Under-reporting (UR) of food intake is an issue of concern, as it may distort the relationships studied between diet and health. This topic has been scarcely addressed in children. The objective of the study was to assess the extent of UR in French children and investigate associated covariates. A total of 1455 children aged 3–17 years were taken from the nationally representative cross-sectional French étude Individuelle Nationale des Consommations Alimentaires (INCA2) dietary survey (2006–7). Food intake was reported in a 7 d diet record. Socio-economic status, sedentary behaviour, weight perception variables and food habits were collected by questionnaires. Weight and height were measured. Under-reporters were identified according to the Goldberg criterion adapted to children. Multivariate logistic regressions investigated the associations between UR and covariates. Rates of under-reporters were 4·9 and 26·0 % in children aged 3–10 and 11–17 years, respectively (P < 0·0001), without significant differences between boys and girls. Overall, UR was positively associated with a lower socio-economic status, overweight, skipping breakfast and dinner, a higher contribution of proteins to energy intake (EI), and a lower contribution of simple carbohydrates to EI. Under-reporters aged 3–10 years also had a higher sedentary behaviour and a lower snack-eating frequency. In adolescents, UR was also associated with a less-frequent school canteen attendance, a perception of being overweight, a wish to weigh less, and current and past restrictive diets. In conclusion, under-reporters differ from plausible reporters in several characteristics related to diet, lifestyle, weight status and socio-economic status. Therefore, it is important to consider this differential UR bias when investigating diet–disease associations in children.