Nov 15, 2016
by Julie McGowan, LMSW, Family Counseling Supervisor and Therapist, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Holland
“My (foster) child continuously sneaks food from the kitchen after he or she has already eaten. Should I put a lock on my refrigerator?”
The short answer to this question is NO.
While there are times that different areas of the house need to be off limits or locked—my kitchen currently has a baby gate to avoid random food being pulled out of the refrigerator, the sink being left on, and the stove being touched when hot—locking the refrigerator is unlikely to improve food issues. It can actually increase the behaviors.
Food issues are very common in foster kids. Often, children in neglectful situations eat food when it is available, not knowing when their next meal may come. They may have had a consistent diet of convenience foods and may not have had a lot of exposure to fresh or home-prepared meals. I have found that even kids who did not experience a lack of available food will often have food issues because it is one of the few things they can control. Food issues can include refusing to eat, overeating, stealing, hoarding, extremely picky eating, etc.
With all of the ways food can be an issue for our kids, simply locking the food away is not an effective solution. Here are some practical tips for dealing with food issues.
Avoid food battles. In my house, I have made it my mission not to battle over food with my kids. When it’s dinner time, we all sit at the table and we all get a plate of what is being served that night (I dish up the meal in the kitchen so I can monitor portion sizes). Dinner consists of several options and includes at least one thing I know each child likes. If they want more of something they may have it if they ask using their manners, but once it is gone, it is gone. Inevitably, before they even start eating, I hear, “I don’t like it! I don’t want that!” to which I calmly reply, “If you don’t want to eat it you may leave it on your plate.” By allowing them to decide what and how much they eat, while still having ultimate control over what I make and provide, it allows them to feel that they have control.
Seems simple right? Until the meal is over, they haven’t eaten anything, and now they want a snack… read on!
Allow access to healthy foods 24/7. This may seem counterintuitive. They are eating constantly, and the solution is to offer more access to food? Here’s why it works. Often food issues come from a place of fear of needs not being met. It is extremely important that we show our kids that their needs will be met. This needs to happen consistently over long periods of time. By offering 24/7 access to food, the child starts to see that their need will always be met. Of course you can tweak this as needed for your family. The idea you’re communicating is that food is almost always available when a child asks for it.
Having that access provides security which may help not only the food issues but also increase overall security and attachment. I have found this works well by keeping a bowl of fruit, veggies, or healthy snacks on the kitchen table or in a special bag for each child. These snacks should include healthy beverages as well. Whenever they are hungry, want a snack, complain they don’t like their dinner, try to get into the fridge, etc., they can calmly be directed to the snack bowl.
Develop routines around meal and snack time. The more routine your meal times are, the more comfortable they will feel for kids. Routine is safe and predictable, which is exactly what our kids need. Involving kids in the routine (setting the table, clearing the table, making the food, meal planning, grocery shopping, etc.) can also help reduce food issues. Give choices whenever possible, no matter how insignificant they seem (“Do you want the red plate or the blue plate? Do you want five carrots or 10 carrots?”). Also, setting gentle boundaries will also be helpful: “We don’t eat food in the bedroom. If you want a snack, you can come sit at the table.”
Remember it will be a process. Do not expect children to come into your home and adapt to your meal time routines and preferences right away. Your child only eats chicken nuggets? Great, serve chicken nuggets every other day for the first week or two. Make changes slowly, and remember that their whole world is in flux around them.
While food issues can be intense and exhausting to deal with, these behaviors can be greatly reduced by understanding where they are coming from and addressing them with calm consistency.