Ask the Dietitian: Help! My Child is Obsessed with Food

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on March 23, 2010

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Q: My 6 yr old daughter is not overweight, and is actually tall and quite thin. She LOVES to eat, all the time. She thinks about food and talks about food very often. My real concern is that she always eats 100% of what is given, and if allowed to have more (I usually don’t offer), she seems to honestly have no limits. She especially loves sweets. I’m concerned about how emotionally attached she seems to food, and mostly, that she does not seem to have an ability to notice fullness. Can you help me?

A: I follow the advice given by internationally recognized feeding expert, Ellyn Satter, RD, LCSW. She has some great books available such as Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense and Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. Her division of responsibility (DOR) of feeding is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Dietetic Association.

If you are not already familiar with it, DOR basically says that parents decide the “what,” “when,” and “where” of feeding and children decide the “how much” and “whether” of eating. The idea is that children know how much food to eat when provided with a variety in structured settings (regular meals and snacks at the table). While most parents complain that their young children do not eat enough, in some cases, a child might need much more food at mealtime.

When children want more and don’t get it, they can become obsessed with food and eat more when they get a chance (especially when parents aren’t around). And sweets are even more attractive because they are rich in calories.

I recommend that you provide meals for your daughter and when she’s done ask her if she wants more. Continue to feed her until she says she’s full. At first she’ll probably eat much more because she can, but after a while she will get the idea that she can have enough food and will eat as much as she needs (which still might be a lot for her metabolism).

The same thing goes with sweets. Offer them once or twice a week (at the table) and let her have as much as she wants. Assure her that she can have more another time.

Research shows that restricting intake and limiting access to sweet foods increases children’s preferences for such foods. What happens is something called “scarcity” where children feel food is scarce and want more. My dad was like this because he grew up poor and didn’t have regular access to food (he ate all of our leftovers). I don’t believe you are overly restricting her, just not allowing her to have more if she wants. But if she has a really high metabolism (being tall and thin) and is still hungry after eating what you serve, this could create scarcity for her.

Children also need a little more fat than adults so it’s okay to have butter with bread and regular cheese. Protein foods (eggs, chicken, fish, meat) are more satiating so you’ll want to make sure you are maximizing these items at mealtime. For example, cold cereal and fruit probably wouldn’t be enough sustenance for her in the morning.

You also can help her realize when she’s full by asking her, when she says she wants more, if her tummy is full. If you see her turning to food to deal with problems, encourage her to use non-food ways to solve them.

Response: I just wanted to tell you, your words really hit me–in a good way. I started that very day asking my daughter if she would like more after she finished her plate. It’s been 3 days, and I have offered more at every meal, and she has said yes each time. I have given more fruit or vegetable, and she eats all of it and then says she’s full now. I really feel a lot better, giving her the responsibility back to make the choice. And I can see in her face a change–she feels like I am trusting her to make a decision. This is really big for our relationship, and I already feel so much better not having food be such a weighty issue between us at this age.

Got a nutrition or feeding question?  Ask Maryann

This information on this site is for educational purposes only and does not take the place of medical advice. Please verify with your healthcare provider.

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{ 58 comments… read them below or add one }

studiominetti March 25, 2010 at 8:54 pm

my nephew eats well.. i think my brother did good job in making him eat healthy foods… they are living it also so the child can see..

one time, my nephew saw me drinking a soda… and he went “soda.. YUCK” hahaha so cute and it really did tug a conscience there.. hahahah

Ortodonzia Implantologia Chirurgia Posturologia Igiene Orale


Sunny April 1, 2010 at 8:22 am

This has been an extremely!! frustrating topic for me with my 3 – now 4 yr old daughter. It seems like she never stops talking about when the next meal time is. When she plays it always involves something with food. I have felt like a terrible mom but I don’t even know why or what I’ve done to make this such an obsession for her. This article gives me hope. I will try it. I just pray that it works!


april March 8, 2011 at 10:40 am

my son is just like this but, he will not stop, after i give him more, if i was not their to watch him he would eat untill he threw up. it has gotten bad, he hets his lunch( for school) on the bus and then tells his techers i forgot to pack it so he buys his lunch, (after he ate brkfast at home!) i dont know what to do, it is getting out of hand, and the teachers are coming to me , telling me he is eatting anything he can get his hands on, off the floor, trash, and even other kids, even paper, i feel like such a bad mother, i feed my kids heathy i think, or best i can , they get the junk food from time to time, but if anyone has any ideas or tips, please help, oh he could eat and would if left to eat a med pizza on his own, he has ate 8 slices before on a field . everyone jsut tells me he is jsut “hungy” he need to eat more, HELP>>


holly May 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm

both of these comments sound like our house, especially April…my daughter has always ate a ton but she started school in September and every single day since then (I am not generalizing, I mean literally every day) she has done one or more of the following:
stole food
ate out of the trash can
begs and pesters others for their food until she gets some
It’s humiliating as a parent to keep getting calls from school. She is alienating herself from her peers. Her doctors have run test after test to make sure it’s not medical and we have an appt in June with a specialist 4 hours away… I am beyond frustrated with this situation. She knows it’s wrong because she lies to cover it up.

We’ve tried teaching positive/healthy habits, we’ve tried different punishments (chores, early bedtime, spanking), we’ve tried letting her eat until she throws up (which she does)…we’ve tried about 5 sessions of therapy before i gave up on it. If anyone has been through this and seen changes or found a different solution…anything. Please comment. I’m book marking this page in hopes that someone somewhere has been through this and made it through with a healthy, happy child…


Karen January 9, 2016 at 10:55 pm

Sounds like Prader Willi syndrome to me!


