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How can I help my child heal from food insecurity?

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Food insecurity—the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food—affects around 1 in 6 American children, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means well over 12 million children in the United States are living in a situation where they do not have regular access to enough food to live a healthy and active life. While the issues that result in food insecurity merit thought and discussion on their own, here is a look at exactly how food insecurity can specifically impact children and what parents and caregivers can do to help their children heal from food insecurity, anxiety, and survival behavior:

What happens when a child is food insecure or food anxious? 

Food plays an important role in our life from the moment we are born, possessing the power to help us feel safe and cared for, along with the ability to nourish us for proper growth and development. When a child of any age begins to associate conflict or stress around food, such as when a parent is vocal about not having the money to buy food or unable to provide full meals or any meals at all, complex food insecurities begin to build. 

It’s important to note that food insecurity for a child may not be ongoing, but instead something they have experienced for periods of time throughout their childhood. Even one extended time period of food insecurity may be enough to cause long lasting food insecurity issues or anxiety. While it is often associated with poverty or unemployment, it is very possible for children to experience food insecurity when one or both parents are employed, especially as the price of food continues to rise out of proportion with wages. 

Children who are not fed reliably or not fed enough often develop a preoccupation with food and a number of different things may happen. They can include hoarding food, eating as fast as possible or ‘gobbling’ down food, sneaking or hiding food, eating only certain foods they recognize, food aggression or showing anger if someone eats off their plate or food is taken away, eating in secret, eating in large quantities, and more. An anxious relationship with food can cause some harmful long-term effects, as well. Teens and adults who experience food insecurity in childhood are much more likely to turn to food as a as coping mechanism and overeat in an effort to ‘numb’ their negative thoughts and feelings. 

How can parents and caregivers support healing?

Healing food insecurity and anxieties can certainly be done, but it takes time, patience, and the understanding that there will be setbacks along the way. Most importantly, parents or caregivers need to be one hundred percent reliable when it comes to providing regular meals and snacks. Some other tools for healing food insecurity include:

  • Offer constant and honest reassurance, both in words and in action. Children healing from food insecurity need non-stop reassurance that their next meal will come. This comes both verbally from parents and caregivers, but also from the physical act of providing food regularly at mealtimes and snack times. Let them know there is food available to them often. 
  • Consider allowing a ‘food stash.’ While it might not be a strategy that works for every child, many children have benefitted from something called a food stash. Providing a food stash can be something like a designated drawer in the pantry or basket in the child’s bedroom that is always full of snacks that belong only to them. Seeing a tangible representation that food is readily available can help ease their anxiety over time. 
  • Focus on healing their trauma, not their weight. Contrary to what many may think, having food insecurity doesn’t equate to being underweight. In fact, many children and teens live with obesity as a symptom of earlier childhood food insecurities. When focused on healing a child with food anxieties, focusing on their weight often exacerbates problems and creates more issues around food. Instead, focus solely on healing their mental and emotional trauma for the time being, while modeling healthy eating habits—like sitting down for family meals—in day-to-day life. 
  • Incorporate more sit-down, family meals. Family meals are beneficial for many reasons, and healing food insecurity is just one. Try to incorporate more family meals into your weekly routine. Keep in mind that one loving adult sitting down with a child for a meal counts as a family meal, so parents need not overthink it. Regularly showing up at mealtime and showing that you care and are interested in them will go a long way in the healing process. 
  • Don’t discuss foods as ‘good’ versus ‘bad.’ Avoid food shaming. Labeling foods as good or bad, or strictly limiting access to any kind of food (like sugar), should be avoided. Instead allow all foods in moderation and never comment on how your child is eating. Comments like “Are you really going to eat all of that?” or “You never eat anything,” can have negative repercussions on all children, but especially those overcoming food insecurity. Instead focus on providing a variety of all kinds of foods and modeling healthy eating habits in your home. 
  • Help guide self-regulation and hunger cues. Healthy eating habits are taught over time by parents and caregivers modeling what a healthy relationship with food and eating looks like. Use every opportunity to demonstrate healthy eating behaviors through actions (not commentary or criticism) and provide the connection and trust your child needs mentally and emotionally so they’re more able to ‘hear’ their body’s true hunger cues instead of turning to food for soothing and comfort. 
  • Provide alternate coping strategies. Helping your child address their individual trauma in a healthy way is going to be key in healing any food insecurities or food survival behaviors. Incorporate fun movement into their day with dancing, yoga, walking or playing sports. Offer extracurricular activities like art or music as a way to keep their minds focused on creative expression. Try to teach basic breathing exercises used in meditation as a tool to calm down when upset. And lastly, be sure to explore the possibility of professional therapy, either play or occupational therapy, as a means to help provide more coping strategies. 

Food insecurity and anxiety are challenging and complex and take time and dedication to help heal. Parents and caregivers should reach out to all available resources to ensure that their child always has access to food and access to the professional therapy they may need. More information on these resources and healing from food insecurity can be found online at www.healthypeople.orgwww.feedingamerica.org, and www.apa.org.


By ABC Quality Team on August 30, 2022