How to Help an Adopted or Foster Child Who Hoards Food at Home

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Making a child a part of your family through adoption or fostering is one of the most selfless acts of kindness you’ll ever do. Of course, it may take time for your little one to feel comfortable in your home, and her adjustment period may include hoarding food. Unfortunately, food insecurity is a fairly common issue for adoptive and foster children, and the issue may stem from a variety of factors. Although it’s a frustrating situation, understanding why your child feels the need to have constant access to food will help you come up with a plan to address the problem and make her feel safe and stable in her new home.

Why Do Some Adopted and Foster Children Hoard Food?

There are many reasons why a child may suffer from food insecurity. While every child’s background and personality is unique — and her reasons for feeling anxious about eating will be, too — these are some of the most common reasons children who have lived in unstable home environments may hoard food:

  • They spent time in a home, whether with their natural relatives or a foster family, where food was scarce. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for families to struggle with putting food on the table; as the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) explains, “Nearly one in seven households with children cannot buy enough food for their families.” In this situation, kids sometimes compete with each other for a full belly.
  • Constant uprooting has made them feel like they have little or no control of their lives. Children who have lived in multiple homes often feel their stability is ephemeral, and keeping a supply of food helps them regain a sense of security over an important aspect of their lives.
  • They suffer from malnourishment. Lacking vital nutrients may be due to food scarcity issues in previous homes or an underlying medical issue (such as anemia) that hasn’t been addressed, and a child with nutrition deficiencies may be hoarding food that contains the nutrient they’re craving, even if they’re unaware it’s the reason they’re doing so.
  • They have an unhealthy relationship with food. Children who have been in home environments that lacked supervision may have had to rely on themselves for obtaining meals and snacks, which often means reaching for packaged and other processed foods that tend to have addictive additives in them. If you’ve been working with your child on establishing a healthier diet, she may be having trouble with reducing or eliminating foods she once counted on as a source of nourishment or comfort, especially if they contain substantial amounts of sugar, salt, and/or fat.
  • They use food to cope. Adults and children of all backgrounds sometimes rely on food in times of stress, and moving into a new home with a new family — especially if it’s not her first time doing so — can be extremely difficult for a child.

They haven’t learned to trust you as their caregiver yet. It’s first important to note that this isn’t your fault. Kids who have experienced trauma from the actions of their natural parents, other family members, or foster families may need time to trust you to meet their needs, including when it comes to providing them adequate nourishment.

Mother and Daughter Preparing Avocado Toast

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How to Help a Child Who Hoards Food

There are many ways you can ease or even resolve your little one’s food insecurity. You may find that one or a combination of the strategies below makes a huge difference in your child’s behavior. However, if the problem is severe, you don’t see signs of improvement after a few months, or anyone in your family (including you) feels overwhelmed by the situation, it may be helpful to work with a social worker or child psychologist to get to the root of the issue and create a long-term plan of action.

Talk to Your Child About Solutions

If she’s old enough, having a conversation can be a great first step in addressing the issue. Be sure to use age-appropriate language, and use a non-accusatory tone throughout your discussion. The goal is to give your child a way to explain how she feels, a feeling of control about what she eats, and a sense of security about having a consistent food source. Consider using a variation of one of these conversation starters:

  • “I’ve noticed you like to keep snacks in your room. Is that because you’re hungry a lot, or is it because you like to have them near you when you’re in there?”
  • “I think we should create a meal-time and snack-time schedule for our family. Here is the schedule that I think would be best, but what do you think? Is there anything you would like to change about it?”
  • “I’d like to get more family input about the meals I make. What types of foods would you like to eat more of, and would you like to help me prepare them?”

Don’t Punish Hoarding Behavior

While punishments are usually an effective way to discourage behavior you don’t want to see from your kids, you should reserve reprimanding your child for when she’s done something naughty or dangerous. Hoarding due to food insecurity fits neither of those criterion, and it isn’t acting out. It’s a psychological response to one or more traumatic circumstances or events she endured in the past, and it’s a situation that should be approached with compassion and positivity rather than discipline.

Allow Her to Keep a Supply of Food in Her Space

Giving your child a small cabinet she can keep next to her bed can be a good way to help her feel more secure, especially if she’s only recently joined your family. This can be a good way to help her to feel more comfortable during her transition, with the hope being that she’ll eventually realize she doesn’t need to worry about food.

Woman in White Knit Sweater Smiling while Little Girl Licking Icing on Her Spoon

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Make Food Readily Available

Even if you allow your child to keep her own personal snack supply, ensure other fare in the home is always within easy reach. Resist the urge to lock cabinets or hide food in order to restrict her access to it, because this will likely only further amplify her fear of hunger. It may also be helpful to leave food on display by keeping a fruit bowl on the kitchen counter or even a candy dish at the entrance of your home; while the latter may not be the healthiest option, it will show your little one that she’s able to eat the very second she walks through the door.