Ashley January 20, 2016 at 5:16 am

Maybe autisum or sensory disorder


emily April 13, 2016 at 5:16 pm

This sounds just like my daughter who is 3 every since she was a baby if she saw the bottle she wanted it it’s been so frustrating she’s on the higher end of her weight considered obese according to her bmi so we have to restrict her she throws fits if she can’t have food. We have gone to the Dr had test after test checked for cialic disease she also constantly drinks all the time and also has problems with pooping I have no clue why she never realizes her full belly if she don’t like something she won’t eat it esxpaically creamy white things he help


Angela August 4, 2011 at 7:35 am

Thanks for this great article. I found another interesting one written by a therapist – that was helpful as well. As a mother of a teenage boy, I struggle to know whether he is just an average teenage boy who is hungry versus obsessed with food. It’s helpful to see how restricting his food can make the problem worse. Thanks.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 4, 2011 at 9:04 am

Thanks for the article Angela!


Victoria November 20, 2011 at 9:12 pm

My daughter is 7, i’m really starting to worry about her food obsession. She constantly talks about food, she plays with her 3 year old sister and all i hear is what do you want for breakfast, what do you want for lunch, do you want cake I do. Want some candy… she would get a sandwich an apple and a bag of crackers for lunch, she kept hounding kids at lunch for their food, so the teacher said you need to pack another sandwich so she stops bothering the kids because they get uncomfortible. So we did…no change it’s still not enough for her. Then when she gets home, her popa usualy gives her 2 snacks and a glass of milk(We live with my husbands parents.) My biggest concern though is her health. Diabetes is a huge facter in my family and also her biological fathers fam, as well as high cholesteral. A couple years ago her levels were real high and took a year of good diet to get it back on track. Now nana and popa have fried fish and chips and fried chicken and chips, she doesnt know when to stop! Please help!!


Laurie January 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm

It’s probably too late to reply to Holly, but her child’s situation sounds eerily familiar to me as a parent of a child who has Prader-Willi Syndrome. It’s (at this time) the only known genetic syndrome for obesity. One of the hallmarks is the inability to ever feel full – no matter how much is eaten. Eventually we will have to lock our freezers, fridge, pantry, all food up. She will never be allowed to go anywhere alone -without an aide or family – simply because she will eat herself to death otherwise. It’s a heartbreaking syndrome, and my own daughter has it as well. If she happens to come back and read this comment, and her daughter has it, there are online support groups and help out there. First stop should be a chat with Dr. Jennifer Miller in Gainesville, Florida (who specializes in helping children with this disorder). She’s amazing. My daughter is in 2 studies for this rare syndrome and at visit over Christmas to Dr. Butler and his team in KCKS at KUMed Center, we found out there are now 10 identified subtypes of this syndrome.


Jessica January 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Hi there, I am also in the same boat. My daughter is now 6 and we have noticed the problem with the food obsession the past 3 years have gotten really bad. She also would sneak food whenever and where ever she found the opportunity. She also never gets the “full” feeling, always asking for more, often able to out eat me and my husband. Its not only with over eating, its that she is always thinking of it, she will play with her food, move it around on her plate multiple times before she actually takes a bite, chews slowly (if i didnt keep on her, it would take her over an hr to eat).

I have a 2 year old and when he was first born and would wake in the middle of the night, I would find her up at 3am with a bunch of food (not just 1 thing, but several items). This is when we started getting really concerned because now its a safety issue, she could choke to death in the middle of the night and we would have no idea! When we started putting a lock on the pantry door, she would head for the trash to see what she could eat out of there! She also is thin, but shes not under weight. When we approached the doctor about it, he tested her for the prada-willi, and the tests came back negative. So now we are just trying to deal with this and honestly it may kill me, because its so stressful! We just went on christmas vacation, and when we were there, she snuck food more than once also, we found items missing, wrappers in the garbage and all along side of her bed. Never did I think she would do this on vacation, but clearly its something mental. Im at my whits end with this, I have scheduled her a neurologist appointment because I found something on the internet called Hypothalamus dysfunction. There are many different things this has to do with regulating and I have found almost all of them in my daughter. So hopefully we can see if this is the issue, somewhere no one else would think to check…her brain! I will keep everyone posted on the results when we do find something, but who knows, we may never know…good luck ladies!


holly January 26, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Thank you all for continued replies. @ Laurie, they actually tested my daughter too, even had a scan of her brain done to see if there was a tumor or something pushing on her gland because that, we were told, could cause her symptoms. They also did a lot of blood tests. Her tests and scan all came back normal… I was almost disappointed because I thought we were finally going to finally get help from this problem which eas consuming iur whole family -and a distraction at her school! When that and PradaWilli were ruled out they wanted to send her to a psychiatrist for medication?! Said it could be a firm of OCD where her focus is solely on food. I tried counselors first but all three said it was too big for them to handle and that she really needed to see someone that could medicate and do play therapy with her. I ran into too many insurance obstacles so we have pretty much given up. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of medicating my (Now) 7 year old anyhow. I’m sad to say this issue still causes incredible termoil on our home BUT happy to report the behaviors have decreased in intensity. She still sneaks, over eats, will NEVER refuse food offered, hints around to people that she’s hungry (manipulates them into offering food), and she gets an attitude when and if We limit her intake…. Not sure if it’s the harsh discipline we resorted to ( what else is there after the options are all tried?) but I feel like ut’s progress. She does not normally eat from trash cans anymore and as far as I know does not steal or bully other kids into giving her food either. Stay strong ladies, it’s scary and it’s frustrating, and sometimes (to be blunt) embarrassing, but after 18 month of the extreme obsession we seem to be in a better place, there is hope. (sorry for typos, on my phone)


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 27, 2012 at 7:35 am

I think I have replied to most of you personally. For those who have not recieved a medical diagnosis of Prader Willi you might want to check out Ellyn Satter’s recent webinar on obesity prevention. I know there are no simple answers, and it sounds like many of these cases are complicated, Satter does have a lot of wisdom to share about the feeding dynamic and how important it can be.


