Hoarding, Overeating, & Food Obsessions in Adopted & Foster Kids

Dawn Davenport


Not being fed regularly and adequately is terrifying to anyone, but especially to children. Not surprisingly, hoarding, overeating, and food obsessions in adopted and foster kids are common.

Foster and adoptive kids overeating and food obsession

It’s hard to even imagine what it would be like to not know when or if your next meal will come. It’s a sad fact that this was the reality for many adopted and foster kids. And this fear is often expressed in hoarding, gobbling, overeating, and general obsessive behavior around food.

What’s a parent to do? Turn to Dr. Katja Rowell, The Feeding Doctor, of course. She’s agreed to share her very practical advice on how best to handle hoarding, overeating, and food obsessions in adopted and foster kids. We can stop being The Food Cop and stop worrying about obesity or pickiness or food obsessions in general.

Hoarding, Overeating, and Food Obsessions

“She isn’t interested in anything but food. ‘Will I get fed again? Will Mommy be impatient with me? Will she try to distract me with another stupid toy? Why does my brother have a banana?’”

— Rebecca, mother of Adina, age 2 1/2

For the first months of Adina’s life in Ethiopia, she was below the growth charts and not gaining. When she arrived at the Baby Home, she began to gain weight—a sign that her minimal nutritional and emotional needs were being met.  At her first visit with the pediatrician in the U.S., Rebecca was told that Adina was “almost overweight” and “overfed.” The pediatrician’s solution was strict limits on food intake.

Adina sucked down every bottle and screamed for more. Against her instincts, Rebecca followed the doctor’s recommendations and never allowed more. Eighteen months later, Adina was “obsessed” with food, and Rebecca was exhausted with her role of “food cop.”  Adina’s is a cautionary tale: an all-too-common example of how food insecurity and early hoarding behaviors can become entrenched food obsession. But Adina’s story offers hope…

Overeating and food obsessions in foster kids

Restricting a child’s food continues the food insecurity. It is also not sustainable. It may be possible to lock up food when a child is five or six, but the result may be a twelve-year-old who binges on donuts at the corner store, or eats a bag of Oreos at the neighbor’s house.

Hoarding Food

Adina experienced “food insecurity,” which is not being able to count on being fed either in quantity or in a reliable and responsive manner. Many adopted and foster children with a history of food insecurity are very interested in food when they first arrive home, which presents as a collection of behaviors often referred to as “hoarding.”  Hoarding is a natural reaction to food insecurity and may present as eating quickly, stuffing large amounts of food in their mouths, stealing and sneaking food, and getting upset when food is limited. 

Restricting Food Doesn’t Work

Food obsession, resulting from misdirected attempts to “treat” or “prevent” obesity, is the most common concern I see in the adoptive and fostering families I work with. The national panic around childhood obesity is intersecting with the experiences of food-insecure children with devastating consequences.

Restricting a child’s food continues the food insecurity. It is also not sustainable. It may be possible to lock up food when a child is five or six, but the result may be a twelve-year-old who binges on donuts at the corner store, or eats a bag of Oreos at the neighbor’s house.

Initial hoarding behaviors feel scary for parents, particularly if they don’t understand the effects of food insecurity or if they themselves struggle with food and weight. When the child’s health care provider adds to the worries (often unaware of catch-up growth or ethnic differences in build) it further distorts feeding practices. Parents tell me, “If I don’t limit him, he’ll overeat.” It’s a complete shift in thinking to consider that limiting food fuels the overeating and preoccupation.

Healing the anxiety by feeding him regularly and reliably—and not limiting—is what will allow him to tune in to hunger and fullness cues and establish self-regulation. Many parents share that with reliable meals and snacks, and allowing children to decide how much to eat, the hoarding behaviors simply fade away over several months.

Child food obsession in foster and adoptive families are very common

Healing the anxiety by feeding him regularly and reliably—and not limiting—is what will allow him to tune in to hunger and fullness cues and establish self-regulation. Many parents share that with reliable meals and snacks, and allowing children to decide how much to eat, the hoarding behaviors simply fade away over several months.

Tips to Handle Hoarding, Overeating, and Food Obsessions in Adopted and Foster Kids

Here is how you can help children feel secure with food, whether they are in the initial hoarding phase, or with entrenched food obsession.

