Teen 'stealing' food out of the fridge

Hi BPNers - My husband and I disagree over food issues in our house.  We have two kids 14 and 12.  They both have ADHD and are not great decision makers and forget most everything (ie house rules, chores, etc) we tell/ask them.

We monitor their food choices VERY closely.  They cannot go the fridge and just grab something.  They always have to ask - juice, granola bar, yogurt, sandwich, etc.  They have made bad choices in the past - eating straight sugar or sugary foods (cake, ice cream) at 6/7am, grabbing pizza at 10pm, eating other people's food or eating ingredients we needed for a meal.

I'm much more - 'eat whatever you want within reason' and don't really care to monitor what they eat or when.  Problem is they have made bad choices in the past.  My husband is more 'ask us and we'll say yes/no'.  They always forget to ask and get 'in trouble'.  We have gone as far as locking all our cabinets and refrigerator so we don't have to police them.  I feel like a food Nazi - it doesn't feel good or healthy.

I wonder what other parents do.  Do you care what your kids eat? or when?  Like eating a slice of pizza as dinner is being made?  or eating the cupcake you bought for yourself?  or eating the last yogurt/using all the milk and not telling you so you can buy more?

We disagree in that I think we are too strict on them.  But I'm curious to hear if these 'issues' are in all households and you deal with them or ignore them or just don't care??

Any insights greatly appreciated!

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Locking up the fridge and making them ask before they eat anything sounds pretty extreme for kids that age. I think you guys need to lighten up now that you have a young teen and an almost-teen.  You are risking making food into such a big issue that your kids are going to have issues with food.  I have a 15 year old ADHD kid and two older kids already past their teens. Here are a few things I know:

  1. Teens are hungry ALL the time.  You need to stock up on stuff.  Let them eat when they are hungry. They might need something to eat every 2 or 3 hours. Buy more yogurt. Have plenty of granola bars if they like those (my kids hated them after years of granola bars in their lunches.). Have tasty fruit on hand, like blueberries and grapes and bananas and other stuff that doesn't have to be cut up or washed or peeled. Pineapple and canteloupe wedges Bagels and tortillas and sliced bread should be plentiful and at hand. Protein too. Always have gallons of milk on hand. Teach them how to make quesadillas in the microwave, or scrambled eggs or omelets. Make extra food at dinner and keep leftovers in the fridge for them.
  2. As teens get more independence, you will have no influence over what they eat when they are not at home. This can mean they are buying a huge bag of candy on their way home from school every day and eating the whole thing in 5 minutes and disposing of the evidence. My high school freshman and all of his friends have the same thing for lunch every single day: pizza from the very disgusting Papa John's.  Here's my advice: make sure they get a lot of fruit and veggies at breakfast and dinner and don't worry about lunch and snacks. They will be fine!
  3. My ADHD kid is on meds that take away his appetite. You didn't say if your kids take meds, but my kid hardly eats anything between breakfast and dinner aside from the slice of pizza at lunch.  I make him a milk shake every day when he gets home from school with whole milk and a lot of ice cream, and I actually don't care that much what he eats because he likes fruits and vegetables and eats those at breakfast and dinner. 
  4. I totally understand the disagreement between parents and I feel your pain. I think it just goes along with co-parenting with another adult.  Everybody has their issues.  If it's really bad, think about couples counseling.

My son is 17.  I have not had a major problem with him eating something that's needed to make dinner (he's eaten all the salad greens a couple of times) but he has finished off the milk at night despite the fact I've requested that he please leave a couple of spoonfuls for my tea in the morning. I threatened to wake him up to make him walk to the market, and that has gotten better.  Generally he can pretty much eat what he wants when he wants. He does make some choices I'm not crazy about (such as eating six bagels as his only food all day) and we discuss that.  He will ask around 5 what we are having for dinner, and decide what he wants to snack on based on my answer (e.g., a giant pastrami sandwich if we're having something he doesn't like, or an apple if we're having one of his favorites). His dad on the other hand is famous for eating ALL of the snack food in the house overnight, including snacks for my son's baseball game the next day, so both of us have taken to hiding things we don't want him to consume. Basically I think it is really hard to control.  And I think they need to have some freedom around their food choices by ages 12 and 14.  Can you have a middle ground? Like a shelf on the fridge where it is OK to take anything any time without asking, and a cupboard for treats like chips and cookies where you always have to ask.  And stick a postit note on the last milk carton that says "put this note on the counter when the carton is empty."  