Laurie January 27, 2012 at 8:17 am

I wanted to add something here about Prader Willi Syndrome.

My daughter was diagnosed with the SECOND test. The first test came back negative. When a month later in the hospital with still no movement, they did a second, different test. I think the first one was a FISH test and the second was a methylation test, but don’t quote me on that; it’s been a while.

She is currently in two studies on PWS. When we went this past December 2011, one of the researchers told us that in the past year they have found TEN different subtypes of Prader Willi Syndrome. It’s on a scale, like autism. And they could tell us some of the traits she personally would experience. For example, they could tell us she will have strong maternal bonding instinct and that her OCD and ODD behaviors would be a little more intense but the food seeking and hunger would be a little less intense (not running away to find food for example). While I’m not saying every child with a hunger issue has PWS, there are lots of examples on the PWS page of parents who had their child diagnosed after several different tests. Smith Magenis is another syndrome that has hyperphagia as part of it.

On the other hand, I love the Ellyn Satter Institute principals and ideas, and wish so badly that we could incorporate them into our family life so that we have a normal food dynamic for those in our family who are not PWS. I wish there was a solution to that! I’m trying to use what I can from the institute where it won’t interfere with food security for Olivia.


Laurie January 27, 2012 at 8:20 am

(Not trying to hijack this page, honestly)…. to the mom whose child might have hypthalmic dysfunction…. Dr. Miller is an endocrinologist who specializes in obesity dysfuncntion issues. She has a child in her professional care who has POMC…. the only child in the US who has it… with similar issues. So she doesn’t just deal with PWS, but the endocrine issues with food and obesity related disorders.


christy January 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Wow unfortunate to say, but i’m glad to see im not the only person in the world that is dealing with this. My 9 yr old step daughter has been sneaking food for 5 yrs now. Not only that, its the only thing on her mind all day everyday. It drives me nuts! What is for breakfast, what is for lunch, what is for dinner? I quit answering her because it gets on my nerves so bad! She watches the clock for the next meal time, as soon as those clock hands hit the 12 IT IS LUNCH TIME YAY! She writes stories, plays, talks and it always involves food. She says “well why do i only get three things in my lunch? (sandwhich, snack, fruit) When i go to the next grade will i still only get three things? When i get to high school what time will we have lunch?” She manipulates and lies to get more. She will eat until she throws up and never gets full. She gets into trouble for sneaking it all the time and the very next day is doing it again. I have found hundres of wrappers hiddin under toys, stuffed in jewelery boxes, in her bed, and other places. We keep the cabinet locked. I know people say if it isnt there she wont eat it but im 31 and under weight so i feel that it isnt fair. Why????? This is ruining my family. Does anybody have any answers? Please help!


April January 31, 2012 at 7:27 am

Christry, I feel your pain!! I hope you find answers.. If you do please tell me. I don’t think people understand how frustrating that this is.. It takes away from my other children.. And I hate that..
Please feel free to email me would live to have someone to talk to that is going thu the same thing..
Strayer 502 at gmail . Com


Katja January 31, 2012 at 8:42 am

PLEASE don’t use that article mentioned above from mentally healthy… All the tactics described are ones I commonly see in the families I work with where the children are food “obsessed.” Pushing “healthy” foods, making the child wait 20 minutes, serving “healthy portions” all increases a child’s unhealthy interest in foods. I work with clients on this topic which is VERY scary and difficult to treat. I HIGHLY recommend Your Child’s Weight, Helping Without Harming, and Ellyn just did a great article about this topic. I find that parents need to be absolutely reliable about filling meals and snacks every 2-3 hours for little ones and every 3-4 hours for older kids. All the talk about nutrition, moderation, being “healthy” to children is counterproductive. Then, parents need to white-knuckle it while they allow children to decide they are full, even if they vomit a few times. It is scary as hell (I have been there, with my 16 month old at the time.) Mich of what I do with parents is help support them through that transition time. How to handle parties, eating out, snacks, meals… But, after the scary transition time, children can and do self-regulate.
This is a worrying trend that seems to be increasing, and I think much of the worry about obesity, portions, “health” etc is fueling these feeding problems, that I fear will lead to increased rates of disordered eating. This is a very important topic, thanks Marianne! The key is prevention. Teaching mothers and fathers of infants about the division of responsibility. Almost universally with my clients, the obsession comes about because parents worry about a large child, or want to try to get a child to eat less… (This is all assuming there is no medical condition, which is extremely rare…)


Laurie January 31, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Since we’re talking about healthy eating at mealtimes, do you (the dieticians) have any suggestions for how to create a healthy mindset in my oldest daughter (5), when we have to restrict calories, restrict portions, restrict carbs, plate food, have strict mealtimes (food security) and all food on counters locked away for my youngest?

