When placed in a stable home, many children do not trust the security of their new life and therefore behave in ways that can puzzle new parents. Food issues tend to be one of the first challenges that new families must address. Some of the reasons the children present with food challenges and eating disorders are because they:
• Are seeking control over their environment due to an unpredictable life before placement.
- Suffer malnourishment from overeating unhealthy foods or overall lack of nutritious foods.
- Have undiagnosed allergies and sensitivities such as lactose intolerance.
- •Are struggling with cultural and dietary differences such as new foods and expectations at mealtimes.
Have physical and medical conditions that prevent proper eating.
Adoptive and foster parents can look at what is known of the child’s case history to help determine
possible reasons for the child’s food issues. If the problem is not apparent, it is advisable to take the
child to a medical professional specializing in eating disorders of adopted or foster kids. Parents
need to look at the food issues their child struggle with as an opportunity to help build positive
It is not uncommon for a child with food issues to also have attachment issues, so in some cases
the best Strategy is to start by meeting the child’s basic need for food, much like parents do for
infants. Experiences of trauma and loss may make children more vulnerable to eating- and food-
related difficulties. Understanding the reasons behind eating problems will help families address
the problems in a helpful way, instead of turning food into a power struggle.
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 not been able to get enough in the past. They may feel less anxious if they have stashed
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 it 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 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 adoptive 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. 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. 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 meal
times. 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. And to know what is expected of them.
Suggestions For Addressing Eating Problems in Adoptive Children
Offer a variety of foods and stick with simple dishes. Start with foods familiar to the child
or basics to all children such as chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly.
Ask the child about his favorite meals or invite him to help you choose a dish when shopping.
Make meal time as pleasant as you can. Keep it short and as least stressful as you can. Make
sure that every child gets a good physical exam by a health professional regularly. Monitor
weight and growth especially in young children and pay attention to the child’s cues of
whether he is getting enough to eat. Plan regular, consistent meals so children begin to
develop a rhythm and a trust they will be cared for. Offer healthy snacks throughout the
day. Some families have a snack drawer or shelf accessible for children throughout the day
and fill it with snacks such as raisins, nuts, fruit, and cereal. Sometimes children may want to
eat just one thing day after day. For the most part, don’t worry about food jags. Offer a
variety of foods and avoid turning dinner into a battle of wills. Supplement a child's meals with
a multi-vitamin if appropriate. Avoid power struggles. Don't force a child to eat or trick him
into eating. Again, offer the food and watch the child’s health. You don’t need to turn into a
short order cook, either. Some parents offer an alternative such as