How we eat becomes so ingrained in our daily lives that we often forget to analyze what we are eating, how it impacts us, and the lessons we learned about food from our parents. Most of us learned some less than ideal habits and attitudes about food--even if these do not interfere with our daily lives.
For children with a history of food insecurity, children learning to attach and children suffering from the impact of negative feeding patterns, applying typical food rules are likely to backfire. Instead, families must create new food rules. While these rules may seem minor, they can add up to a stronger parent-child bond and a competent eater.
Predictability is so important for children learning to trust. And it becomes even more important when a history of food scarcity can create food anxieties. Eating every 2 to 4 hours on a schedule can help children start to believe that their needs will be met. Additionally, sharing a meal is important to bonding. Even if your child refuses to eat, it is time that you can spend together pleasantly.
Food is the most basic way we nurture, and you do not want Ronald McDonald to become an attachment figure for your child. Preparing meals is the most tangible way children understand that you are providing sustenance and meeting their most basic needs.
While it is wonderful that family and friends want to prepare meals as a new family adjusts together, adoptive parents should request that freezer meals are made and transferred before a child arrives in the home. This way, the child can still observe the parent preparing the meal by taking it from freezer to oven to table.
Children also need to observe parents modeling eating, which means not refusing certain vegetables or eating foods that are off limits to a child, including food to which the child might be allergic. It is important that meals be about family as much as they are about food. And the message to the child is that we are all in this together.
As you prepare meals and snacks, make sure to include your child’s favorites and ensure there is always something familiar on the table. Allow your children to choose what they want to eat and try to serve themselves if capable. When you pre-plate food, you are presenting your child with an opportunity to create an argument and divisiveness. Meal times are family times. If you are providing food on a predictable schedule every 2 to 4 hours, you are providing ample opportunity for nutrients, even if at one meal, your child opts for a triple serving of rice and no vegetables.
Food anxiety--even when it seems irrational to a parent--can cause a host of disturbing behaviors in children. By making food available at any time and saying yes to all food requests, parents are actively fighting anxiety. You may have to be creative in your “yes” by not keeping certain food items in the house. For example, “Yes, of course you may have a cookie. You may even have two. But we need to go to the store to get chocolate chips to make our cookies, so after you pick up your toys, we can go to the store. Then, we can make the cookies together after we eat our lunch.”
It is advisable to have certain foods that children can access at any time without specific permission. For example, some parents tell their kids they are always welcome to fruit in the fridge drawer and snacks (mostly nuts and dried fruit) in the pantry. They do not stop preparing dinner to help their child make a peanut butter sandwich, but they will tell the child to get an apple, mango or pistachios.
Allergies, sensitivities and intolerances can lead to discomfort, inflammation and increased adrenal response, causing a host of mental health diagnoses, such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and anxiety, as well as behavioral problems, including aggression, inattention, hyperactivity and fatigue. Dietary interventions prevent children from feeling like the “black sheep” who needs to be medicated and also empowers them to make choices that help them feel better and control their own behavior.
Don’t encourage or discourage eating. Food is the most basic way we nurture and feeding needs to be nurturing. Overreacting to under-eating or overeating not only diminishes the nurture, but it presents your child with a point of contention. Children who are encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables tend to eat fewer. Children trusted to decide how much to eat usually learn to find a healthy balance. Present the food and let it be, as difficult as it may be to shush your inner coach working from old scripts.
Never ask kids to share or make them wait. Instead, carry snacks with you at all times, such as nuts, dried fruit or Larabars. Whether you are in the middle of making dinner or your restaurant order is on its way out, if kids want food make it available. Often, it is simply the availability that is most important. Even food hoarding can stop when kids know food is readily available to them as needed. Sharing food, even a single bite, can trigger feelings of having to compete for food.
As far as a meal plan is concerned, parents decide what and when, and children can decide if and how much. For example, if you prepare pork chops, sweet potatoes and cabbage for dinner, and your child only eats sweet potatoes, that is fine. If your child comes to the table and tells you that you don’t make good food, give him permission not to eat it. You can share power in meal planning by allowing your child to choose between two equally acceptable options, such as one of two vegetables you already have on hand.
Withholding food can trigger food anxiety, creating additional difficulties for the entire family. Food, like a parents’ love and nurture, should simply be a necessary key to life and should not need to be earned. Rewarding children with food teaches them to reward themselves with food as adults.
This means that parents have to put their phones, laptops and newspapers away during meal times. Meal times should be about family and food. Distractions may trick some children into eating more, and some children into eating less. To raise competent eaters, children needed to be attuned to their bodies as they eat.
Food is the most basic way we nurture. Adoptive parents must get back to basics to help children attach well. Concerns of malnutrition, eating too much or eating too little can distract parents from the goal of nurturing. Yet, attempts to encourage children to eat for health often backfire. It is essential that parents learn to let go of control and make meal times as positive as possible, creating healthy parent-child relationships and guiding children toward a healthy relationship with food for the rest of their lives.
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