What to Do When Kids Sneak Food

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little girl hiding some candies in her hands

When my oldest son turned 4 he decided he didn’t want to wait for mom and dad to get up and make breakfast in the morning. He would wake up early, sneak downstairs and raid the refrigerator and freezer. We often caught him red handed hiding in the shoe closet with tubs of ice cream or tubes of half eaten frozen cookie dough. If we were low on treats he would even sneak spoons full of sour cream or mayonnaise.

Did you ever snitch treats when you were a kid? I can remember climbing up on the counter tops and scrambling up the cupboards to reach the very top cupboard where my mother kept the maple syrup and drinking it. I would sneak my way out of my room early in the morning and scale the walls like some mission impossible agent to find any nook that might contain Mom and Dad’s secret stash of treats. Do your little secret agents put on their greatest spy skills to seek out, find and annihilate your family’s treat stash?

A sincere question from a parent just like you

Recently, a parent reader on Facebook asked the following question in regards to the topic of dealing with “treat pirates.”

“I have two sons, ages 9 & 6. In our home, we only eat real food. However, occasionally, I will purchase treats for us like cookies, ice cream, etc. For the past year or so, we have had troubles with them stealing food (I suspect the older son is leading in this matter, but can’t say for sure). At first, I spoke with them and explained that we can only have treats sometimes, and only when mom & dad say so. They continued to steal and lie about it. So, I stopped letting them have their weekly treat at all. They still continued. So, I stopped buying the treats altogether and now they have begun to find and steal snacks we’ve hidden for us, other things that are always off limits and belong to their grandparents ( we live with my parents right now) and they have even begun to steal their gummy vitamins. My partner and I are at a loss for what to do. Help!”

I’m sure most of us have experienced the frustration and concern in this Mom’s question. I can relate to her experience and would like to offer a couple of quick fix solutions that have worked for us or other parents to stop the sneaking behavior. It’s important to remember that while these skills may stop the behavior, we need to follow up with a more extensive approach that will promote healthy values and skills that lead to long term growth and moderation in snacking as they grow.

Consider it a meal

After my wife and I discovered Cuylar was sneaking snacks in the morning and even sharing them with his 2 year old brother we came up with a plan. The next time Cuylar was caught with a bottle of mayonnaise and a tub of cookie dough, my wife simply stated, “Wow Cuylar, looks like you made yourself breakfast, now I don’t have to worry about making it for you.” She then proceeded to make her own breakfast and eat it in front of him. When he questioned where his breakfast was she repeated that he had already fed himself and didn’t need her to feed him, he would just have to wait till his mid morning snack. While this approach may not work for every child, it did work for Cuylar, and we have never had problems with him sneaking out of bed to snack since.

Don’t keep treats

Don’t keep treats in the house at all. If you want to have a treat now and then, purchase the treat for one occasion and then get rid of it. This can actually promote healthier eating because most of us don’t want to drive to the store every time we have a craving for a treat so we will decide to eat something else, something healthier. If you had someplace to literally lock them up you could do that as well but I don’t know that I’m going to buy a safe to keep my E.L. Fudge cookies in.

Snack cards

Fed up with her two growing boys raiding the cupboards continually, my sister-in-law came up with snack cards. She explained that she understood their hunger and need for a snack, but felt their snacking needed to be monitored. She then established what the snack options were and told her sons they were aloud 3 sack cards a day other than meals. When they were hungry they could turn in a snack card in exchange for a predetermined snack option. If they used all 3 up before lunch they would have to wait until dinner before they could eat again. Soon they were spacing their snacks throughout the day and eating healthier snacks that she had predetermined.

A Lasting Solution

While the above approaches may help to stop the snitching, it’s important to develop a customized plan of action that not only stops the behavior but also promotes ongoing healthy cycles of nutrition and honesty.

Ask yourself the following TRU Parenting questions about how you deal with this stealing food behavior…

Teach: What is it I want my children to learn about “treats and sneaking or stealing the treats”? What do I want them to know and understand about food and appropriate, healthy eating? How can I best teach this to my child?

