Vol. 20, No. 2 • May 2016

Solutions to Food and Mealtime Struggles

by Allison Gilliam

Food: it's a building block of good health. Our bodies' fuel. Eating is such an important act that we do it multiple times a day, every day.

Which leads us to the planning, preparation, and delivery of meals. As parents, this job falls to us. On the face of it, it's not too much to ask: just prepare meals that provide nutrition and a time to connect around the table.

Simple, right?

As any parent knows, in reality, meal time can be war time, complete with screaming and tantrums, silent refusals, and power struggles you wonder whether you can win.

For resource parents, food and meals can be even more complicated. We often find ourselves caring for young people whose understanding of and approach to eating is quite different from ours. Our own children may rebel as well, asking why they should have to eat their carrots when the "new kid" doesn't have to eat his. Double-teamed like this, the temptation to give in and go for fast food can be pretty strong.

To help, I'd like to offer some suggestions for understanding and navigating the struggles around food and nutrition that many resource parents face.

Our First Impulse
Because we know they've faced adversity, as resource parents we long to give the children in our homes our best for whatever time we have with them. Rich nutrition and a balanced diet are often on the top of the list of things we can tangibly do for a child. But there are many things that can get in the way.

Different Food Backgrounds
Before they are placed in our care, some children have not experienced consistency when it comes to meal times, healthy eating, or other messages about food.

For many, life before foster care was not full of healthy fruits and vegetables, well balanced meals, or home cooked dinners. Some were often hungry. Others have eaten more ramen noodles or McDonalds than we can imagine.

Sweets may have been a key part of their diet. Sweets may have been used as a bargaining tool by tired parents who just wanted their children to behave.

Given all this, it's no surprise that when we try to meet children's needs at the dinner table the result can sometimes be frustration and struggle.

More Than Nutrition
Part of the reason for this is that food isn't nutrition alone. Eating can be about deep, personal issues such as:

Control: Children in foster care have little control in their lives. When, how, and what is eaten is a very tangible way to exert control and express feelings without using words. A need for control can set the stage for food battles.

Comfort: Sadness can spark an urge for sugar, carbohydrates, and overeating. Children in foster care often feel sad about their situation and don't always have the skills needed to cope effectively with these feelings. Food can be a tool children use to feel psychologically safe.

Home: Food represents home. Having mashed potatoes with lumps ("just like Nanny's") can soothe us and remind us of good times at home. Conversely, unfamiliar food on our plates can remind us of all we've lost.

Poverty: A balanced diet is not always a possibility for families in poverty. If you've been raised in poverty, food that is not fast food can seem foreign and strange. Fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive. Fresh meats require refrigeration and heat to prepare. Fast food is a cheap, easy solution if you work long hours and have little money in your pocket.

Despite all this, we are still responsible for providing nourishment to the children in our homes. When the fight is real and mashed potatoes are flying, this responsibility can feel like quite a burden. The good news is, there are things we can do to cultivate a good diet over time and teach children what it means to eat healthy food. Here are some suggestions:

Exposure: Whether they eat it or not, make sure there is something green on the plate every day and at every meal. After a while, it will become familiar. Eventually, it may even become a "safe" food for them.

Reward: Reward children for trying new things, not for eating the entire serving. Try quality time or an extra book at story time, not food, as a reward.

Our own children: If you have different expectations about food and eating for your own children, talk to them privately. Make a rule that food is not discussed at the table/in front of others. Consider giving them incentives, such as a "free pass" on vegetables at dinner if they eat more veggies after school or in their lunch.

Obesity: Having too much weight on a body does not happen overnight. The same is true for creating healthy food habits. Make small changes that are agreed upon by the doctor, the child, the child's parents, and yourself. Getting everyone on the same page will increase the chances of success/consistency and keep the child's self-esteem intact.

Education: Teach children what food really is--fuel for our bodies. Help build their understanding of the different food groups and the health benefits of a balanced diet. Explain why it's important to eat your greens!

Vitamins: Talk to the child's doctor about whether the child needs a supplement.

Patience: Since eating a balanced diet is important, getting to a place where foods are tried and food battles are won is important. However, it is also important to keep things in perspective: slow down and allow yourself and the children (your own and those placed with you) the time and space to develop good eating habits.

Allison Gilliam is Pediatric Team Lead for Community Care of Western North Carolina; she is also an adoptive parent and a former foster parent.

Teaching Healthy Behaviors to Children in Foster Care

Adapted from USDA, 2007

Whether they show it or not, young people are always watching us and learning from what we do. Kids copy adults, so as parents and role models, it is vitally important that we eat healthy and be active every day!
Now being a role model doesn't mean being perfect or never indulging your sweet tooth. Rather, it means balancing what you eat with what you do.

Eat Healthy and Be Active Every Day!

Set an example--Keep a variety of healthy foods on hand. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole-grain, fat-free or low fat dairy products, lean meats, and dry beans. Limit the amount of foods you buy that are high in saturated fats, trans fats, and added sugar.

Watch serving sizes--Remember, younger kids need less food than teenagers and adults. Start with small servings and give extra if they want more.

Be active--You need at least 30 minutes of activity most days. Your kids need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day, or most every day. Add activities to your daily schedule, like walking, biking, working in the yard, or cleaning the house.

Making Smart Food Choices and Being Active Every Day:

  • Helps everyone keep mentally and physically fit.
  • Helps to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Helps reduce risks of serious diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.
  • Helps kids to grow and develop and provides them with the energy they need to learn and play.



~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~