For those moms who have children who won’t stop obsessing about food, I feel your pain. My PWS daughter just ate a banana this morning when I wasn’t looking – I accidentally left it on the counter and she pulled over a chair and ate the tip of it before I realized it. I hate that food can’t be fun in our house and I don’t know how to meet both their needs. I would love to hear ideas.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 31, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Laurie — Your situation is unique because of the medical issues. I would seek out support groups or a dietitian that specializes in PW. I will look up to see if I can find anything.


jennifer February 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I’m a first time mom with no babysitting experience. Everything is new to me and a bit overwhelming. I struggle with feeding as its more of a hassle to feed solids than to just make a bottle with 1/2 formula, 1/2 whole milk and a couple scoops of rice cereal. That is what he heats mostly and then whatever we are eating if its something he likes. It seems like we waste a lot of food and its more like an experiment or an art project than an actual meal. He’s 16 months old and I’m wondering if I’m depriving him by feeding mo bottles still. Id say 85% of what he eats is from a bottle. How many calories a day do kids need at his age?


Linda July 15, 2012 at 8:02 am

My daughter is 6 and eats as much as her dad. She is hungry again before he is and constantly obsesses with eating. I want to cry. She is overweight and we try to keep her busy but as soon as we stop, she wants to eat. I thought she would lose weight or maintain when school started but it didn’t happen. It’s so sad and frustrating.


Lynda August 29, 2012 at 4:13 am

My daughter is 10 yrs old and weighs 100kg – I have been supporting her to lose weight, and thus far she has lost 9.5kgs which is fantastic. My problem is, that like many of the other messages on this forum, she just obsesses over food. The first thing she asks when she gets up in the morning, is whats for breakfast, then ‘whats for lunch’ when she gets home from school she immediately wants to know what she can eat – its like her mind does nothing but think of food. Her weight is dangerously out of control, and I struggle to keep her eating healthy, she often cries if she sees something she can’t have. She spends her free time on the internet looking up diets – its just out of control, and I really have no idea what to do anymore. We live in New Zealand, I’ve investigated options here, like nutritionists, doctors etc, but I’m now at a loss on how to move forward.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD September 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm

@Lynda — I would encourage you to see a dietitian who specializes in pediatric eating disorders. As you may be finding, this goes behind just getting the right food and portion sizes in front of children. You need someone who takes the whole child (and family) into account while coming up with potential solutions. I would fist talk to the health professional over the phone to make sure she/he has experiences you need. Don’t stop until you find the right person. If you need further help email me at


Joanne Buckley April 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I have a daughter who is 11years old, she is constantly thinking about food, she sneaks food and leaves the wrappers on the floor, behind picture frames, behind the settee, she plays out with her friends and goes to the shop for sweets, then doesnt want her tea, she takes money from where ever she finds it, we cant leave money lying around the house, we are taking her to the doctors shortly, because she has all the symptoms of odd, temper, anger, moods, etc can the eating and odd be connected


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 28, 2013 at 7:44 am

Joanne, I’m sorry you are going through this. I can’t say if her mood and eating are related. It sounds like getting help is the right thing to do. Good luck!


Mary May 22, 2013 at 8:55 am

My daughter will be 5 in 2 months. She is showing signs of food obsession and is very tall for her age and about 15 lbs overweight. I am not so concerned about the weight right now, but i am worried about her relationship with food. I am taking her to a pediatric endocrinologist next month, but I am unclear as to what they will actually test for. Yesterday at school she started to eat a paper plate… it was very alarming. It seems more of a behavior issue than a medical one, but I may be wrong. anyone know what type of testing they would do for this?


Angelique June 2, 2013 at 9:40 am

My daughter also will turn 5 in a few months and also is always taking about food. Se is also tall and strong for her age and a bit chubby. She also eats paper and stickers…. and actually still puts a lot of stuff in her mouth.


Anne November 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm

I can relate to a many of the comments on this thread. Our situation may be unique in that we adopted our son (from an orphanage) at almost 3 years old, and he was food obsessed when he came to us. He was a healthy weight then, and still is, so weight has never been the issue. Unfortunately, doctors (in my experience) don’t think there is a problem unless (or until) the child is overweight, but it was clear to us from day 1 that our son did not have a healthy relationship with food. We have one other child who we adopted as an infant, who has always been a great eater.

We tried the “let him eat as much as he wants” technique for over a year with our son, while he binged and purged the food through chronic, explosive diarrhea 6-8 times daily, both while awake and almost every time he slept (even short naps). They were trying times, to put it mildly, but I had faith that eventually he would get the message that food was plentiful in our home and he didn’t need to eat himself sick at every meal or snack. This caused a lot of stress between my husband and me, as my husband did not agree with “wasting” the huge amounts of food my son consumed. Our son was “hungry” when food was visible and until the last crumb was gone, but would show no signs of hunger when all food was eaten or out of sight. It clearly was not a matter of physical hunger. I never suspected PW syndrome because he seemed content to gorge himself when food was present but could easily be distracted with play when food was not present. He also has issues with moderation in general, always wanting more of anything he likes (mostly attention and food). I know some of this probably comes from not getting enough attention in his early years, but some of it seems to just be his personality.

Eventually, a little over a year after we adopted him, I had to agree with my husband that letting our son decide how much to eat wasn’t working. Our son seemed no closer to easing up on his need to eat any and all visible food. We then tried “cuing” him, or explaining that when he doubled over and said his stomach hurt (as he grabbed another pancake, or whatever food was left on the table), it was his body saying he had eaten enough. The only time he would ever say he was “full” is when no food remained. Potlucks and picnics were so miserable we started making excuses rather than having to deal with his constant begging for more food and sidling up to strangers to get food off of their plates. We have made some progress in that he doesn’t beg constantly and can be more easily distracted to play with friends, but he still will never turn down food and will never admit to being satisfied (even when visibly uncomfortable from overeating) unless there is nothing left to eat.

