Children in foster care frequently have problems in the area of eating. Children who have not been fed regularly or consistently may develop a survival mentality toward food-- feeling there isn't enough or it won't be there the next time. Understanding the reasons behind eating problems will help resource families address the problems in a helpful way, instead of turning food into a power struggle.
Eating Too Much or Too Fast
Some children approach food with a "vacuum" mentality-- that is, eat as much as you can as fast as you can! Some children have a survival mentality that makes them anxious around food. If they haven't been able to count on regularly or consistently being fed, many children will eat as much as they can when food is available. They may become anxious if they think others are getting more food than they are. Some children can't tell when they are full and may eat until they vomit.
Some children may hide or hoard food in the room. Sometimes this food isn't even edible, such as stale sandwiches or mushy, molding fruit. Some children may also hoard or take food secretly from cupboards that doesn't make sense, such as dried pasta or toothpaste.
Hoarding food stems from emotional anxiety or want. On some level, children may feel that they can't get enough because they have have been able to get enough. They may feel less anxious if they have stashed some food.
Not Wanting to Eat, Picky Eater
Children are very different in the way they eat. Some children are great eaters. Some children eat slowly, and take a long time to finish normal amounts of food.
Some children may not eat because they are unfamiliar with the food you are serving, or may be used to high fat, high salt food, so that healthy food doesn't taste good or familiar to them. There are many reasons why a child may not want to eat. Some may be biologically based, such as a child with a physical condition that causes him to be sensitive to food with a hard texture or food that is too hot.
Organic Problems in Eating:
Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder may have a very fast metabolism and may eat a lot without putting on weight. Some children may need to have food in smaller quantities, but more often. Some children have sensory issues and are very sensitive to texture, heat and spice and may reject most food. Some children have mouth pain or teeth problems and eating is painful. Very young children with eating problems may not have developed their muscles around their mouth, so have difficulty with eating and chewing.
It is critical that foster parents work with their health providers on any food issues to determine whether there is an organic problem for a child. It is also important for foster parents to monitor weight gain and development, especially in very young children and infants. Infants who are failure to thrive or don't get enough to eat or enough formula can become sick very fast. Foster parents may need to work with their health providers to learn alternative methods to get children the nutrition they need.
Not having eating skills or table manners
It is important to be sensitive to the fact that we learn the expectations and rituals about eating from our families and our environments. Children from different backgrounds and cultures learn these rituals and bring them into your home. Some families may commonly eat with fingers, or share food from plates or common bowls. Some families may eat when they are hungry and not have regular meal times. Some eating habits are not wrong, but may be different than your own family's.
In addition, when children are neglected, some of the basic niceties that you expect in your home may not be familiar to them such as using utensils, eating with your mouth closed, not eating off other people’s plates or having regular mealtimes. This may also show up in other areas such as sharing, using the toilet, hygiene, and letting parents knowing when you leave the house. In these situations, it is important to be respectful and sensitive as you teach children the basics skills that they need to know to get along in your family.