Relationship: How can food and treats become an asset for building connection and a stronger relationship? How can our relationship and time together help me to positively influence my child’s choices regarding sneaking treats and healthy eating choices in general?

Upgrade Yourself: What can I learn about me from this? What kind of model am I of the skills and values I want my child to learn? Is there anything I need to change in regards to healthy eating, sneaking food, etc.?

These TRU questions can help in guiding our actions throughout behavioral cycles. The following 5 points are some specific ways to proactively apply these TRU principles to the situation of sneaking or stealing food and treats.

5 Ways to deal decrease “treat piracy”

1. Understand your child’s perspective and motive for sneaking the treats. Recognize the reasons they are stealing the food. Consider the following motives for stealing the food.

[Tweet “Consider the following motives for stealing the food.”]

  • First, treats are tasty and kids love sugar (well, people love sugar).
  • Second, the kids apparently feel like the once a week treat is not enough. They aren’t getting treats when they want them so they sneak and steal them.
  • Third, Mom and Dad don’t want me to have the treats, so kids believe that they must steal them to get them rather than just asking for them.

Take a step back and take their perspective for a minute. I’m not suggesting that their perspective is right and that we should just allow them to have treats whenever they want. I’m suggesting that their perspective on treats and why they are stealing them is important in finding a solution that actually works and serves both of your interests.

2. Change the environment and attitude around treats. Create a positive attitude and culture around food and treats. Make them part of your family experience along with other healthy foods and snacks. Keep treats someplace that is more inconvenient, but not necessarily hidden. Put them in a high traffic area of the home where people are likely to walk in on someone that is snitching. Sometimes the very fact that the treats are hidden and secretive make them even more alluring and enticing. When that happens, they are not only yummy to eat but kids get excitement from the hunt for the treasure. You may want to allow treats more often, but in smaller portions.

3. Teach during the good times. After you have given some thought to what is driving the behavior, teach during the good times. Find ways to teach the principles that you want them to learn at times when they are happy, rather than just trying to correct them after catching them in the act or finding the missing “Chips Ahoy” in their sock drawer. Read them fun books about healthy eating, nutrition and treats in moderation. Play games that teach and promote delayed gratification.

4. Problem solve with them and create a plan. Have a discussion and problem solving party in a playful, fun atmosphere about how the treat stealing will change. Discuss their reasons for stealing the treats in an empathetic way and be willing to negotiate and find real solutions rather than just dictating rules and punishments. You might ask questions like…

  • What do you guys think is an okay amount of treats each week?
  • Do you get hungry in the middle of the day?
  • What are some snacks that you can have without asking Mom or Dad? (Volunteer healthy, simple options of snacks that are Mom and Dad approved)

In this teaching session, use some time to create a plan together. Write your plan down and post it on the refrigerator for the week.

5. Set limits and consequences and follow through. Set limits and discuss consequences. Note that I am not talking about “consequences” in the traditional sense of punishing the behavior, but identifying what the natural/reasonable consequences are. For instance a natural consequence of stealing something is to be required to replenish or repay the thing that was stolen. I know they are young, but they can find odd jobs for a family member or something to make a few dollars to pay back or replenish the treats that were stolen. No need for grounding or spankings or “go to your room and think about what you’ve done for the rest of the day.” This just makes our lives and their lives miserable and does not teach the intended principle.

I don’t know if you sneaked treats when you were little but I did and I know that it is a common issue with young children but they can learn the TRU principles they need to learn to stop the snitching. Each of the strategies and principles above help to teach our kids healthy eating habits, moderation as well as respect and honesty.

Give the strategies in this article a try and let us know how it goes. Have any of you had this same problem? How did you deal with it? What worked and what didn’t work for you? Answer these discussion questions and share your thoughts in the comments so you can help other TRU Parents.

Don’t forget to download your FREE copy of “5 Jump Starters for Powerful Family Cycles: Creating Happier and More Effective Parenting THIS Week!”

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