  • Feed your child every 2-3 hours for younger children, every 3-4 for older children. You may need to offer food more often initially.
  • Let your child decide how much to eat from what you provide.
  • Aim for no eating between meals and snacks.
  • Sit and enjoy meals together. Avoid distractions like screens or arguing. Under stress, food-insecure children often eat more.
  • Reassure him there will always be enough.
  • A food stash may be reassuring (his own drawer in the fridge, pantry shelf, or baggie of food) but is not an out from providing regular meals and snacks. Providing and sharing meals deepens attachment. (The food stash does not work for entrenched food obsession, but may help with initial anxiety.)
  • Offer a variety of tasty foods including fat, protein and carbohydrates—even if she prefers the high fat and high carbohydrate foods initially. This preference is a natural response to food insecurity.
  • Remain calm.
  • Be patient.
  • Model and allow enjoyment of all foods to avoid the lure of the “forbidden.”
  • Work on routines, getting enough sleep, and opportunities to be active in fun ways.

Healing food obsession takes nerves of steel, as your child is likely to eat even more when you first stop restricting.

Over eating can be scary at first, but should resolve over time

Healing food obsession takes nerves of steel, as your child is likely to eat even more when you first stop restricting. With time and patience your child has a high probability of acclimating to a healthy relationship with food.

Happy Ending

Rebecca, who struggled for eighteen months, looks back and guesses if she had better support initially, and trusted her instincts, they may have avoided months of turmoil. Rebecca has hope. “I am beyond thrilled to see the changes, and I feel like I’m probably halfway there. Seeing her play with her food, biting a piece of toast and saying, ‘it looks like a fish—watch him swim!’ There are so many more subtle (but significant) signs that she is finally feeling more secure around food—something I thought I’d never see. We were at a playdate the other day, and she saw the food, had 2 crackers, and GOT BACK DOWN TO PLAY! We will keep working on this, and even though it may take a while longer, we are on the right track now.”

For more of Adina’s story, and more information about transitioning to the Trust Model of feeding, including specifics on dealing with sweets and treats, read Love Me, Feed Me.

This information is for general educational purposes and is not meant to replace careful evaluation and care by your child’s health care providers.

Thanks Dr. Rowell for your expertise.

Do you have a child that seems obsessed with food? What has worked for you? What didn’t work?

First published in 2013; Updated in 2018
Image credit: Offutt Air Force BaseAngryJulieMondayDonnie Ray Jones

12/12/2018 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 29 Comments

29 Responses to Hoarding, Overeating, & Food Obsessions in Adopted & Foster Kids

  1. Avatar Marilyn Reed says:

    Wow this has been very educational for me and it open my eyes to lotta things that I didn’t know so now I can put those things in place in my home to have better care for My child

  2. Avatar karen says:

    I am fostering a 12 year old that will go a whole day without eating if I let her sometimes she will eat a apple on her own and that will be it for the whole day or a yoga unless I am constantly asking if she wants to eat she will not do it on her own she has three months already in my house her brothers who are 8 handsome self or will ask me if needed but I am still having trouble with her and I don’t know how can I help her better can you please help me so I can help her

    • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

      Oh, 12 year olds are a tough breed all to themselves! This radio show might be of more help to you: Practical Solutions to Typical Food Issues with Adopted and Foster Kids. This post might also be of help: Raising a Picky Eater without Resorting to Bribery or Murder. Finally, consider working with the caseworker and the child’s pediatrician to find a therapist and/or eating specialist in your area that can be of specific help for your foster daughter. Thanks for reading and we wish you well.

    • Avatar Sarah says:

      A lot of it depends on why she doesn’t eat. Has she just switched of that connection to her body so she doesn’t feel hunger and other sufferings? Was she taught somehow that eating was bad, and is trying to be a good girl so you will keep her? Does she use feelings of hunger to block out flashbacks and awful body memories? There could be lots of different reasons. There is a sydrome called starvation sydrome, if she’s getting really thin maybe look it up so you can keep an eye out for it.

      • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

        Good questions to consider. I would also highly recommend finding a trauma-informed and/or adoption-competent therapist that has experience with feeding issues. That might be a needle in a haystack but certainly, a trauma-informed approach will be beneficial.

  3. Avatar KB says:

    Our 4 yr old son was adopted and has been with us for about a year and a half. He was in another foster home for about 9 months prior to us and was very picky in that home. I believe a lot of
    carbs were likely the go to as well. I believe he did not know when his food would come next when with his biological family. Visitation with family often revolved around food and treats and were very obviously his motivation for wanting to go.

    I think I’ve handled his eating issues all wrong and perpetuated them. I’ve often required him to eat what I’m feeding everyone with no other options if he dislikes. We eat very healthy with minimal sweets and treats that are only eaten every couple weeks, if that. I will say it’s expanded his food repertoire and he eats very healthily. However in the last 3 months or so, something has triggered in him. I can’t pinpoint it but he obsesses over food and sweets. If we had donuts for example, he will go through the garbage to verify they are gone if I say they are. I forgot there was a stale half of one in there and he wanted to pull it out. For a while hed wake up and the first thing he’d say was that he wanted a Popsicle or ice cream or whatever else and it would be an hour ordeal about it, always resulting in not getting it and sometimes my saying we could have that after lunch for example. He’d then ask about it over and over again until he had it after lunch and then again after lunch he’d ask for more and obsess about it.

