To eat or not

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Following my last blog on the importance of mealtimes I thought it might be useful to say a few words about some of the problems connected with eating. As foster carers many of the children we look after often have a poor relationship with food, binging or starving, hoarding food, or refusing the meal we have prepared and then taking food from the cupboard when no one is looking. We nurture our children and take pride in seeing them grow and thrive. Food is essential to sustain life and therefore an intrinsic part of that nurturing and love, so that if a child or young person has a poor relationship with food it is very worrying.

Causes of eating disorders include stress, low self-esteem, poor self-image, depression, anxiety, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, pressure at school, bullying, bereavement, or breakdown of family relationships. Binging and hoarding of food in particular can be indicative of food depravation in early life. Many of the children we foster tick many of these boxes. So what can we do to help?

Check nothing is worrying the child. Anxiety can take away a child’s appetite just as it can an adult’s. Don’t ask the child at the table if they are worried about anything, but wait until there is just the two of you to have a chat. You may need to coax the worry out of the child, so be relaxed, gentle, and take your time. If there is something worrying your child, reassure them and deal with the problem.

Give children equal amounts of attention. Make sure each child is receiving their fair share of attention – both at the meal table and generally. If a child is feeling left out or undervalued for any reason, refusing food can be a way of gaining attention.

Expectation: expect the child to eat. As you expect good behaviour so you should expect the child to eat – at the table and the same food as other family members. Be confident in your expectation and the child will see that eating as everyone else in the family is doing is the norm. Obviously you have to set a good example. You can’t expect the child to eat heartily, healthily and happily if you are sitting there picking at your food, claiming you are on a diet or not eating at all.

Serve suitable-sized portions. Make sure you are not giving the child too much food. A child’s stomach is a lot smaller than an adult’s so they feel full sooner. If you give your child more food then they can eat they will of course leave some. A general guideline is that a child’s stomach is the size of their fist, as is an adult’s. Give the child a suitable-sized portion; they can always have seconds if they are still hungry.

Never use food as a punishment. I’m sure we wouldn’t but obviously never withhold food as a sanction: You’ll go to your room without any tea. Apart from food deprivation being unacceptable, you will be storing up trouble for later by bringing food into the emotional arena, so the next time your child is angry with you they will refuse to eat. And try not to bribe children with sweet things, tempting though it can be at times. Use something unconnected with food as a reward – for example, extra television time, or another fifteen minutes’ playing outside before bedtime. Linking food and behaviour will cause problems.

Keep meals simple, especially with young children. If a child has too many different foods on their plate (or too much), they may take the easiest solution and eat nothing. Limit snacking. While a little snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon will sustain a child’s energy levels between meals, too many, too large or very sweet snacks will dramatically reduce a child’s appetite at the meal table.

Some books talk about presenting food and then taking it away if the child doesn’t eat. I doubt many parents or carers can do this. If necessary, allow your child extra time to eat. Chat lightly and allow other siblings to leave the table if they have long ago finished while you remain or busy yourself nearby. You don’t want your child to feel isolated by being left alone at the table, but neither should you force siblings to sit at the table. Don’t point out the child’s slow eating, although you can say lightly: Come on, finish your meal and then you can play (or whatever they are planning to do after the meal). The longer a child is allowed to indulge in poor eating, the bigger the problem will be to solve.

Accept genuine dislikes. Obviously don’t force a child to eat a food he or she genuinely doesn’t like. All children have food preferences and a few dislikes are acceptable, but refusing to eat all nutritious food is not.

Don’t allow food to be a means of control. Food refusal or fussiness can be a way of controlling or blackmailing a parent or carer. Don’t pander to a child’s fussy ways and don’t be tempted to give them something different if they have eaten little or nothing. You will find that a child who is using food as a way to control and to manipulate you will like something one day and angrily reject it another.

Lastly and obviously, use common sense. There is no need to worry if a child or young person doesn’t want to eat one day. But if they consistently refuse food or show worrying behaviour around it then you may need to seek professional advice.

Cathy x (www.cathyglass.co.uk)