How can I stop eating my kids’ leftovers?

Eating leftovers is an occupational hazard if you have kids of any age, or if you cook for anyone else…. If this sounds like you or someone you know, here are some tips. ……

How do I break the leftover eating habit?

Dear Helen,

I’ve got into the habit of eating up whatever my kids leave on their plates after tea. Worse, when I start eating I can’t stop because although I didn’t really feel hungry to start with, I suddenly feel very hungry and once I’ve finished the leftovers I’m on the lookout for anything else to eat which is quick and easy, so I raid the cupboards and end up filling up on junk.

This means I’m eating continually from when the kids finish eating which is about 5.30 pm. Then when my partner gets home we eat our dinner at about 6.30 pm. After that I feel stuffed, and feel ashamed of what I’ve done, and I vow not to do the same tomorrow. But I usually do.  Since the kids were born (the oldest is now 7) I’ve put on a lot of weight and am still gaining. It makes me feel out of control around food, particularly because the scraps of cold pizza or potato aren’t that nice.

How can I break this habit?


The solution is simpler than you think

Dear Katie,

Your teatime leftovers eating is an example of “opportunistic eating”: you eat the leftovers because they are there and you’ve simply seen them. After a couple of mouthfuls of cold pizza crust you suddenly feel “hungry”, but this is not physical hunger you’re describing.  Instead this sort of eating isn’t about satisfying hunger; it’s about the drive state (controlled by the dopamine system in the brain) which is activated when you eat, particularly when you eat certain types of food. This drive state produces “stereotyped” eating behaviour – putting one forkful into your mouth after another on autopilot – without thinking and without awareness of your feelings of hunger or fullness. This sort of eating provides little if any actual pleasure.

In order to change this pattern of impulsive over-eating, the key is not to activate this drive system in the first place, by not taking that first bite.

  1. Get out of the line of sight of your kids’ leftovers.  Your eye is part of the appetite system in your body.  When you catch sight of food, the rest of the system swings into action.  Brain, stomach, salivary glands. Food doesn’t even have to be particularly appetising to catch your eye. To reduce opportunistic eating, remove the food from your line of sight so your appetite doesn’t get triggered to start with.  Or put an obstacle in the way, so that instead of eating on autopilot you have to make an effort, which gives you valuable moments to change your mind.
  2. Make a detailed plan for what you’ll do at that point in the day when the kids’ tea plates are ready for clearing away, which doesn’t involve eating the leftovers.
  3. Make your evening meal with your partner as fabulous as you can, so that looking forward to that proper meal helps you avoid eating leftover scraps.


Let’s look at what this would mean for Katie.

Teatime is one of the most fraught times of the day with young children.  They’re tired or hungry and perhaps both. And for that matter, so are you.  Which means that however you tackle making this change, it’s got to be simple and easy to follow.

The first point to emphasise is that you should focus on just making this one specific change, of no more eating your kids’ leftovers. You’ve been doing this for several years now, so allow yourself a few weeks to just stop this one annoying habit.  Make yourself a rule that from now on you will not put any of your children’s leftovers in your mouth. However nice they look, put them in the bin.  You are no longer a human dustbin. If the thought that food is being wasted troubles you, read this article on food waste.

Second, to help make it easier to stick to this rule, work out how to get away from the sight of the leftovers. You could get the kids to empty their plates straight into the recycling bin themselves, or put the leftovers straight into the bin yourself. Or clear the table with the kids and sing upbeat songs together loudly as you do (to occupy your brain and mouth).  Or move into a different room and leave the plates until later.  It doesn’t matter how you do it – you may come up with an alternative creative solution.

Third, do something that discourages you from eating when your kids are having their tea by chewing gum, or having a hot drink.  Or use the findings of a recent research study which showed that washing your mouth with menthol mouthwash can reduce unwanted eating (for obvious reasons).

Fourth, make sure that the meal you share with your partner is something you can really look forward to.  Whether it’s home-cooked or pre-prepared, choose something you’ll enjoy.  Then at any point where you’re tempted to chomp on leftovers, think of the proper meal you’ll be having. By not eating the leftovers now, you’re allowing yourself to get hungry by your proper meal time, which means that your taste buds will be more sensitive and your food will taste fabulous.  When it’s time for your meal, sit down and enjoy it. Using proper plates and cutlery enhances your enjoyment of what you eat.  As does eating mindfully, which means focusing your attention on the taste and texture of every bite.  Eating lovely food when you’re actually hungry means you’re activating your brain’s pleasure (serotonin) system, and the drive (dopamine) system is less triggered in comparison.

Don’t beat yourself up. Focus on pleasure

If you slip up and find yourself chewing the remains of a potato waffle, don’t beat yourself up.  Instead, really focus on how little pleasure you’re getting from cold leftover food. This will help you next time you’re tempted.

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