Kids’ Corner – Children and Emotional Eating

Does this sound familiar: dinner just ended, everyone finished their meal full and happy, and there’s no chance that anyone is hungry. And yet, a young one asks for food, in a small voice, which signals hunger: ‘Mum/dad… I’m hungry’.


Hunger triggers us, mums and dads alike (let alone grandparents). It is seen as an urgent need, and one that we need to address and satisfy until a relatively late age. A young girl who declares her hunger knows very well that she will receive attention and communication: “are you hungry? Really?”; “What would you like to eat?”; “Should I make you …”; “Would you like to prepare something together?”. This can be contrasted, for example, with the need to wee which, from a certain age is acknowledged by a quick reference to the toilet; and is also different from a request to play together that, if inconvenient, is answered with “one minute” or simply “not now”. And you think to yourself – no, you actually know – there’s no way that she’s really hungry now.

So what’s going on here?

At times, the ongoing dynamic is identified as the budding of a child’s emotional eating, across a number of layers that I cannot elaborate here. 

If we are to properly recognise them and to decide on the right course of action, we need to stop for a moment and take a look at the child, at their surroundings, and at ours.

This post focuses on the basic need for connection/communication, which is one of the main causes of emotional eating for children.

The following may be uncomfortable to read: “Mummy, food” and the like often arrive when we are stuck with our phone or in front of our computer. In other words – when we are disengaged from our child’s world. These situations make it doubly hard to truly relate to our child’s needs, since all we crave is some more screen time. Now that we’ve acknowledged this troubling reality, we only need to do so in real time, and to see if the future gain that is associated with positive action compensates for the loss of valuable screen time…

So what do children ask for, when they ask for food, even though they are not hungry.

All-time top of the list for children – communication! Meal time serves, at its best, as valuable quality time. But when it ends and plates are cleared, the communication dissolves. Therefore, asking for food should be seen for what it really is: asking to renew lines of communication. If we ignore the true need and, instead, actually supply food, the child will understand that food is a legitimate substitute, and that the need that they feel is synonymous to hunger. And all we wanted is to be sure that they’re not hungry…

What can we do?

Unfortunately there is no magic pill, or wand we can waive. When our children need communication or quality time, we actually have only one real, true, good option – to give it to them, or at second best – to acknowledge and address it!

Busy parents may gain comfort from the fact that the need does not have to be satisfied with hours of a Barbie tea party or hide and seek, but firstly by acknowledging the real need, that somehow was translated into food.

The most simple and effective course of action is to choose to be present. You will find that even washing the dishes to folding the laundry together will satisfy kids’ need for communication. Then, at least theoretically, as parents we tend to accept interruption without resentment and without us responding with an ill-tempered “just a minute”, “wait a sec”.

Of course, if you are in the mood for advanced parenting, you are welcome to check with the child how s/he’s doing, offer a hug, talk about his or her day, or in other words – just be with the child without responding directly to the request for food. And we can always simply offer food if we actually find that in this particular case, for some reason, the child is actually hungry. And then there’s always the Barbie tea party, which is always there for your moments of Premium Parenting.

Sugars and emotional eating – Children are very quick to learn that basic sugars dim strong emotions, whether they are good or bad. When they laugh or cry, they are offered food. A happy occasion is almost always around food, and usually – carbs or proper sweets. Since strong emotions are very challenging, and most of us can’t contain them because we never learned how (as we were also fed sugars at any clear emotional state), the emotional world of children is limited by boundaries that are sugar glazed, even if nothing was further from our minds. This learning process, which usually happens at a very young age, serves as yet another foundation for emotional eating that should be acknowledged.

What is your child asking for when she’s ‘hungry’? What does she crave? What does your child want to eat when he says ‘Mummmmy, I’m hunnnngry’? What offer would really please him or her, and what would he or she suggest?

If the answer is sugars, snacks and similar delights – take note. Maybe there’s nothing there, but maybe you are witnessing the budding of emotional eating and both the budding and the children should be treated when they’re still young.


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