“Our son has been home with us for a year and he is still obsessed with getting as much food as possible, whenever he can. I’m tired of saying ‘no’ all day. If anything, it’s getting worse.”
As a childhood feeding specialist, I regularly hear from moms with questions like the one above. Children adopted from foster care or institutional settings are more likely to have experienced “food insecurity” — not being fed reliably or enough food, or having to fend for themselves. The resulting anxiety can lead to behaviors like eating very quickly, overeating at every opportunity, even sneaking and hoarding food. This scenario is scary for new parents, and there’s a lot of well-meaning but counterproductive advice out there.
But there is hope. Even entrenched food preoccupation can be turned around. As one of my clients said after her daughter had started making progress, “I get to be a mom now, not a food cop.” These are complex issues, but here are the three most important strategies that can help.
Schedule Meals and Snacks
Structure is the key to reassuring food-insecure children. Right from the start this means sitting down together (as much as you can) and enjoying a planned meal or snack every two to three hours for children up to about age five, and every three to four hours for older children. You might even offer food every hour or so the first few days to send a clear message that you will provide.
Serve balanced snacks that include fat, protein, and carbohydrates, rather than just a piece of fruit or handful of crackers; otherwise your child might be very hungry at the next meal, which can worsen urgency around food. Including at least one food your child tends to eat also helps her feel safe and respected. Be sure to serve foods you enjoy and want your child to learn to like.
Comforting phrases, like, “There will always be enough,” and pointing out a full pantry help to heal anxiety, but what really reassures children that they will be fed is having those regular, reliable, and satisfying meals show up day after day.
Don’t Limit Portions
I support parents with a feeding model called the Division of Responsibility, which is the cornerstone of ‘responsive’ feeding. Parents decide what, when, and where children eat, and children decide how much to eat from what is provided. This can be hard for parents (and even health care providers) to trust. Many parents resist with, “If I didn’t limit my son, he would never stop.” But limiting intake generally backfires, as most diets do for adults. Restricting children with (and even without) a history of food insecurity often increases their anxiety around food. In the long-term, it makes it harder for them to tune in to internal cues of hunger and fullness.
It is OK to limit some foods that are pricey or if there isn’t enough to go around. Try, “That’s your share of steak, but if you are still hungry, there is more rice and beans.”
It sounds scary, but food preoccupied children need to be allowed to overeat, which they may do for a time as they experience what “full” and “too full” feel like. If a child eats to the point of vomiting, you can end that meal, but stick with structure. You might say, “I’m sorry you don’t feel good,” and clean up. Try to be neutral. Do something else until it is time to sit down and eat again.
Make Transitions Pleasant
While you don’t want to restrict how much children eat, it’s OK to limit time at the table to support structure, as some children would linger at the table for hours if allowed. Consider setting a reasonable limit — say, 30 to 40 minutes for a meal and around 20 minutes for a snack. Prepare children for the meal to end by giving them something to look forward to: “‘In about five minutes, we’ll play Uno together. We’ll eat again at bedtime snack.” This feels very different to a child than, “Dinner is over, that’s enough mashed potatoes. Stop now.”
For preverbal kids, you can try a simple ritual to signal the end of meals — maybe hold hands or sing a song or wipe your hands with a warm washcloth that has a drop of an essential oil. For older kids, eating by candlelight and then blowing out the candle when the meal is over feels special.
For one family I worked with, mealtime was family time, but then the parents went right into clean-up mode. While that was understandable, they agreed to try transitioning to an activity instead. This way, they maintained parental attention, and their child didn’t associate ending meals with the end of family time. Ultimately, helping this child associate pleasant feelings with meals was worth letting the dishes sit for a little while.
Those pleasant feelings go a long way. Healing the anxiety and ending the conflict around what and how much your child eats frees you up to connect and enjoy each other. In addition, it helps her learn to trust her body and tune in to her hunger and fullness cues so she can eat the right amount for her body to grow in a healthy way.