My Daughter's New Friend Sneaks Snacks From Our Fridge and Pantry, Do I Tell Her Parents?

A mom turns to Reddit for advice on what sneaking food at a friend's house could imply. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says getting more information can help guide you to either offer healthy boundaries at your house or communicate concerns to the girl's parents that could end up getting her more needed support.

Edited for length from a post on Reddit

I noticed my daughter's 13-year-old friend was sneaking snacks from our pantry after I gave them popcorn and ice cream while they were playing outside. The friend comes back inside the house by herself and goes to our fridge and grabs two more ice cream bars and goes straight into the bathroom. I let it pass on the first visit and the second. Maybe she's just really hungry? But it's a little more awkward after the third, fourth, and fifth time! I am concerned she has an eating disorder, or she's restricted from these types of food at home. She seems healthy and her parents are well off. I don't know her parents well, but should I talk to them about my concerns?

—Edited for length from a post on Reddit

You describe a potentially complex problem, with several possible explanations, none of which are easy to manage. Kudos to you for your compassion for this friend, and your desire to approach the issue as thoughtfully as possible. No matter what your ultimate response is, I agree you need to take some action and should not ignore your parent alarm bells.

An illustration of a little girl in a fridge.
Illustration: Yeji Kim.

Food Insecurity Can Cause Binge Eating

In the Reddit responses to your question, commenters resoundingly pointed out signs of food insecurity, sharing their own experiences to recognize some telltale signs. One commenter wrote, "My mom was the type to literally not keep food in the house. Like, no veggies or eggs. No ramen. No leftovers. Nothing to eat. For the entirety of my childhood... This all translated to me being hungry for days on end and I became insanely food insecure. I would eat as much as I could when the opportunity arose just because I didn't know when I would get to eat next."

It is true that children with a history of neglect, including unpredictable access to food, can develop food hoarding and overeating behaviors. I have seen this occur with teens who have been adopted into stable, nurturing homes; early years of food insecurity can leave lasting emotional scars.

Although food insecurity is clearly a significant issue for too many children in this country, your original post on Reddit referred to knowing the family as well-resourced, so the classic food insecurity situation would not fit. However, due to the extreme nature of the behaviors you describe, it makes me wonder if her family is restricting food access for reasons other than financial.

The Problems With Restricting Food

In our culture's completely paradoxical messages about food and eating (high emphasis on dieting and "healthy eating," while also valuing large portion sizes at restaurants and low-nutrition foods in vending machines and school cafeterias as most of the choices), well-intentioned parents can adopt rigid and controlling approaches to food that ultimately results in their children developing an unhealthy relationship with food and eating.

One possibility is that your daughter's friend's parents restrict access to the "fun" foods. They likely refer to them as "unhealthy," even though experts recommend not categorizing foods as healthy or unhealthy (a preferred approach is to split less nutritious and more nutritious foods into "sometimes" and "always" categories). Research has made clear that overly restricting or controlling a child's food choices increases problematic eating behaviors, such as sneaking, bingeing, and overeating. In addition, these children may develop attitudes toward food that can cause them problems as they get older and into adulthood, including a higher risk for eating disorders.

What to Know About Eating Disorder Risk

I share your concern about a potential eating disorder, which could be the problem whether or not her parents are restricting food at home. I once worked for a few months on a medical unit for teens with eating disorders so severe they required medical stabilization. Reading about eating disorders in adolescence does not begin to compare to seeing the profound psychological and physical damage they inflict on teens in real life. Based on the description of your daughter's friend's behaviors in your full Reddit post, even if the behaviors do not check every box for the diagnosis of an eating disorder, they certainly fit a risk profile for her developing one. Despite the longstanding images of emaciated teens with eating disorders, it is important to realize that eating disorders can come in all shapes and sizes.

What You Should Do

I hear some understandable hesitance to directly communicate with parents you do not know about what may be a private problem. It sounds like you are filling in a lot of gaps with guesses right now, so I think the first step is to gather more information. Ask your daughter more questions about her friend and what she notices about food at her friend's house, pointing out the pattern of missing snacks from your pantry. You can frame it as concern rather than blame, and express you want to respond as supportively as possible. Your daughter may either have her own worries that she will be relieved to share, or even more information about what her friend has disclosed to her, either about the family situation or the friend's own eating struggles.

If more information yields concern about the parents restricting fun food choices at home, I think you would need to know the parents before broaching the topic. However, you can take steps at home to reduce access to abundance, while continuing to serve the fun snacks they are accustomed to. You might remind your daughter, in her friend's presence, that they are welcome to everything laid out on the counter, for example, but the food in the pantry and refrigerator need to last until the next grocery store trip (this gives a rationale that doesn't have to do with not wanting the friend to over-eat).

If you discover there may be eating disorder concerns, I would encourage letting the parents know about what you have observed in your house. Because these behaviors, often secretive, can be the sign of such a serious problem, most parents would appreciate the concern and it can allow them the opportunity to get professional support sooner than later. It is possible they have suspicions of a problem, but are unsure how worried they should be, and hearing your observations could help them realize the extent of the problem.

The Bottom Line

Despite your understandable discomfort bringing up eating concerns with parents you don't know, you clearly care about this girl. Your compassion has guided you to reach out for advice, and I hope this genuine concern can be conveyed to your daughter, and hopefully to her parents. It is possible that you facing your discomfort could open the door for this young teen to benefit in a way that far outweighs the difficulty of broaching it.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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