Top 10 Tips for Food and Eating
Top 10 Tips for Food and Eating
- Always remember the ‘why’ in challenges around food
It is really important to understand there’s always a why and a reason underlying the behaviour of children in care, and issues around food are no different. So try to be a detective and stay inquisitive when there is a food issue and think deeper than the behaviour that is being displayed. Children in care may have suffered from being malnourished, they may have been neglected, they have trauma and attachment issues which may leave them anxious and stressed around or about food, they may be worried there will be no food and also be only secure eating the foods that are known to them, there may be comfort in that familiarity.
- There can be many different food issues
There are so many ways a child or young person can express trauma or other issues via food and eating. A feeling of being overwhelmed around food and eating, hoarding, not eating at mealtimes but eating secretly or alone, hoarding, getting upset if food is limited or taken away, eating only familiar and ‘safe’ foods, eating too quickly, worried that the food will be taken away, not confident eating with others, used to different eating patterns, behaviours and routines, low appetite or overeating, self-consciousness, dental issues and more.
- Religion and culture will play a part for some children
Looked after children can come from very different cultures and religions, and have totally different food experiences and needs. Wide-ranging knowledge of these different needs is important for a foster carer. Learn as much as you can about it. Always check with the child’s social worker as to the child’s culture, background and dietary needs.
Check if the child or young person has any religious or cultural dietary restrictions if there is a specific way food needs to be prepared or handled, ask for help with this, don’t assume anything, and check first.
- Be non-judgmental about food
Don’t show a child you ‘disagree’ with them eating certain foods if, for instance, you refer to things they are familiar and safe with as “junk” food as they may feel judged, especially as this could be what they eat with their own family and friends. It may feel familiar, comforting and a coping mechanism in the strange ‘fostering’ world they have found themselves in. Again given time, patience and understanding they will develop confidence, will try new things, and feel more at ease around food.
Always remember that treats are ok and often give our children great pleasure, so whilst focusing on good nutrition remember that they are children at the end of the day who like a bit of chocolate and an occasional McDonald’s!
- Food can affect mood and behaviour
Psychological experiences can affect our food choices and children and young people might yearn for those unhealthy food choices which we call comfort foods and this can become a barrier to maintaining a healthy diet. Try and limit the number of processed foods. Mood swings may be linked to heightened inflammation markers which may be caused by these processed foods.
Too much Sugar can be another influence on mood and behaviour, remember sugar can be hidden in other places such as highly processed foods.
Slow-release foods such as protein or low GI will keep blood sugars at a steady-state avoiding ups and downs in mood and behaviour.
Examples of low GI foods are porridge oats, whole wholewheat pasta and bread, whole grain cereals, beans and lentils, basmati rice, corn tortillas, sourdough bread and as always a great selection of fruit and veg.
Good for mood are fruit, vegetables, fish, polyunsaturated fats such as nuts and oily fish for essential omega 3 oils.
Always make changes slowly.
- Get inventive
You may be looking at these lists and thinking “my child/young person will never eat that!” However, there are lots of ways to get inventive on how to cook and present these foods in a disguised way, a simple google search will bring up lots of imaginative ways to cook them in a tasty and child-friendly way.“When my little ones arrived they were unused to veg, I would make meals that they recognised at first as frozen food (I am a vegetarian with an allotment ) but in the section before dinner when they starving and waiting, I put little plates on the table of raw veg, carrots, peppers, cucumber etc without saying much at all but eating it myself and they ate it so by the time dinner came they had had veg.
Now 8 years on they eat a lot of things.”
“I get them to help with the shopping and cooking, it engages them in the process and when they feel a bit more in control they are much more likely to be open to trying new things.”
“I hate food being an issue or battleground. If a child has helped cook a meal they are more likely to eat healthily, letting them serve themselves also works well.”
- Be patient and flexible
When a new child or young person is placed with you don’t immediately worry about eating a healthy straight away or insist on them eating your menus. Good nutrition and new ways of eating can not be rushed, sudden changes are not a good idea, find out their favourite foods, let them shop with you, and remember just how much they have lost and that familiar food may be comforting. As you build a trusting relationship with them this will have a positive effect on food, diet and eating.
They may have very different ways of eating, different routines and preferences, teenagers may not feel comfortable eating around a table, and many may be clinging to their phones which will be their lifeline to lost connections. Be open-minded, flexible and accommodating.
“We foster teens and when they first arrive they can be very shut down, depressed and angry at the world.
One thing they can feel is that they have no control over their lives, I find food one of the easiest ways to let them know they do have a say.
Some may also come without much of an appetite due to the distress and anxiety the move has caused. I always have a cupboard full of super noodles and chips and nuggets in the freezer, and we always either ask them if they want to come shopping and choose or write a list for us. We don’t impose our food choices on them, to begin with, but slowly they try new things with us (my smoked sausage pasta never fails!) honestly when my teens move on they can eat and cook an amazing array of nutritious foods.”
This is not uncommon amongst children and young people in care, remember they are not being “naughty” or “greedy” and they are most certainly not ‘stealing’ anything. There will be an underlying trauma attached to this. Be kind and inquisitive, maybe offer a safe place for food storage, a drawer, a shelf on the fridge – let them know this is there and it will always be filled up for them.As they grow in confidence, know that there is always food and begin to trust the adults around them this will subside, but it may take time, and a lot of patience and understanding will be needed from their carers.
There are many approaches to hoarding, discuss it with the team around you to support the child or young person.
“If I have a hoarder, it’s often because in the past they went hungry and didn’t know when the next meal would be. I put a Tupperware container in the fridge. They know it’s theirs, I put all sorts of things in it for them to have when they want. Sometimes they like to know what’s going in and sometimes they like a surprise. It’s surprising how quickly they no longer feel the need to hoard.”
- Think about meal times
Mealtimes should be fun and relaxed, but so often they are the opposite. This is a time as foster carers to take a step back and understand that mealtime can be the worst time for a child, making them very anxious, stressed and fraught. Recognise that some children will never have been used to eating big family meals around a table and they might find this intimidating or scary at first.
Some might not have even eaten with a knife or fork. Be adaptable in how you welcome each child, be observant and inquisitive, work out what works for them and be willing to work together.
- Work with the team around the child
As a foster carer, you are part of the professional team that surrounds a child. Ensure that any food issues are discussed with the child’s social worker and your own, make sure you report and record everything and advocate for your child or young person to get the help they need.
Useful Links for food and eating
- FosterWiki – Food and Foster Children: https://fosterwiki.com/wiki/food-and-foster-children/
- FosterWiki – Food and Autism: https://fosterwiki.com/wiki/food-and-autism/
- FosterWiki – Top 10 Tips -Reporting and Recording: https://fosterwiki.com/wiki/top-10-tips-reporting-and-recording/
- Wise about food -Sarah Scotland website & training courses: https://www.wiseaboutfood.co.uk/services
- World Health Organisation healthy diet: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet
- NHS – Eat Well, a guide to a healthy diet: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/
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