At their ages, making them ask for food is a really bad idea. They need to know that you trust them on some level, which it sounds to me that you don't trust them on any level. Perhaps give them more trust and responsibility and they will rise to the challenge. When my son was 13 he ate everything in the house, kids are just growing and hungry at this age. I left him fruit and sandwich makings and said he could eat all of that he wanted. I also got him an electric sandwich press which forced him to take more time between sandwiches. I also started tasking him with prepping for dinner, so he'd know which food were dinner ingredients and he wouldn't eat them, as well as knowing dinner would come faster if he helped. All teens/tweens have eaten sugar and pizza at whenever times, this is normal too.

Our son (14) can fix himself a sandwich or some cereal, if he is hungry (and he does). Or he can grab some fresh fruit from the fruit bowl on the counter (yeah, I wish). He has to ask if he wants ice cream, cookies, chips or other treats. And he knows not to eat anything with dinner just around the corner or if something is someone else's treat.

We are fortunate to have a second fridge, so anything I need for meal prep, usually is not in the main fridge in the kitchen, so doesn't accidentally get consumed.

You could involve your kids in discussions about healthful eating and their needs. You didn't say if your children are normal weight or overweight, but trying to control their eating too much may result in eating disorders. I have painful memories of my childhood. I never liked the school lunches, so I would skip lunch. I was famished by 3PM, had no energy for after school sports, so went home to snack. By dinnertime I was not hungry. My mom would get angry that I didn't want to eat with the family dinner, so I would eat it even though I was not hungry. I got a little heavier as a teen (~10 lbs over) and my parents weren't happy with my weight and critiqued everything I ate and tried to restrict my intake. I felt it was controlling and I resented that they wanted to decide when and what I could eat. If I ate sweets, they thought I was "out of control". They resorted to hiding the snacks and desserts but still had them in the house because they wanted to eat them. It became a game: every time they left the house I would search the cupboards for the crackers, candy and cookies, and if I found them, I binged.  I would steal money from my mom's purse to buy candy and binge at friends houses.  This started a very bad cycle of eating disorders and body image problems. With weight gain, constant yoyo dieting from about age 15 until I was 25, I had a very crazy relationship with food, had no internal sense of what my body needed or was hungry.  I always felt I had to sneak to eat and rarely ate around other people. I became a "closet binger". I had roommates in college and I snuck their food. I felt guilty, but I had such a cue to sneak to eat whenever I was alone, even if it wasn't mine. I eventually founds some eating disorder therapy programs, got more in touch with my food needs, and exercised daily. Now I am in my 50s, have very good eating habits, I exercise daily, and am very fit and normal weight. With my own children I try to make sure food is not an emotionally charged topic   I want them to be in touch with their own needs and to be aware of nutrition. I make them good lunches, I ask them what they want for meals, and will even make everyone a different meal if necessary.  I keep only healthful food in the house, I let them eat at other than meal time if they need to, and if they aren't hungry for a meal, I don't make them eat. I don't buy stuff I don't want them to eat. I focus on good nutrition, being active, heathy and fit. Sure when they were younger they would eat sugar packets at restaurants and order sodas if we are out to dinner, so I suggest that they not have desert. On weekends my son has pancakes with chocolate chips and syrup, which I would prefer he didn't, but I am not going to make a big deal out of it. He sometimes buys candy after school and will admit it, but I don't make a big deal out of it or he's stop telling me. I had us all watch a documentary about sugar and the health effects.  After that my 14 year old decided to give up desserts for a while. I know it is hard when parents don't agree but I'd worry that the control will lead to eating disorders.

In any case have at least some foods that they can eat whenever they want -- fruit, cut-up veggies, left-over pizza, crackers or low-sugar cereal. The bigger question is how much do you want to be involved at this stage -- could you explain/package ingredients you are planning on for the next couple of dinners and leave them be to eat whatever else is available. If they are eating well at meals, and within the normal BMI, just let it go. If not, think about restricting the food in the house to healthy choices, (ie. get rid of the juice and granola bars), instead of putting so much energy into restricting the kids.

