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10 Reasons Your Child is Eating Too Much

Sometimes kids are eating too much. Learn the reasons why kids are overeating and how you can help.

10 Reasons Kids are Eating Too Much

This post was updated on October 29, 2019.

My Child Wants to Eat All the Time

Do you wonder if your child is overeating? Do you find yourself thinking, “My child is eating too much…”

In a perfect world, your child would eat for the right reasons: true hunger, health and nutrition.

In my years as a pediatric dietitian, I have come to know that we are all triggered to eat for a variety of reasons. Health and nutrition aren’t always the main drivers, especially when it comes to kids.

Sometimes our kids (and we) over-indulge– and even succumb to excessive eating, whether we intend to or not.

When it comes to kids, you might worry that your child has a big appetite. Notice she’s a big eater. Or wonder why your son eats everything in sight.

Feeling confused (and frustrated) by your child’s desire to eat, and tendency to overeat, you may feel yourself getting pulled into the role of the food cop.

A child who is overeating can be just as worrisome as the child who won’t eat.

In this article, I’ll discuss the causes of eating too much food in children and what you can do to help (without making things worse). 

Get Your Free Mealtime Rules Printable Here

The Causes of Eating Too Much Food

Over the years, I’ve heard stories about moms finding empty candy wrappers hidden in their children’s rooms. Stories about kids who are eating too much food when they’re at a birthday party, especially sweets and treats.

Stories of children who don’t seem to have self-control around unhealthy, indulgent foods like candy and chips. And, even tales of kids addicted to sugar.

Have you felt embarrassed when your child goes bonkers for sweets at birthday parties?

Have you felt annoyed by the constant questions about when and what is being served at meals and snacks?

10 Reasons Your Child Is Eating Too Much

First, let me just say, you’re not alone in your concerns about your child’s eating. When kids seem to want to eat everything in sight, it can be disturbing.

This issue of self-control around food versus loss of self-control with eating has been one of the most common frustrations I hear from parents.

Parents are frightened by why this is happening with their child. They don’t understand the underlying reasons that may trigger kids to eat, or why their child participates in excessive eating.

I want to clear up that confusion. Here are 10 common reasons your child or toddler eats a lot.

1. Too Much Hunger Leads to a Child Who Wants to Eat All the Time

Hunger is the signal that tells our bodies to seek food and eat. A child’s appetite is closely tied to their growth. 

Since children are in an eighteen-year growing process, hunger is a primary driver for eating. You will naturally see greater hunger during the baby and teens years (the adolescent growth spurt).

These are the two high growth periods in childhood.

How You Can Help:

Don’t let your child get too hungry. Stay ahead of hunger by setting up a regular eating schedule, offering meals and snacks at regular times of the day, generally every three to four hours.

These eating intervals are opportunities to eat, not mandated eating times.

Better yet, make sure you’ve got a balanced meal plan in place–it helps quite a bit!

2. Exercise can Spike a Bigger Appetite

Active kids burn calories when they exercise. They get hungry when they’ve burned through their calorie reserves, signaling the brain it’s time to refuel. That kicks the hunger signals into gear.

Depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, hunger can be a real bear.

How You Can Help:

For recreational exercise lasting less than an hour, stay on a routine of timely meals and snacks. There is no need to provide extra food.

For the athlete exercising longer than an hour, offer a small pre-exercise snack and an after-exercise snack, making sure both provide some quality protein and carbohydrate. 

3. The Influence of Peers & Media on Your Child

In the school age and teen years, the influence of peers is strong. Translated: children and teens want to eat what their friends are eating.

This is often influenced by commercials and advertising kids see on TV and the computer. This alone can be the reason for junk food requests.

How You Can Help:

Don’t get too restrictive with sweets or junky, processed food.

Rather, find a way to work reasonable amounts of these foods into the diet, emphasizing that these are treats for occasional eating.

I encourage what I call the 90/10 Rule.

It’s a balance of 90% nutritious, wholesome foods and 10% sweets or junky foods (aka Fun Foods).

4. Foods Turn on All the Senses

The smell and appearance of food can make a child want to dig in. Prior enjoyment of a food can trigger a desire to eat delectable foods when they’re seen again. Fond memories can do the same.

How You Can Help:

Make healthy food look and taste good! Studies suggest that kids and teens are more inclined to taste a food if it looks good. The sensory appeal of food can encourage your child to eat it. Makes sense!

Get Your Free Mealtime Rules Printable Here

5. Your Child is Bored

Kids learn to eat when they’re bored. Typically, this occurs between ages five and nine. The phenomenon is called Eating in the Absence of Hunger.

There’s been plenty of research conducted on this topic. Overeating because a child is bored can occur when there aren’t strong boundaries around food and eating.

