Some of the kids that come into your home may have hoarding issues with food. They may not have had enough to eat, may have relied on food stamps (that parents may or may not have used wisely), or even on the schools to provide food for them and their families. Because they weren’t always sure when their cupboards might have food, they learned to hoard, or even steal food.
While that’s obviously not a behavior you want to continue in your home, the answer is not to just tell them they can’t do that anymore, because they’re not likely to trust that. Here are a few ideas.
First, it’s important to reassure kids that there will always be enough food to eat. You may want to tell them when grocery day is so that they know it’s ok if pantries appear to be getting a bit low. This may cause anxiety in kids; they may ask when you are going to the store (or they may have learned not to ask that question, in which case, you may just see some anxiety behaviors, or behaviors around food). If you don’t shop on any particular day, tell them at as well. Tell them that if they are concerned about it, they can share that concern with you. If it seems to be a significant problem, you may want to ask them what amount of food would make them feel safe. That doesn’t mean you will always buy that much food, but it does allow you to have a conversation about why you might not have that amount of food (e.g., maybe you’re going away for the weekend, maybe food would spoil before you could eat it, maybe your pantry/refrigerator wouldn’t accommodate that much food, etc.).
Depending on the child’s age, you could involve them in meal planning and creating the shopping list. That way, they can see that they have food for every meal for the week. You may want to talk to them about budgeting, and whether the “food” budget includes groceries only, or if it also includes eating out, or school lunches, for example.
Designate a cabinet/refrigerator drawer as the “snack” cabinet/drawer. Start off by telling them, “You can have anything from [this cabinet or this drawer in the refrigerator, etc.] whenever you want. You don’t have to ask for permission—you can just get what you want/need.”
While you will likely want to stock this cabinet with primarily healthy snacks, you might also want to put some “junk food” or comfort food in there as well. Don’t worry if that’s the only thing they choose initially. They may not have had some of the healthier options you may be offering, so they are going to go with what they know. I wouldn’t advise telling them they “can’t” have that food, at least not in the beginning, but you can offer the healthier options at mealtimes, for example.
Initially, kids who have experienced food insecurity may not believe you when you say they can have whatever they want, or as much as they want, without asking permission. Keep reminding them, and if they choose healthy snacks, reinforce that good decision with praise.
This is probably also a good time to talk about where food is kept and eaten. It’s not unusual to find kids hoarding food in their bedrooms (under beds and in closets or backpacks) or even bathrooms or pockets of clothing. Tell them that food is kept in the kitchen (and wherever else it may be, such as a second refrigerator in the basement, for example), and is eaten in either the kitchen or the dining room (or the back deck, or whatever). Specifically tell them that food is not kept or eaten in bedrooms or bathrooms or closets. But remind them that because there is, and always will be, plenty of food for them, there is no need to hide it or store it for “later.”
In the beginning, they may want to take lots of food out of the cabinet. You may need to remind them that food taken out of the cabinet cannot be taken to their room or put in a pocket for later. If they are hungry later, they can just go get something to eat out of the cabinet then. If they take more than they can eat, they can just put any unopened food back in the cabinet (in other words, you don’t want to tell them they “have to” eat whatever they take out of the cabinet, because that could create a different problem).
Once they trust that there is plenty of food, you can start talking to them about appropriate times to eat snacks. Ask them if they feel safe about having enough food, but watch for any body language that might contradict what they say. Reassure them that there is, and will still be, plenty of food (and still keep that designated cabinet full), but explain to them that if, for example, they eat a lot of snacks right before dinner, they won’t be hungry for dinner. Tell them that at some point, the rule will need to change to, “You can still have whatever you want out of the cabinet, but we will want to decide when you can have snacks so that snacks don’t interfere with regular mealtimes.”
Ask them what time they think they would like to have snacks each day; that doesn’t mean this is set in stone, and they can’t have an additional snack if they’re hungry. It just means that you’re going to try to get on a more consistent schedule. If they want more than one snack each day (e.g., one in the afternoon, and one before bed), tell them that’s fine, but that at least one snack has to be a piece of fruit or other healthy snack. Keep in mind that you may have to help them know which snacks are healthy, and which are less healthy. Keep in mind, also, things like “growth spurts” (which may mean they are naturally hungrier than usual) or age-appropriate number of snacks.
You want to involve them in the decision-making and leave as many choices with them as possible; feeling like they have no control over their situation can be anxiety-producing, so while you can’t leave every decision up to them, try to let them maintain some level of control over their life. That doesn’t mean you can’t help guide their decision-making, of course; I would suggest asking questions, though, rather than “telling” them what their decision “should” be. Sometimes you can give them an either/or choice between two things that are equally acceptable to you.
If you try to jump to this second step too soon, however, some kids will regress. They may abide by the “only at certain times” rule, but may start hoarding again, so that they have food accessible to them at any time. If that happens, you can try reassuring them, but if the behavior continues, you may want to step back to “whatever you need, whenever you need it,” (but no food in the bedrooms).
Some foster parents provide something called a “Yes” basket. This is a similar concept, but they keep a basket of healthy snacks in the child’s room. This is part of their “welcome to our home” strategy. The one thing I would caution you about with this idea is that it allows kids to have food in their bedrooms, which may not be a habit you want to encourage. Additionally, you may start with a full basket, and then an hour later, it’s empty. This doesn’t mean that the child ate all those snacks; it’s more likely that they are now hidden in the room. And now you have to decide whether (and how often) you are going to want to restock the basket. If the food is in a designated cabinet or drawer, it’s easier to monitor. And again, the point isn’t to limit what they’re eating (at least not in the beginning), but to limit what they’re hoarding.
Have you tried any other strategies to cope with food hoarding? What went well? What didn’t?