    There has definitely been stress and frustration at times when dinner is involved and he’s refusing to eat what I’ve made. I know that hasn’t helped. Sometimes he’d drop food on purpose so he wouldn’t have to eat it and then is get upset with him and assume when it fell that it was on purpose (I know, fabulous parenting – sometimes I’d just get at my wits end and end up parenting in reaction instead of positively and proactively like id prefer).

    I have many ideas I’ve read but I’m unsure what is best. I want him to eat a variety of things. Would it be helpful to offer something I know is his go to (like pb and j sandwich or a hot dog) as an alternative if he doesn’t like something I cooked? And in unlimited amount? Or best to say if you eat a no thank you bite first or this much of this first then you can have a pb sandwich for example or would this only perpetuate it.

    I’ve also read that offering dessert each night after dinner would be a good idea as he would know he will always have an opportunity for sweets. I feel ok about that and I think it’d ease his mind so he doesn’t obsess over it. I don’t intend to offer unlimited of that however.

    Any thoughts. I’m kind of at a loss and feel awful I have likely made some behaviors worse. Thanks for any ideas!!!

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      First, stop feeling bad about your decisions so far. We all make mistakes (and you aren’t even sure this one was a mistake). I think we owe ourselves grace if our intentions were good.
      Second, this is a great question for our Creating a Family Facebook Support group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/creatingafamily/). I’ll chime in with my thoughts over there. You’ll need to join the group, if you aren’t already a member. It is a closed group, so no one other than group members can see the posts. If you’d rather remain anonymous, let me know and I’ll post it for you.
      Third, if after posting and trying a few of the suggestions from the Facebook Group, if you are still worried, you can contact Dr. Katja Rowell, who was the guest on the Creating a Family show I referenced, and blogs over at http://thefeedingdoctor.com/. I believe she does phone consultation.

      • Avatar KB says:

        Thanks so much! I don’t have a Facebook account (I know, how odd right? 🙂 … so I’m wondering if there’s a way to post your reply here as well? If not, I understand. I’m fine with it not being private on the Facebook blog but if you could not link my email account id appreciate it. Thanks for the info on being able to contact dr Rowell. I did not know she did phone consult as well. That may also be very helpful!

  4. Avatar b says:

    Our son came home from Korea 5 months ago. He was loved by his foster family and fed ice cream, lolipops, chocolates, apple juice and delish korean food all day and night long on demand. He would walk into 5 stores on one street and get something sweet at every store when we were with them over there. When we came home, His temper tantrums were so severe this summer over food if he didn’t get what he wanted when he wanted it.he ate until he vomited all the time. He doesnt know when he is full. We did the this is for you drawer and he ate it all in one sitting and wanted more. He is never full. Ever. He wants to eat again after he vomits. We restricted him to 3 meals and 2 snacks a day with no seconds because he demands 3rds and 4ths and even more all the time if we do and is out of control. He Would bite my bios for their food. I know restricting isn’t the answer but in this case, what is? He gained 10 lbs in his first 2 months here when we let him eat healthily to his hearts content. He is over 40lbs. He is also not active and wants to sit all day long. The paed in korea told us he was already to fat for a korean baby and she said he ate too much junk and too much a day. My son Hates to run and move so he’s not burning any food away… help!?

    • B, what a tough position to be in. It’s hard to tell whether this is physical or psychological with him. I would suggest contacting the expert on the Creating a Family show we did on this subject (listed in the blog). Also, this would be a great question for our Creating a Family Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/40688106167/). We have a huge group, and someone on there will have experience with a situation similar to this. Make sure you include your son’s age.

  5. Avatar Kathleen says:

    My daughter came home at 4 mos. she is 12.5. She binge eats and has since we brought her home. She would suck a bottle down in seconds. We eat a balanced healthy diet in our home but she still sneaks food often stealing from classmates lunch boxes. She is very much over weight. We’ve been to nutritional it’s and counseling many times. I understand when a parent is at a loss and doesn’t know what else to do to help their child

  6. Avatar Daisy J says:

    We have been home with our sons for almost 6 years. We did ALL of the recommended things in this article. We were educated in advance about this and really took it seriously in order to avoid this issue. Our sons were totally food obsessed early on, so it was good we were prepared. By about 3 years one was over it. He has different lingering issues. However, one son, still has food issues despite our following these guidelines, in fact he seemed to have gotten over it about two years ago and then after about a year he picked it up again, but worse. He has gained a steady 11 pounds every year he has been home. At this point it IS a health risk. We give him access to all the fruits and veggies he would like to have but he is not happy with that so he steels crackers and soda, etc. We rarely eat desserts or high fat or starchy foods or sugars in meals, we have other family members who need this sort of food so we all eat that way. He refuses the healthy options we give him and then sneaks other items when he can find them. Why does he still do this? I can not figure out what is stressing him out.

