Food hoarding behaviour can be very common among looked after children and understanding the reasons behind it is not always easy. As a foster carer, you may at times find food in pockets, hidden under beds, in drawers or at the back of cupboards. Though it can be a result of neglect, hoarding behaviour is not always a result of kids being concerned about a potential lack of food.
This post will introduce some of the complex issues that can lead to hoarding behaviour in children. It will suggest ways you can support those in your care to phase out food hoarding and how you can work together to help them develop a more normalised relationship with food.
Behaviours to look out for
Food hoarding often surfaces alongside other ‘strange’ attitudes to food, so it’s possible you may notice one or more symptoms or behaviours in combination that indicate that a child placed with you could have disordered eating issues. You may notice:
- Food going missing from the table or cupboards
- Half eaten or even rotten food hidden in or under furniture, or in clothing
- Gorging behaviour where children eat until they are sick
- Children becoming distressed or begging for more food when they have finished a meal
- Anxiety or concern that others are receiving more food than them
- A refusal to eat new or unfamiliar foods or indeed, to eat at all
- A preference to eat foods that are familiar to them, these foods may be unhealthy convenience foods or heavily processed products
- Concern/anxiety when familiar foods appear to run out
- Unfamiliarity with using cutlery and lack of awareness around other table manners
Kids hoarding food: why do they do it?
Many children who enter foster care may have suffered neglect at some point and thus developed food hoarding as a survival tactic. This may be as a result of food being scarce in the home, not knowing when food will next be available or perhaps being denied food or made to go without it as punishment. It’s not uncommon for older children who have taken on a caregiver role for their younger siblings to exhibit this type of behaviour because they’ve previously been responsible for trying to source food for them.
Hoarding and other food issues can also be symptomatic of children trying to exert control over a small element of their lives when they have experienced significant upheaval or been faced with a series of changes. This can also be true of refusal to eat.
We have covered some other issues around eating before on the blog, but it’s important to realise that issues around food may not be simply a case of a child being fussy or difficult, but instead be indicators that they may need extra support to learn to enjoy a normal relationship with food and trust that it will always be available when they need it.
Practical steps to help overcome food hoarding
Food hoarding is a learned behaviour that rarely develops overnight and therefore it can take time to phase out too. Identifying the reasons behind the hoarding should help you to recognise potential ways to overcome it. Your wider support team may be able to provide some background to the problem, though observation and gentle questioning and encouragement of your foster child may also provide helpful information. In many cases it may be appropriate for the child to be referred to counselling to help address serious issues. Some solutions that may ease a child’s distress around food and discourage hoarding include:
- Offering them food more frequently than you usually would, so they will start to trust that it will be available when they need it
- Visibly taking snacks with you when you leave the house
- Giving a choice between two or three items to eat so that they feel in control of their eating
- Ensuring familiar foods are available while they settle and giving familiar foods alongside less familiar ones in order to encourage them to try them and establish healthy eating habits
- Never forcing a child to eat food or using it as a punishment. Try and make meal times a happy and relaxed experience
- If age appropriate you may want to try serving food up in bowls on the table so that children can help themselves
- With younger children and also with any siblings who have assumed a food provider role, gradually get them used to the idea that you will be responsible for giving them food and can be trusted to do so
- When you provide meals or snacks, let children know when you will next be eating and stick to a schedule so they learn to trust what you say
- Be prepared to eat unfamiliar foods first so that children are encouraged to try them. They may not have encountered some foods before and it’s possible that along with being nervous of their taste they may not be sure how to eat them, which could in turn lead to hoarding of familiar foods
- Some children benefit from being provided with their own snack box or drawer in the fridge, which they can populate with some snacks of their choosing. This provides reassurance that they have their own supply of food. However, you may find that this food goes uneaten and perishes, so it’s important to set a time when you will review the contents of the box jointly with the child so it can be replenished and spoiled snacks removed. You should not remove things yourself as this will remove control from the child.