I think the answer that makes the most sense is to limit the temptation. How often do you need cake in the fridge beyond a birthday? How often is there pizza, as opposed to a bunch of veggies and protein that are waiting to be turned into a meal? I agree that the restrictions could contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food long-term. What happens when they go off to college or live on their own?

I believe your husband has the right idea:  lock up the refrigerator and the cabinets -- especially at night -- and make them ask for food when they want it.  When you're dealing w ADHD kids, it's a whole different ball of wax when it comes to them being able to make healthy choices and control their impulses.  Our kid has ADHD (he's 9), and locking up the fridge actually helped him to regulate himself more effectively: he knows he must ask politely for access to certain food spaces, so it's good practice for him regarding many impulsive habits like speaking out of turn, pushing/pulling us to get what he wants, etc; we've seen improvements on all fronts once we locked up the fridge.  Moreover, he seems relieved that he no longer feels compelled to gorge himself on food when we're not around.  Of course there is always a fruit bowl on the countertop with fresh apples, oranges (we use the easy-peel "cuties" type) and bananas -- he can eat as much of those as he wants whenever he likes.  After his initial dismay when his father was installing the locks -- "Really Dad?? really!!?" -- he fell in line quickly.  We're all more relaxed now, and we make a big deal outta the fun we have enjoying ice cream (for instance) as a family while watching a movie or hanging out on the porch.  Our kid is thin/muscular and very athletic, so we've not been concerned w his weight.  But eating/binging impulses w ADHD kids is common, so better you exercise as much control as possible over them now, in hopes that the habits will be imprinted (somehow!) before they're off at college where they won't have the benefit of your oversight.  

When my boys were grade-school age, I was strict about many things, including food. But by middle school (and now high school) I really changed gears and gave them a lot more freedom, sometimes more than I wanted to - partly to bring the level of conflict with my older teen down to a dull roar, but also to give them the chance to make "bad choices" while they are still at home/supported, so they don't go off to college/etc and have to suddenly navigate all that PLUS brand-new freedom to do things like eat junk food for breakfast.  For college kids this can be way too much of an all-at-once change.

So while my older teen eats way too many carbs in a day (his "lunch" he takes to school is often crackers and chips, ugh), I close my eyes and trust that all those years of farm fresh veggies will come back around when they are older.  He is really bad about eating all the dessert in the house when no one is home.  I've adjusted my shopping to buy dessert in small amounts that we eat that night, or hide it, or buy cookie mix instead of cookies so it isn't as easy for him to snack on.  It makes me mad that he does this - no respect for others in the family.  But instead of fighting about it, I try to shake it off, and keep putting healthy things front and center in the fridge. 

I do find when his friends are over playing video games I can put a big plate of cut up veggies, fruit, cold cuts, cheese, or just about anything out and they'll bring it back in empty 15 minutes later with a big thank you.   Hint - if you do need to hide things, I find putting them in the container labeled as something unappealing and pushing to the bottom/back of the fridge works like a charm. 

14 and 12 sounds way too old for such food monitoring, in my view. They are both very likely making their own food choices (zags they should be!) during school and after; it won't be long before the 14 year old is around only at mealtime / sleeping time w high school just around the corner. High school goes by fast; next thing out know they're out of the house completely. I would say just do the best you can and model good choices / remind them of the poor consequences (weight, skin), and hope for the best. 

Hi, I had a similar problem with my stepkids, so it was me being evil stepmonster on top of the food issues.  The best solutions that kept us all sane and cut down on the yelling:

Establish a designated free-for-all shelf in the fridge.  Anything on this shelf can be eaten, no questions asked.  That way, the left overs for my lunch didn't disappear when step kid decided he wanted a midnight snack.  I ended up expanding this to buying a small dorm fridge (off Craigslist) and it became the kids/snack fridge.  Now my stepkids are grown, but when they come home, they still check out the snack fridge for anything yummy.