We worked with a counselor for about 6 months when our son was 5, and periodically after that. He is 6 and a half now and still thinks and talks about food a LOT, but we have found ways to manage it to preserve our sanity. Both my husband and I cook and prepare food a lot, and he absolutely loves to help (mopes if we say “no”). I feel like letting him think about and enjoy the cooking and baking process is a more productive channeling than just obsessing about the eating part, and maybe someday he will use his food obsession for good things.

Katja (above) would not approve of many of the controlling “rules” (offering mostly healthy foods, waiting until everyone in the family is done with firsts before offering seconds, teaching our kids about healthy portions, etc.) that we have incorporated into our mealtimes to preserve our collective sanity, but they have helped us, and I am definitely not willing to go back to the days when he “self regulated” his eating. We let him go all out at a restaurant just a couple of weeks ago, and the uncontrollable diarrhea he had in his sleep that night was a graphic reminder of why we don’t allow that at every meal and snack anymore.

I know from the outside looking in some people probably think we’re too controlling with our son’s eating… I’m sure once upon a time I would have thought the same thing. He definitely uses charm to acquire and eat things we don’t eat a lot of at home when he is unsupervised at school, birthday parties, field trips, etc., but as far as I know he is no longer eating out of trash bins, so overall he does seem to have made progress.

It’s comforting to know we’re not alone in our struggles, though I wish I knew of someone locally who understood what it’s like to raise a food obsessed child in what I think is a pretty unhealthy food culture, because there are days when it is overwhelming. It is an uphill battle, but we’re doing the best we can to be good role models for our kids and raise them to be healthy eaters, knowing full well that when our son is on his own he will probably make many unhealthy choices. But they will be his choices to make. Right now, I do feel like we have to make more choices for our son than I would like just to keep him physically healthy and prevent his eating issues from taking over our lives. I’m still holding out hope that someday he will be emotionally healthy when it comes to food, and wish there were more I could do to help him get there.


Shay December 27, 2013 at 5:31 pm

This forum has given me hope that I’m not alone in this. My child is now 7 he has always had a unusual one session with food. Always playing food related games. Anything he is engaged in usually surrounds food. He eats well lots of fruit and veggies 3 square meals a day and healthy snacks in between meals. However he never seems full he will eat and eat and eat some more. I don’t usually like to say steal food because the food is purchased for him as he is the only child in my home. But at this point it’s I’m unsure what terminology to use. He eats out of the garbage he will hide food wrappers and will lie when asked if he took something without an adult oking it.( we resulted to having him ask for permission) he is not usually punished for “stealing” food but eating out of the garbage is a whole different story. He can be in trouble for eating out of the garbage and do it again the very same day. He doesn’t seem to care when he’s doing it only when someone catches him. I’m at my wits end with this odd behavior. Please help!!!!!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 6, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Shay — I advise you to seek help. Start with a pediatric dietitian that focuses on the feeding dynamic. Good luck!


Lily January 24, 2014 at 1:24 am

My daughter is three years old and is increasingly compulsive about food, She wants to talk about when and what she is going to eat next within minutes of finishing a meal. Her whole life she has had digestive problems – constipation, bloating, feeling unwell after eating. We have tried many, many diets with the help of naturopathic doctors . I feel this may have contributed to her anxiety. Does anyone else feel there is a connection to your child’s feeling of always being hungry/obsession with food and a food intolerance or food allergy. Could they crave more of what their body rejects? I am unsure where to go next. My daughter’s anxiety is out of control and she is trying to control every aspect of meal time and constantly wants reassurance that she will get the food she craves when she craves it. I obviously refuse to give her foods that make her sick but I believe this is driving her to develop an eating disorder. Any ideas? Should I start with a psychologist?


holly January 24, 2014 at 6:01 pm

I have been getting this thread since 2011 and wanted to share with your that at least in my daughter’s case, there was potentially a link between her food allergy and her eating issue.

She has since grown out of a milk allergy but many therapists and doctors have suggested that when she was on such a restricted diet, she may have felt very hungry. The first few months we we under the impression that she had a stomach ‘bug’ then another, then another. She vomited so much that I did probably restrict her food intake. That period was followed by over a year of being completely dairy free and she did not understand why she could not eat what other people ate at family funtions, out to eat, at daycare parties etc. She did sneak foods that made her sick.

An update, she’s nine now. The eating issue is growing increasingly less of an issue. She did get in trouble a few times this year for stealing classmate’s snacks and she charges $38 by eating double lunches at school…but compared to the way this issue used to completely consume our meal times, those are manageable and are discussed in therapy. Best wishes in everyone’s search for answers.


Kristy February 5, 2014 at 11:25 am

Holly, I just read your posted over the last several years. My daughter is 2.9 years old and is Completely obsessed with food. She is nt stealing yet only because she physically can’t reach yet. Can you give me any advise as to how to handle this situation at this young age to prevent it from getting any worse? I’m taking her to a therapist but therapy is very limited because she is so young… Is there anything you would have done differently? Thanks!


holly February 4, 2015 at 5:13 pm

I don’t know if you still follow this, but I do and while rereading I noticed your reply. I don’t have any great advice because my daughter is 10 now, still in therapy, still stealing food (her teacher has to lock everyone’s lunches up, due to her repeated stealing other kids’ food, snacks, etc.), and pretty food-focused! She’s at an age now where it’s affecting her reputation at school, and therefore she is struggling with being picked on and isolated from her peers. It’s awful to see as a parent and no matter how many times she says she wants to or will ‘stop’, she won’t or can’t. She doesn’t just eat excessive sweets (although she prefers them) but even vegetables (she stole/snuck and ate 19 snack size bags of carrots, on a field trip, for example!) Some school years teachers and principals are more lenient than others, but each year it’s been difficult to explain polyphagia, let alone now the behavioral issues that have popped up from being picked on for frequently getting caught stealing or lying about stealing food.

