It started innocently enough. Last winter, I bought a bag of Australian black licorice from Trader Joe’s. Every few days, I’d dole out a modest portion for myself with the obsessive precision of an elite gymnast. Within a weekend of my husband, Floren, discovering it in the snack cabinet, the bag had vanished. When its replacement disappeared with similar speed, I knew the treat was doomed, so I moved on to tucking a sleeve of McVitie’s digestive cookies into a little-used kitchen cabinet. “Hey, I didn’t know we had cookies!” he enthused while rooting around for the paella pan. I sighed, watching him tear into the package, knowing its days were numbered.
Since then, I’ve become a master at hiding food. Brandy-filled milk chocolates, yogurt-covered almonds, dark chocolate Cadbury eggs, and gingery German Lebkuchen—I’ve hidden these and more in various nooks, closets, and drawers of the house. Now that we’re both working from home most of the time, I relocate them every week or two, like an FBI agent moving an especially valuable asset between safe houses.
At first I told myself I was hiding food because Floren is one of those metabolically blessed people who can eat whatever he wants without gaining a decigram, whereas I puff up like a cane toad if I so much as sniff a raspberry square. I simply wanted to enjoy these treats at occasional intervals instead of feeling pressured to keep pace with the six-foot-tall hummingbird that shares my home. But one day, when I found myself inhaling a handful of salted caramels before he returned from the post office, I knew there had to be more to the story.
So I did what any person in search of deep human truths does: I Googled. Specifically, I Googled “I hide food.” And immediately turned up pages and pages worth of sheepish food-hiding confessions, usually in discussion forums where the posters’ identities are concealed behind screen names like PineappleMama and Chicken Fruit.
Hiding food, when not a result of a psychological condition, is pretty common, and has roots in biology. Many animals hide food, a behavior scientists call resource hoarding. It’s how “squirrel” got to be both a noun and a verb, and it’s as unconscious as a bad case of gas. And humans do it, too: it’s a leftover from an evolutionary stage when our next meal wasn’t guaranteed.
As it turns out, we’re pretty bad at feeling deprived—a big reason why so many diets fail. “We’re hard-wired to eat because, like sex, eating is a biological imperative—which is why even the intense shame or guilt we feel doesn’t deter us from sneaking our favorite foods,” says Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, an eating psychology expert and author.
About that guilt? Two-thirds of the 2,000 women aged 21 to 45 who responded to a 2018 poll conducted by freeze-dried fruit manufacturer Crispy Green reported that they hide the good stuff to avoid sharing it with their significant others or kids. While nearly half of the women reported feeling some guilt over private snacking, 58% said they weren’t embarrassed by their overall eating habits and believed their snacking was not for emotional reasons.
“Food makes us feel good,” says Long Quach, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in New York. “It tastes good. It can be associated with good memories. So when we hide food, it is more that we are trying to preserve those moments of joy for later.”
Armed with this justification, I proceeded to the venerated halls of rationale and calm: social media. I asked my friends if they participated in similar snack skullduggery... and almost immediately got more than two dozen replies.
Kim, a single mother of two, inters adult party snacks, such as smoked almonds and imported olives, as well as Sour Patch Kids in the one place her children tremble to go: her underwear drawer. After Christine’s husband repeatedly Hoovered the Provolone cheese (“He leaves me the American!” she laments), she has become the Frank Lloyd Wright of fridge planning, with her favorite snack expertly blended into its surroundings. Melissa, who describes her teenage son as a “human garbage disposal,” tucks away cookies in old boxes of healthy cereal or her office filing cabinet, and candy inside her high heel boots. Meanwhile, Greg, the tallest person in his household, is always able to keep his illicit stash of fancy chocolate safely out of reach.
Noting that “there will be World War III if snacks are missing in [our] household,” Khareem, a married mother of a toddler with a second child on the way, has an inventory of secret snacks that rivals my own: Cool Ranch Doritos, Chips Ahoy!, Twizzlers, Snickers, and cupcakes from grocery chain Big Y that she hides in under-bed storage containers and empty baby-formula tins. She strongly believes her husband’s opposite taste in ice cream helps their marriage but recently bought a mini fridge with a lock on it to deter looters from her popsicle stash.
“Mind you,” Khareem says of her family, “they all have their own snacks. But my snacks taste better.”
Sugary snacks top the list of the most commonly hidden foods. “Our brain requires a lot of energy in the form of sugar or glucose,” explains Quach. “Research shows that when we eat sweet foods, we get a hit of dopamine, which is similar to the effect of cocaine.” And since dopamine is released not just during a pleasurable activity, but in anticipation of it, even looking forward to enjoying some forbidden fruit-flavored gummies can create a powerful chemical rush that makes the brain crave more.
So until I can invent a snack food made out of bell peppers and onions, the only foods my equal-opportunity snarfer of a spouse doesn’t like, I’ll have to content myself with stockpiling store-bought snacks among the candleholders, utensil caddies, and other party decorations he never seems to need until I’ve stuffed them with vodka-filled truffles.