How You Can Help:

There are many ways in which you can create stronger boundaries around food. For one, you can close the kitchen after meals and snacks.  

Other ways you can help ‘tighten the ship:’ ask your children to ask first before they help themselves to snacks or extra food.

Plan and serve structured meals and snacks. These three boundaries can help you combat eating out of boredom.

6. Celebrations & Party Food Encourage Overeating

I think we all eat more at celebrations. I know I certainly do!

It’s part of the party mentality: dig in, indulge, and let go.

The challenge with kids is that there are many opportunities to celebrate. Birthday parties, holiday celebrations, end of sport season, and on and on.

The multitude of parties to which your child is exposed makes it hard to help your child eat for hunger rather than the common food triggers that are present at the party scene.

How You Can Help: 

Feed your child a regular meal or snack before heading out to a party or event. Monitor your child’s eating during the day.

Not so you can tightly control eating too much food, but so you have a sense of her eating patterns and food balance.

Staying on track with meals and snacks before attending a celebration will lessen the likelihood of over-indulging (hopefully!).

To learn more tips for handling parties and celebrations with your child, read How to Handle Kid’s Eating at Parties .

7. Your Child Turns to Food When Emotional

When kids are eating too much it may be a side-effect of learning how to deal with uncomfortable or negative emotions by using food.

Comforting or soothing a child with food may teach him to learn eating is the thing to do when faced with feelings of sadness, loneliness or unhappiness.

For example, if your child is sad because he didn’t get invited to the party, then you offer to make cookies. Or, when your daughter doesn’t make the team, you take her out for ice cream.

None of these are bad reactions, but they may encourage an association to food as a comfort mechanism rather than other, healthier behaviors.

As mentioned above, researchers call this Eating in the Absence of Hunger and it is tied to higher weight and poor eating habits. 

How You Can Help:

Encourage your child to communicate about her feelings and work through them in healthy ways, rather than turning to food for comfort. 

Teaching your child about mindful eating and how to practice it can be helpful for the long run, as well.

I have a podcast that further investigates The Science of Emotions and Eating.

A window display of desserts in Switzerland.

8. You Control Food Too Tightly [AKA, You’re the Food Police]

If kids have experienced an overly restricted food environment at home (ie, no sweets, no junk food, or no second helpings), they may be seeking these forbidden foods when you aren’t around to monitor them.

In other words, restrictive diets and tightly controlling your child’s food choices, or the amounts he eats, may backfire, leading to food seeking behavior and overeating. 

Making any food forbidden or scarce can cause more problems and probably isn’t helpful.

How You Can Help:

Expose your child to foods like candy, sweets and fried foods on a regular basis so they aren’t novel.

This doesn’t mean to load them up in the house and say yes to every food request. Use my 90/10 Rule to get started with a framework that will help you be in a better balance with food (above).

Also, having a sweets strategy your family can live by can be useful in normalizing your child’s relationship with them.  

I challenge you to dig into your feeding style and see how that may be influencing your child’s eating, too.

9. Mealtime is Erratic

When your child has a ravenous appetite and tends toward excessive eating, the timing of meals and snacks may be the culprit.

Hunger can build up when the time between meals is too long, leading to food-seeking behavior and overeating.

Also, when meals don’t contain enough food or aren’t nutritious and satisfying, children can desire more food later and become too focused on food.

[Listen to Healthy Snacks: Satisfy Hunger with 3 Key Nutrients]

When the focus on food is high, the likelihood for kids to eat too much is higher.

How You Can Help:

Turn your focus to diplomatic feeding (formerly called authoritative feeding).

Stay on a regular meal and snack schedule, and offer a balanced plate of all food groups: protein, grains, vegetable, fruit and dairy foods.

10. Your Child Enjoys Eating

Eating is an enjoyable endeavor for many children—the process of eating, the taste, the smells, and community with others—all together making eating an exciting and pleasurable endeavor.

If eating is enjoyable for your child, congratulations, you’re halfway to really nourishing a healthy child!

We should all be striving to have children who enjoy eating. Who light up when it’s time to come to the table.

And, just because your child enjoys eating, doesn’t mean he’s overeating.

What You Can Do:

Hold steady with plenty of food variety. Create a positive meal environment. Stay on schedule with structured meals and snacks.

Put food and eating in its place—at mealtime or snack time and at a regular location.

Get Your Free Mealtime Rules Printable Here

Need More Help for the Child Who’s Overeating?

If your child is eating too much, understanding the root of the issue (if there is one) will help you correct course and feed your child with love and limits.

Learn how to really raise a healthy eater. Parents find there’s a lot more that goes into it than they expect!

Don’t go it alone.

The Nourished Child Project is my online program for parents who want to learn about nutrition and food balance, effective feeding, and healthy habits for a lifetime. 

Check it out!

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