I would have never thought this would still be dealing with this issue, at this level of intensity, so many years later but seeing how much of a issue it’s causing socially now, all I can say is get as much information as you can and fight for answers before it gets this big.

She still is allowed to eat what she wants, serves herself but she limits herself at times (usually at home,in front of family), makes a point to share out loud that she is done (especially if she didn’t eat a bite or two), then becomes very moody afterwards. Second child is four and has no food issues at this time, self limits, and is appropriate with quantity at home and elsewhere. Good luck everyone, thank you all for sharing.


Amy March 24, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Hi, I just found this post after a quick google search. My son is just over 3 years old and he has quite the appetite. He is tall for his age and not overweight at all; he is active and we eat pretty healthy. My main concerns is his ability to snack all day long in addition to usually eating 3 good-sized meals. After breakfast, he wants to know about lunch and after lunch, he’s looking for a snack, etc. I’m glad to know I’m not alone. I’ve talked to the pediatrician about it and she wasn’t concerned because his BMI is normal, but it’s really more than that. This started right around the time his little brother was born and we’re concerned that he’s using food to get our attention (because it usually becomes some sort of battle when he’s asking for snacks, etc.). I will be using the techniques described in this post (I did it at lunch today and after 2 servings of yogurt, 2 servings of grapes, and 1/2 a sandwich, he actually said: Mom, I’m done- such a surprise). Thank you, Maryann. If anyone has any other advice, please comment. Thanks!


Jodie May 9, 2014 at 8:16 pm

My 8 year old is obsessed with food and its literally taking over our family. She will talk her sister into getting a snack so she can eat it. When we leave restaurants, she’s already planning the next meal. It’s literally embarrassing and stressful! She’s 8.5 years and weighs 87 lbs. please help me!! I’m desperate!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 10, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Jodie — I highly recommend you get help from someone who specializes in feeding dynamics. If you need help, email me at


Mindi May 13, 2014 at 7:42 am

I just wrote out about 8 paragraphs….and it disappeared when I went to submit it!!!! :'( Aaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! Basically my son is 11 yrs old and we have been dealing with this sort of behavior since birth really!! However he is not overweight, is active and athletic, but definitely has an obsession with food!! It is completely controlling our lives!! I’m a NICU RN, and our area greatly lacks in the child psych/therapy department!! Any advice would be great!!! I’m so furious that my post disappeared!!! I’m happy to go into specifics though if someone has suggestions. Thank you!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 14, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Hi Mindy. I have a new post you may have saw

Do you allow your child to eat until he is full? Do you have structure at meals? how often do you present sweets? You can email me at if you want to talk privately.


sandi T July 22, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Hi, My grandson, 5yrs old is over weight, has over weight family members and a dad who is not always there! He is always asking about food. If he is not eating and someone else is he watches every movement of the fork. He will pick odd left overs and shall always say that ‘yours looks good’ no matter what it is, that’s him wanting some of our food along with his own…even when it’s the same food!
I do worry about him as he is already having trouble with breathing etc but this is being dismissed by the docs as ‘a growing lad’. He is made fun off at school and although very active, he does not loose any of his weight. When with us he is given a healthy diet and is given the odd treat, we do not obsess about it with him as I think this will only add to the problem. What can I do as a grandparent with limited input?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 23, 2014 at 2:45 pm

What you are already doing. If you think his parents will be receptive, bring up your concerns in a loving way. This is a great series on food obsession by an MD that specializes in feeding –it can add to your learning


Nikole September 23, 2014 at 5:42 pm

So so glad to hear I’m not alone and I’m praying it’s not a medical condition. I’m in a desperate situation and don’t know what to do. My 3 1/2-year-old girl gorges. Mostly on sweets during those rare times she gets access .I had a bag of chocolate pretzel things that I accidentally left on the counter and she snuck and ate it all. She’s constantly sneaking into the kitchen and stealing food from the counters. She’s always trying to scavenge other children’s snacks at playtime. The big issue with her at preschool she is trying to take other kids food. My teacher just emailed me told me that she tried to eat a cocoa puffs off of an art project. About us, we are mostly clean organic eaters. We do definitely go out to restaurants and on vacations and eat whatever we want but our day to day diets are filled with veggies and the occasional sweets. I raise my daughter to eat everything and don’t think I ever gave her anything sweet until she was at least two. Other than fruit. Friend of mine advise me to start letting her have sweets more often. I let her pick out some organic chocolate stuff at the grocery store the other day. came home and gave her one, the second my back was turned she snuck and took the rest of it. She’s very sneaky with food. Sneaky in general. I am a very” you eat what we eat, you eat what I make” kind of parent. I will never not serve something if my daughter “doesn’t like it”. Unlike many of the other comments, she definitely does have the availability to get full. In my opinion she eats a larger portion then she should for 3 1/2 yo. She eats very very healthy but the gorging with sweets and sneaking is getting bad. She lies about it too. She is a normal weight and very happy .I’m trying to do the right things to raise a healthy eater but something is very wrong and I’m starting to get worried.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD September 23, 2014 at 5:55 pm

He Nikole. From what you say, it sounds like you daughter really likes sweets (like a lot of kids) and by not keeping them around they are growing in power to her. When she gets them, she wants them because they are so scarce. I guess you have to think how you ate as a kid — you probably got something sweet more often. Kids are different from adults in how they eat/food preferences and I think adding in a sweet offering a few times a week and letting her eat until satisfied will do the trick. Some more articles that might be of help:


Anne September 26, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Nikole, I just wanted to wish you luck with your daughter, who sounds a lot like our son. You can see my original, long-winded reply to this article (on November 27, 2013). Since then, I feel like we have made progress, but it’s still a challenge.