  7. Avatar Kristy says:

    I don’t use faceboom. If you can comment here I would greatly appreciate it.

  8. Avatar Kristy says:

    My daughter is 2.9 years old and is absolutely obsessed with food. She demands to eat 24/7. I will admit that I have restricted her eating because of the dear of obesity, but now see that that was a big mistake… The situation is so extreme at this point that I cannot take her to a single social event (including thanks giving at grandma’s). I am ready to start giving her structured meals with no limitations. But what do I do when she asks for more food 10 minutes after we are up from the table? Someone suggested leaving a big bowel of her favorite fruits in her room, is that a good idea? Thanks so much!

  9. Avatar Lea says:

    My daughter is 13.5 yrs old and has been home(from Russia) for almost 13 years. She still hoards food! What’s weird is that most of the time it’s stuff like ranch dressing, jars of mayo and mustard. She’s obsessed with condiments. Today I found a tub of butter hidden in her room. I am at a loss of what to do.

    • Lea, if your daughter was adopted at 6 months I wouldn’t automatically assume that her behavior is a result of adoption or early life experience, although it could be. All sorts of kids develop eating disorders regardless of adoption or great parenting. Is there a therapist near you that specializes in eating disorders? I’ve found that in the past most of them focused on the under-eating disorders and know little about how to help over-eaters, but that may be changing now.

      • Avatar Sarah says:

        Research on epigenetics and infant trauma suggest that starvation during infancy often produces the most prolonged and intractable difficulties with food.

        • Tracy Whitney Tracy Whitney says:

          We are research geeks here — we’d love if you could share a link to that information. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

    Lisa.is sounds like you are making progress. Thank goodness!

  11. Avatar Katja Rowell says:

    Thank you Lisa and Carrie for sharing your reassuring stories! Lisa, I hear so many moms who are terrified that if they don’t stop children from eating that they might vomit. Your story, that yes, it does happen, and not to panic is so helpful. I have not seen that eating to the point of vomiting continue to be a problem if the child is allowed to “overeat” initially, but it feels really scary. Carrie, your comment is so loving and empathetic. You trusted that his needs would change as he built his comfort and trust in you and his surroundings. I am concerned with all the worry about obesity that many parents are not told to trust and support their children, but are told to limit and restrict, which tends to make the hoarding worse, turn into that entrenched food obsessions, rather than just slowly improving. Thank you both for sharing your experiences!

  12. Avatar Carrie says:

    My son came from a very loving foster family in Korea where he was very well fed, but the first month or so he was home from Korea, he had to be eating all the time, right away, or he would scream until he got food. I think it was his stress outlet as he was laid back and happy on the outside despite all the changes. As he settled in, his eating tapered down till he was at a healthy eating level of 3 meals and one, maybe 2, small snacks.

  13. Avatar Lisa says:

    We also tried to slow down how fast she ate by making her feed herself with her fingers rather than us feeding her. She would just eat until she threw up at first– crazy!!! She was 13 mos at the time.

  14. Avatar Katja Rowell says:

    Lisa, Yes, you are describing her healing process! Sharing snack, slowing down, not eating every last crumb in site at every meal, playing with food, playing with others when food is around are all signs. Huge reasons to celebrate! (I call this Stage II…)

  15. Avatar Katja Rowell says:

    B. It sounds like you are still dealing with some of these issues. Early food insecurity can have long lasting effects, but it sounds like she is still feeling anxious around food? I find that the structure and then not limiting the amount are the critical components to helping heal that anxiety! Good luck, hope the article helps. Intro, chap 1,2 and chapter 5 especially deal with this topic in my book. Chapter 3 and 4 are more for selective eaters. 6-10 are general, and may help. Good luck! It’s not too late at all to help your daughter feel good around food.

  16. Avatar Lisa says:

    I remember how happy I was the first day my toddler offered to share a bite if her snack. I felt like we had overcome a big goal.

  17. Avatar BooBoo Justthemomforthejob says:

    Wow! Have we ever dealt with this! Chaniya is 4.5 and came home at 11 months. She will still eat out of the trash can!

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