in this situation and your food relationship path?
- Remind yourself of the long-term goal for your child is to neutralize this food and have a healthy relationship with it. Please remember that one day of eating does not cause weight gain, nutrient deficiencies or the worst-case scenarios playing in your mind.
- This sneaking food behaviour may occur when a food is elevated, new, restricted or not given opportunity to explore. There possible has been some form of a restriction.
- As best as you can do not make scene, get extremely upset or explode. I suggest using language like “Oh I see you’re eating a granola bar do you want to come with mom and eat it together?”
- It is really important in the moment that you eat it together, right away. This is telling your child that it is okay that you are eating this food, it is okay that I caught you, and it is okay for us to eat this food together.
- Talk about the food with all your senses. What you like about it, the colours, taste, smell etc. Have a mindful eating experience with your child.
- Maybe with time ask “Why do you feel you cannot eat this together?” Or “why do you feel it is difficult to tell mom you want to eat granola bars.” Try to make this a safe space to be curious and talk gently about it while exploring and listening.
- Next make a plan for when this food is happening next. Will it be snack tomorrow? For dinner dessert? In the lunch pail on Wednesday? Whatever you two decide just ensure that you follow through with it.
- Moving forward make several opportunities where this food is offered. Overtime this food becomes habituated and neutralized which is Intuitive Eating principle # 3 make peace with food. The food goes from a special circumstance of limited offerings to an everyday food that has less allure.
Parents have to do the work too
Diet culture programs us to think of foods dichotomously as “good/bad” or “healthy/unhealthy”. Sometimes this gets internalized and certain foods may trigger us when we witness our kids enjoying them or “eating too much” of something. As a parent, if you have rigid food rules or feel “addicted” or “out of control” with certain foods you likely need to make peace with them. This can be done through food habituation. Which is a form of exposure work. Allowing yourself to have unconditional permission to eat the food with no strings attached. Sounds radical right? This of course takes time and the right support. When you have a neutral relationships with food, you will approach them differently with your child.
The Division of Responsibilities
In the sneak eating case the child takes it upon themselves all the roles the caregiver has in the feeding relationship. Overtime we want to balance this out by defining and staying in our lane when we feed our child.
The Division of Responsibilities is the solid foundation on supporting your child in having a positive relationship with food. There are different roles in the feeding relationship for parents/caregivers and the child.
- Decide the WHAT- the options or food combination offered at a meal or snack.
- Decide the WHEN- the timing of meals and snacks. The food offering is initiated by the adult not the child. Having a regular and consistent routine.
- Decide the WHERE- having a central location or hub where food is shared in the house.
The child’s roles:
- They decide HOW MUCH- the volume of food at the meal offerings.
- They decide IF they will eat the food. So no pressure is used to encourage them to eat the options. Remember pressure can be both positive or negatively given.
As a parent your job is not to feed your kids. They do the eating and you provide consistent, reliable and diverse food options. Once a pattern is developed in the feeding routine there is a sense of safety, trust and enjoyment. Let’s get back to sharing meals where the priority is connection.
Do you need support?
As a family based Registered Dietitian I can help parents work through their relationships with food and support them in raising body positive intuitive eaters. If you need help implementing some gentle family based strategies to foster food freedom please connect through a free discovery call. You can also check out my podcast Diet Culture Dropout for tangible steps to incorporate a diet culture free zone for the family.
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