I have started putting more junk food in my kids’ school sack lunches (we also don’t keep a lot of processed food in the house because that’s not how we eat regularly), in hopes that it will eventually minimize the “power” of the junk/sweets in my son’s mind, but I don’t know that it’s really helping. He still takes junk from others whenever he can (especially at school), and sometimes steals and/or lies about it. My husband and I have worked to minimize our emotional reactions to the sneakiness and lies in an attempt to minimize his already heightened emotions around food, and I think that helps. For example, when we discipline the behavior, we’re very careful to make it about the lying and the effect that has on trust, NOT about the food.

I was raised in a healthy environment as a kid (fruit and homemade sweets and a rare store-bought treat here and there), and embraced those values, as our daughter is doing. We like sweets too and have homemade desserts regularly, we just don’t gorge on them.

I’m afraid in our current culture, eating real, unprocessed food most of the time is just not the norm, and that will make it harder for a lot of kids (especially those like my son and your daughter) growing up now to make healthy choices. The food industry is huge and powerful, and people who try to make healthy choices most of the time are made out to be fringe weirdos depriving our kids of their childhood “rights,” which for many people seems to mean offering them candy, cupcakes, chips, and other low-nutrient, heavily processed “food” engineered to be addictive pretty much all day long.

I’ve spent the past year and half building a school wellness team and trying to make small changes to the wellness culture at my kids’ school, and we are making headway, bit by bit. I believe that until there is a widespread shift in the way our culture grows and values real food, it is going to be an uphill battle raising kids to make healthy choices for themselves. But it’s a battle worth fighting for not just our kids, but for all kids. Good luck!!


Emu December 14, 2014 at 6:26 pm

I’m also concerned about our son. He’s 2.5yo and hungry from the day he was born. I wouldn’t worry too much if his weight was not an issue, but he’s quite chubby (he was born 11 pounds, so big from the start, and always on >97 percentile). He’s incredibly active, running constantly, very busy all the time, and our diet as a family is reasonably decent, basically all home made from scratch, qood quality and balanced. But the little guy wants to eat ALL THE TIME (not to the level of P-W Syndrome, he’ll give up at certain point). It’s not like he’s asking for sweets. Plain cooked carrot – bring it on! Natural goat’s milk yoghurt – I want a third pot! Veggie soup, grapefruits, strong blue cheese, buckwheat, millet porridge, whatever…

I honestly don’t know what to do – the usual advice for overweight preschoolers is to limit soda, eating on front of tv, sweets, encourage them to run around playing… well… no junk food at home, we don’t even own a tv, we eat all together at the table (or he eats at daycare centre the food I premade for him), I’ve lost 10 pounds in last year trying to catch up with him he’s so crazy active… and still overweight… We don’t allow snacking between meals but he’s allowed to have seconds (once, no second seconds… which usually results in tears – after every meal, which is very frustrating).

Any tips?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD December 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Emu — The key with children at any age is to look at t heir growth curve. Even at higher levels you want growth to be steady instead of jumps up or down. As for nutrition, make sure you are providing filling foods including protein and healthy fats. Sometimes I find that children are getting lower fat diets and get hungry sooner. A child with a big appetite needs satisfying food.

Here’s the thing — you can’t control your child’s body weight. What you can do is provide the food and decide when eating happens. It seems to me your child may end up being big but still healthy. You don’t know what is planned for your little guy and he’s still in the rapid growth phase (for some kids growth doesn’t slow until 3). I suggest being a stickler for structured meals and eating at the table but trusting that your little guy can get enough to eat.

Restricting food intake can increase eating in the absence of hunger and food fixation (always asking for food). Also, if every meal ends in tears you have to consider what that is doing to his relationship with food: Here are some articles that may help you

The book I coauthored, Fearless Feeding, has a section on weight and is focused on prevention. Ellyn Satter’s book — Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, is also helpful. Good luck!


Grace February 3, 2015 at 4:59 pm

If you’re still able to see this, I’m very curious at what age this started. I have 23 month old twins and one of them is completely obsessed with food. We have blocked off the kitchen because he will go just sit in front of the fridge and stare at it all day if we let him. All he cares about is food, if someone walks into the kitchen he drops everything he’s doing to go watch them and see if they’re getting food. They have never had sugar, they eat very healthy meals, always veggies & usually a fruit with every meal. Milk & water are the only liquids they get. He would rather be eating all day than playing with toys. Even at the zoo if someone is eating popcorn he will start crying because they have food and it’s not his. He will scream and cry if you eat something and he doesn’t get any. Everyone has said “let him eat until he’s full” or “you need to let him be in control of what he eats” and guess what, I went ahead and tried what “I’m doing wrong” multiple times and he pukes every time because he doesn’t stop eating and still tries to eat after he throws up. It’s so incredible frustrating. We can’t take him to birthday parties because he will cry the whole time because there’s usually food there. It’s been going on for over a year now. I’m out of ideas, just ready to rip my hair out. Any help, ideas, or hope that it will end sometime would be amazing.


