Hoarding, Stealing & Bingeing: Food Insecurity in Foster Children
Food hoarding, stealing and bingeing are common food issues foster children develop, but why do they do it and how can you help them? We’re here to help shed some light.
Why foster children hoard, steal and binge food
When a child is not fed frequently and reliably by their primary caregiver, they can develop food anxiety. Food is often used by foster children as a way to gain some control over their lives that have often been turbulent and unstable. It’s also used as a way for children to self-soothe when they’re upset. It may also be a survival instinct.
What is food hoarding?
Food hoarding in foster children can derive from neglect and not knowing when their next meal is going to come. It’s where children stockpile food in secret and may even go to extreme measures to get food, including stealing.
A child stealing food at home is also often linked to past neglect and the insecurity around not being fed. A child stealing food and lying about it may have never had open access to food before, which could lead them to become secretive about eating out of fear of being punished. This can be the case where previous abusive caregivers deprived children of food as a punishment.
Stockpiling and stealing food gives children a sense of security, but it’s not a healthy, sustainable relationship to have, especially as stealing can get them in trouble with the law.
Why foster children binge on food
Bingeing is when a person consumes large amounts of food in one small sitting. It’s often a coping mechanism to deal with intense emotions and past trauma – something most children in care will experience. Teenagers may feel shame and guilt after a food binge and it can develop into a serious eating disorder. However, for young foster children with past trauma, bingeing can also be instinctual if they’ve previously experienced starvation or had to compete for food. Just like how animals fear having their food taken away by another pack member, some children may have had to fight with siblings over food in order to be able to eat. Binge eating foods in one go prevents anyone from taking it away.
How to spot stealing, bingeing and food hoarding behaviour
As explained above, signs of food hoarding in foster children may also indicate other disordered relationships with food. Here are some signs to look out for:
- Finding empty wrappers in pockets or drawers
- Food going missing from the fridge
- Begging for food even though they’ve just eaten
- Gorging on food until they become sick
- Only eating familiar food that are considered ‘safe’
- Refusing to eat around people or at the table
- Eating in secret or alone
- Becoming distressed when food is running low
- Getting angry or upset when food is taken away - even scraps
- Refusing to share or getting upset if someone eats off their plate
How to help children heal from food trauma, hoarding and bingeing
As with most complicated things in life, there is unfortunately no one-size-fits-all approach when you need to help a foster child overcome their food anxiety. It requires a lot of patience and trial and error, and you often have to work at their pace to avoid being too pushy, which can see you land back at square one.
We’d encourage you to lean on your wider support network to work out the root cause of the problem, and it may be the case your foster child needs additional counselling to combat their food anxiety. As a foster parent, there are also things you can do to help a foster child heal from bingeing, stealing and food hoarding behaviour.
Reliable, regular feeding
You need to be consistent and frequent when it comes to feeding so the child learns they will also be fed, no matter what.
Allow them to have their own cupboard in the kitchen
This can be seen as allowing them to continue stockpiling, however it’s a more regulated approach. Reassure the child it’s their cupboard and it’ll always be full.
Be the one to provide meals
If you allow your foster child to have their own food cupboard, you still need to be the one to get the food, prepare it and give it to them. Otherwise, the child may still feel responsible for their own care and resort back to hoarding. This ties in with being reliable feeding.
Get them involved in meal planning
As food is often used a way to gain control, letting your foster child help plan weekly menus could give them the control they need over food without having to hoard or steal.
Enjoy meals together
Make eating at the table a fun and enjoyable place to be so the child doesn’t feel a strong desire to eat alone or in secret. Again, the key here is consistency and reliability. Make it a rule that all meal and snack times happen at the table.
Let them carry a bag of healthy snacks
It’s not always easy to know how to stop a child from stealing food, especially as you can’t monitor them all the time. One way to try to combat this for when they go to school or a friend’s house is to let them take a small bag of healthy snacks with them. Knowing they have food on them may discourage them from stealing.
Gradually introduce different foods
You should allow them to continue eating their safe foods, but try to introduce new food alongside to ensure they have a healthy diet and become less dependent on their safe foods.
Don’t restrict their food
How to stop binging on food? Don’t restrict. You may think it’s more logical to restrict the amount of food a child has access to, but restriction tends to lead to further stress. An anxious, stressed, food-hoarding foster child is likely to want to eat more and go to more extreme measures to get food.
Focus on building a strong bond
Trauma can make it difficult for young people to ‘listen to their bodies’, due to constantly being in flight or fight stress response mode. That’s why it’s important to build a strong connection so they know they’re safe. This will help them with their emotional regulation, and over time, their food regulation.
Food insecurity in foster children can sometimes go on to develop into more serious eating disorders, which are mental health disorders. For more information on how to deal with complex needs like disability and mental health, download our guide Disability and Mental Health: A Foster Parent’s Guide to Complex Needs.