Instead of kids snorfing up sugar laden snacks before dinner, I made a simple hors d'ouevre (sp?).  Think cut up fruit or vegetables with hummus or crackers and cheese.  In fact, this was one way I got stepkid #2, who hated vegetables, to eat some.  He was hungry before dinner was ready and apparently desperate, so he ate vegetables and fruit.  He even found some he liked!  <grin>

First things first: Are your teens eating habits effecting their growth?  If yes, you likely need the support of professionals.  If no, you likely need to let go and be much less restrictive or risk development of eating disorders or increased behavioral problems.

I have an almost 16-year-old son with ADHD and disordered eating.  When he was young, upon the advice of his pediatrician and dietician, we were very regimented about his eating - structured meal/snack times with foods acceptable to him portioned on the plate.  This was to address his highly restrictive eating, both quantity and quality/range as poor eating greatly effected his behavior and growth. 

In late middle school, he worked with the dietician (experienced in kids like him) to come up with an eating plan he felt he could accept.  I followed the plan.  It adjusted with each visit.  At some point, he resisted and refused to go any more - reasonably so as it was becoming less helpful for a number of reasons.

In high school, it has become important for him to own his choices around eating.  Mostly because he's away from home more often that not, but also because that's what's developmentally appropriate.  While his eating remains disordered, it is not longer effecting his growth or ability to engage in typical daily activities.  At home, he eats fairly nutritious foods because that's what we have in the house.  I make it easy for him, having a place in the refrigerator and pantry where foods he likes are readily available.  I minimize the amount of "junk" food in the house, but have become more flexible in buying prepared/packaged foods that I used to avoid.  I take him to the grocery store occasionally and give him general guidelines, but let him choose what he will eat.  For example: the guidelines are 1,000 calorie intake between getting up in the morning and end of school; no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving in any food/drink that is not a dessert; protein, fat, carbohydrate, and fruit/vegetable in each of the three main meals a day.  He eats a lot of dessert (mostly ice cream) late in the evening - all good, he needs the calories.  He eats a lot of junk/candy/soda away from home - that's fine, a few times he's felt horrible and gotten sick from it and is slowly learning to regulate himself.  We have a standing rule that regardless of what/when he eats away from home, he needs to eat a reasonable dinner at home, most nights of the week.

If this has become a hot-button issue in the home to the point it is affecting your relationship with your husband, I highly suggest you discuss eating with your pediatrician (make a parent appointment) and consider engaging a good family therapist to help you navigate the waters.

Good Luck.

My 12 year old son with mild ADD and I just had a conversation about this today! I don't think you're being a Nazi but maybe, given their disabilities, by monitoring it you are trying to help them pause before making bad choices? But I know it's exhasuting. Just today my son said "Thank god for the medication! it helps me make better food choices sometimes". The developmental pediatrician said the over eating was a part of his stimulation seeking and while I appreciate my son's creativity, I wouldn't like his making his conconctions (brown sugar sauteed in butter with a little flour:"bread pudding, mom!") all the time. I try NOT to have things like cupcakes, cookies, large containers of chips or ice cream etc or they'll get eaten up. I know some parents have made a drawer full of snacks (nuts, fruit, granola, etc) marked so that their kids can eat these anytime. And signs posted on the things they should not eat to help them learn. Good luck.

I suggest you keep no sugar sweetened food in the house: yoghurt, granola bars, cake, ice cream, etc. Also, no potato chips, pretzels, crackers or other processed foods. Then make sure there are plenty of healthy choices like carrots, apples, nuts, etc. Let the kids eat what they want. Go out for dessert once a week. 

Can you stock mostly healthy foods and let them have at it? That might mean no cupcakes for you at home (you can still have your treats at work!). We don't have much junk food, unhealthy cereals, etc because we don't want them to be options for our kids or battle them over why the parents are allowed but not them. Also, we hope that the kids will eventually develop a taste for veggies and healthier foods. I noticed in college that some of my friends whose parents emphasized healthy eating would indulge in brownies and desserts like the rest of us, but they would also make healthier eating choices the rest the time and not tend to binge on junk food. They seemed to have a better understanding of nutrition and a lower tolerance for surviving on junk.

Or maybe provide a designated area where your kids are free to grab food from (stock veggies, fruit, healthy leftovers, etc)? It seems like in the long run their having to ask you for food and even snacks may not foster independence and good eating habits when they eventually move out of your house. That being said, I don't have experience wth ADHD kids though...