Emu February 4, 2015 at 4:06 am

Grace, if you were asking me (not sure how the comments work on this webpage), I’d say it started from day 1 of my son’s life. They tell you babies have stomach with a size of a walnut then maybe egg, but my week old son would eat 250ml of milk and cry for more…

I understand your frustration, my son is the same, he loves visitors as guests mean food. The ultimate reward is a visit to a restaurant (where, OMG, he would even lick his plate clean). We can’t have anything to eat if he’s around and not eating at the same time, grocery shopping is hard, as he tries to snatch food from shelves, we stored all food out of his sight, but now he’s tall enough to open the fridge… The only thing that saves us is that he’s quite well behaved so if told “no” he’ll obey (cry or even lie that the other parent agreed to sth, but eventually obey).

There is hope anyway – recently it happened couple of times that he left some food on the plate saying his belly is full and he’ll finish it off later (he was back to eat it in 3 min, but STILL!). What works best is keeping him away from home and not taking any food with us (plus avoiding anything that even remotely looks like a restaurant or picnic area) – can’t wait for the spring… Good luck!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD February 5, 2015 at 3:01 pm


Have you had your son seen by a pediatrician to rule out other things that could be causing his eating? One syndrome which is not very common is Prader-Willi. But there can be other things going on such as GI issues and/or food allergies. Also, a dietitian can look at what you are feeding him and make suggestions. Is he getting enough fat in his diet? How is his growth? There are multiple things to think about and I suggest seeking help.

Something important to remember is the first two is the largest growth spurt of a person’s life, which is why not letting a child eat to their appetite can be met with such resistance. Email me at if you have any questions or need help finding an expert to see.


Grateful Mother March 5, 2015 at 8:58 am

Thank you for providing information from Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. This was so different than some of the other advice that had been provided to me on the issue. Although naturally thin myself, I have family with weight issues. I now see that I was letting this history interfere with my acceptance of my big beautiful boy. In regards to food and eating, I am learning to provide my child with a positive emotional environment. With so many blogs and websites that provide so much fluff, I appreciate that you provided so much substance in your answers.


Zelda Dembitzer August 22, 2015 at 7:21 pm

If conceivable, as you clear knowledge, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is damned helpful in return me.


Rachel November 8, 2015 at 1:42 am

I wonder if any of the people in the earlier blogs have found solutions/things to help that have “fixed” or helped. My son is 3.5y. He doesn’t steal food but it’s all he talks about from the minute he gets up. I’ve been to paediatrician & dietician but I honestly think they don’t know how to help me. I tried letting him eat how much he wants but it was never ending. He didn’t stop. His new thing now is that he keeps telling me he has belly ache, I’m trying to explain the difference full and eating until it hurts. I honestly do not think he understands what being full is. Some days I am at my witts end with it.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 20, 2016 at 7:26 am

Rachel — I have someone who specializes in this kind of thing if you are interested. She will do phone consultations. Let me know. Sometimes it’s just seeing the right person.


Anne Greene April 20, 2016 at 9:48 am

I just wanted to suggest a book to anyone who is still struggling to help a child move past food preoccupation. It’s called “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease.” I just happened across it recently in the newly published books section of our library, and found it very insightful. The author, Dr. Mark Lewis, who is also a former drug addict, draws parallels with drug addiction and all kinds of other addictions, including eating disorders. The book uses case studies of addicts (including one of an anorexic turned bulimic) and then talks about the brain functions that underlie desire and addictive behavior. In all of the case studies, the addicts hit a low and eventually move past their addictions. Through insight and self-exploration, they find healthier ways of coping, though they all do so in different ways and at their own paces. He provides some suggestions for future treatment of addiction, but I got more insight out of the case studies (not just the one involving food) than I did from the author’s conclusions at the end of the book.

The research in the book backs up the advice that it’s best to allow food-obsessed children to regulate the quantity of food they eat on their own, because restricting only increases desire and makes it more likely the child will overeat when given the opportunity to do so. Even more importantly, the book gave me more insight into what my son is going through emotionally, and how I’ve no doubt made it worse with some of my responses of frustration.

The common thread in all of the addiction case studies seems to be an emptiness inside that makes people turn to a substance (such as food) that’s really a substitute for what’s emotionally missing in their lives. Our son didn’t have a family for the first three years of his life, and clearly food is what he turned to to fill that void. He’s had a family now for six years, but his relationship with food has gotten in the way of all of his other relationships. I’m doing my best not to let it interfere with our relationship anymore. Approaching his struggles with more empathy just in the month or so since I read the book has already helped our relationship and stress level in the household. After reading it, I feel more hopeful that I can support our son as he learns how to have a healthier relationship with food, and also with the people who love him.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 23, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Thanks for the recommendation Anne! I was so intrigued I emailed Dr. Lewis and have started reading his book I will be interviewing for my upcoming book: Raising Moderation.


KittyCat April 30, 2016 at 10:12 pm

I’m 16 and the reason why I have a mild obsession with food is because my parents lock food away in their room and in the cabinets. I’m always hungry because I hardly get enough food and it makes it hard to concentrate in school. I probably lost a few pounds this week since I workout too on top of being restricted. I feel depressed a lot of the time too, I wonder if it has to do with the calorie defect being too much. I don’t get to have very many fruits or meat because they lock those up in the mini fridge they keep in their room. I used to stick my hand through the bottom of the cabinet or pull on its doors hard enough to break the locks off to get something, anything but they found out I was doing that and put stronger locks and now they only keep the fruits in their room…. I don’t want to live here anymore but I love my parents… sorry for rambling I just wanted to give one perspective to this issue.


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