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3 Ways to Better Understand Your Child’s Overeating

The surprising reason that some kids always seem to want more.

Key points

  • Kids are better judges of how much they need to eat than their parents.
  • Children need to rely on their parents to give them enough to eat.
  • Proper meal and snack timing can help kids self-regulate their food intake.
  • Restricting and forbidding desirable foods can lead to sneaking.

When parents first come to nutrition therapy, one of the most pressing concerns they share is usually:

“No matter how much she eats, she's always hungry!”

“How do I explain to her that she’s overeating without making her feel bad?”

“I keep finding wrappers under his bed. I worried that he's sneaking food.”

There are many reasons a child may be overeating or sneaking food. Here is why knowing that kids can manage food portions on their own, as well as a few common culprits as to what might be getting in the way of them doing so, can reassure us.

Copyright Ron Lach/Pexels
Young boy eating cupcakes
Source: Copyright Ron Lach/Pexels

The Basics of Knowing How Much to Eat

For the majority of healthy children, knowing the exact right amount to eat from day to day should be easy. Kids–and adults–can figure out how much to eat at any given meal or snack based on signals within the body.

Hunger speaks to us via physical signals such as a growling stomach, low energy, or thoughts about food. Fullness speaks to us via pressure or slight discomfort in the stomach and a waning interest in food.

The better we can listen to those signals, the better we can self-regulate our food intake. If you feel your child isn’t able to listen to their body or self-regulate, here are a few questions to consider.

Does Your Child Know They'll Have Enough to Eat?

First, for your child to be able to avoid overeating, they must feel confident and reassured that they would have access to enough to eat.

If a parent worries a child is eating too much, perceives their appetite is too big, or weight is too high, they might limit the amount their child eats. This behavior can make a child feel insecure that they will get enough to feel full. Ultimately, it'll prompt that child to eat more of whatever food is available.

Plating food and allowing the child to have more from a shared plate (if available) can help them feel confident there's enough food. The feeling that there is enough is key when it comes to a child's ability to self-regulate.

Does Your Child Know When They'll Eat?

If your child feels worried or unsure about whether they'll be able to eat or eat enough the next time they're hungry, they might eat an extra large amount. And it makes sense. Eating past the point of fullness might be a sign your child is protecting themself from the discomfort or worry of feeling hungry later in the day.

For example, if dinner is offered from as early as 6:00 pm to as late as 8:00 or 9:00 pm, depending on, say, a parent’s work schedule, the unpredictability can make it difficult for the child to know how much to eat earlier in the day. They might feel the need to fill up at lunch or during an afterschool snack.

If an evening meal is at or around the same time, it's easier to know how many chips, crackers, or pieces of cheese to eat at snack time to make it to dinner.

From my experience, if the time between eating is too long or eating times are less reliable, a child will start asking for food before the parent is ready to feed them. Or before they feel hungry themselves. The constant food requests make it seem like they’re “always hungry.” Offering food at closer intervals or on a more reliable schedule can help.

Meal and snack schedules can make it easier to manage hunger and self-regulate food.

Wondering if your child is eating often enough? Generally, offering food every two to three hours (usually three meals and three snacks) works for elementary-age children. And every 3 to 4 hours (three meals with two snacks) works for adolescents and teens.

Is the Food They’re Eating Filling?

Different nutrients have different digestion times. Carbohydrates containing no or low fiber may satisfy a few minutes after eating. However, within an hour or so, our hunger may return. Fat and protein take longer to digest and thus keep us feeling fuller for three hours or longer.

If it feels like your child “just had a snack” yet is still hungry, think about the nutrients they've eaten. If there are only carbs and little to no protein or fat, that might be the reason. Pairing fruit, crackers, or bread (all sources of carbohydrates) with cheese (a fat), a handful of nuts, or a smear of nut butter (a source of protein and fat) will help a child feel fuller for longer than eating carbohydrates alone.

Is the Food Enjoyable?

It can backfire when parents limit sugar and fat-containing foods to keep their kids healthy.

"Healthy” eating is often thought of as limiting. Yet avoiding delicious, tasty foods can lead to negative habits such as overeating and sneaking.

The reason? Physical fullness isn't the only part of feeling satisfied. A sense of enjoyment of food is necessary too.

When parents focus on their children eating only the healthiest foods–lean proteins, low sugar starches, and plates loaded with vegetables–kids tend to remain unsatisfied. They are often still interested in eating long after having a significant portion to fill their tummies.

What's worse? When parents criticize foods their children want and crave as "junk" or "bad for you," it can stir up internal conflict about eating. In this case, a child will still want the food. Now they might feel compelled to sneak it as a way to avoid a parent's disapproval. They're also more likely to eat it uncontrollably, thanks to fears of parents limiting it in the future.

To help your child learn to eat just the right amount of enjoyable foods, remind yourself that wanting or craving sugary or high-fat foods is normal and natural. They are delicious, after all! Eating them will not have the harmful impact on our health or weight that diet culture leads us to believe.

Lastly, incorporating enjoyable foods into meals and snacks can help your child feel more at ease about their enjoyment. That means much less overeating, sneaking, or grappling with feelings of shame or guilt in the future.