Create a Routine for Meal Times and Snack Times

Creating a set schedule for meals and snacks will help your child build a sense of security about being able to eat on a regular basis. Having a timetable where meals and treats are slotted for every few hours is generally a good strategy, because it helps ensure your child has enough time to digest her food but is never overly hungry. Consider using a schedule similar to this one:

  • Breakfast within an hour of waking
  • Light snack 2-3 hours later
  • Lunch in the late morning or early afternoon
  • Light snack 2-3 hours later
  • Dinner in the early evening
  • Light snack about an hour before bedtime (try to choose a treat that doesn’t have ingredients that may impact her sleep, including caffeine and sugar)

Of course, most children are in school part of the day, so it’s important to take steps to address their food needs when they’re away. You may want to consider taking one or more of the following actions:

  • Send your child to school with packed breakfasts, lunches, and/or snacks to ensure she stays on her daily eating schedule. It may also be helpful for the two of you to plan and pack them together each night for the day ahead; this gives her a say in what she eats and reassures her that she can count on all of her meals being available to her the following day.
  • Work with your child’s educators to ensure she can stay on schedule. Kids in pre-K and kindergarten are usually given one or more snack times, but since these treats are often provided by the school or other parents, your little one may be offered something she doesn’t want to eat, which could cause her anxiety. To avoid any issues, inform her teacher of your concerns, and then provide alternative snack options that can be given to your child should the need arise. 
  • Older elementary school students may not have snack times scheduled during the day, so be sure to discuss a solution with teachers. They may allow your child to squeeze in a snack at the time(s) you suggest, or they may even institute a classwide daily treat time so your little one doesn’t feel singled out.
  • For the most part, middle and high school students should be able to eat a quick bite between classes to keep on their eating schedule. If the school has any rules against eating in the hallway or classroom, work with the administration to find a fix. The staff should be more than willing to accommodate you.

Cut Out Meal-Time Distractions

Making meal times family-focused occasions is a smart strategy for all, but it can be especially beneficial for food-insecure kids who overeat or consume their food too quickly. Cut out distractions by making the dining room an electronics-free zone where phones, tablets, and TVs aren’t allowed. Encourage family discussions about everyone’s day, new interests, upcoming plans for the weekend, or whatever topic is on someone’s mind. Being engaged in conversation rather than staring at a digital screen will extend the time it takes to clear a plate, which will help kids who overindulge and those who eat too quickly. The former will be more mindful of each bite they take, which will help them realize when they’re full and don’t need to eat any more, and the latter will see that they can take as long as they like to enjoy their meal, helping build their sense of food security.

Don’t Eat Off Other Family Members’ Plates

Children who have been in homes where food was scarce may have had to split their share of food with others, leading to meal-time insecurities. Even if your little one or another family member says they’re done eating but still has food on their plate, don’t add it to your own or allow another person to finish it. Instead, save it for leftovers, taking care to show your child that you’re packing up her food so she — and only she — can eat it later when she’s hungry again.

Family Doing Grocery Shopping

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Don’t Use Food as a Reward

Using tasty treats as rewards for good behavior further instills the ideas that food is something to be coveted and that kids must do something to earn it. A special birthday dinner or an occasional surprise trip to your family’s favorite ice cream parlor is perfectly harmless (and a great way for your family to bond); however, try to avoid using snacks as an incentive for doing chores or completing homework.

Offer Healthy Alternatives

If your little one uses food to cope with difficult feelings or you’re concerned that she’s hoarding unhealthy food, offer nutritious swaps whenever possible. A child who craves candy may learn to appreciate the sweetness of apples just as much as her favorite chocolate bar, while one who overindulges in potato chips may enjoy baked pita bread instead. By encouraging her to trade out junk food for a more wholesome option, you’re giving her control over what she eats, and you’re not facilitating her insecurity by taking food away.

Plant a Fruit and Vegetable Garden

Growing your own produce is a great way to show kids that food will always be available to them, because even if the refrigerator were empty or the cupboards bare, they’d still have fruit and/or veggies readily available. Plus, gardening is a hobby you can pursue together, which will help establish a strong and trusting bond between the two of you. 

If you’re the parent of a foster or adopted child who hoards food, understand the process to address the situation won’t happen overnight. There is a very real possibility that it will take months or longer to see any progress, and you may need to call in the expertise of a mental health professional to ease your little one’s food insecurity. However, with time, patience, and lots of love, you and your new family member will find a solution for putting her food-related fears to rest once and for all.