No child comes to us as a blank slate, not even an infant–they come to us pre-wired by genetics and experiences they have had before us. Getting to know this beautiful being is one of the joys of adoptive and foster parenting, but can also be one of the challenges. Nowhere does this challenge arise more than in areas of food. Handling picky eaters when fostering or adopting is often one of the biggest frustrations to parents.
Feeding our children is the most basic form of nurturing. For me it feels almost instinctual – the planning, preparing, and sharing of food is something that I can do to care for them, show my love, and share my life, even if it is just scrambled eggs and toast for dinner with baby carrots on the side because I was too busy to get to the grocery store. Picky eaters can throw a major kink in this expression of nurturance.
Children who come to us past infancy have had time to become accustomed to a way of eating that is often different from ours. With children adopted internationally, we expect this, but many (most?) children in foster care also have experienced significant food differences. Perhaps they were neglected, and food was scarce or fixed by whoever was hungry. Maybe they lived in a food desert, and pre-packaged processed food was all that was readily available. Perhaps they were in a home where the last thing on anyone’s mind was feeding the kids. Maybe all of these. Quite often, these factors turn our kids into “picky eaters.”
We frequently receive questions like this from foster or adoptive parents.
My foster child only likes junk food and will not eat anything that doesn’t come out of a box. We aren’t fanatics but we try to eat pretty healthy. I don’t want to feed the rest of my family the boxed junk and I don’t want to feed him separate stuff. Help!
We decided to turn to an expert to provide tips for foster or adoptive parents for how best to handle picky eaters.
Dr. Katja Rowell, The Feeding Doctor, provided the following practical advice that would apply to most picky eating situations adoptive or foster parents face. Dr. Rowell is the author of Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Ending the Worry About Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles, and More, and the co-author of Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating.
It’s wonderful that you want to accommodate your foster child while making him feel part of the family. There is likely to be a transition period as he learns to feel more comfortable and has opportunities to learn about the foods you eat. Assume that children (even children in bigger bodies) in foster care have experienced food insecurity, meaning that they didn’t have reliable access to enough food. This contributes to anxiety around food and makes them more likely to rely on familiar foods. There may also be sensory challenges that make certain textures more difficult and emotional associations with different foods.
12 Tips for Handling Picky Eaters When Fostering or Adopting
- Be absolutely reliable about offering food every 2-4 hours. More often for younger children, spaced out as they get older. Try to offer something from each food group at every eating opportunity (meal and snack) even if they are unlikely to eat it for a time.
- If the family is enjoying blueberry pancakes, make some plain, also put out some blueberries in a bowl, even frozen is great. You can also look for freeze-dried if they like crunchy things. The moto with new foods is many ways, many times!
- Try not to pressure. Put out the food and enjoy each other’s company. Trying to get kids to eat is likely to end in arguments and stress, which will make them eat less well.
- Allow him to choose what he puts on his plate. That means serve family or buffet-style. Eating can turn into power struggles. If you allow young people a choice, respecting their autonomy, they are likely to branch out more quickly than if it becomes a battle.
- Serve some of the pre-packaged foods he is familiar with while he learns to eat new foods. Having one thing at mealtimes that he can fill up on is a thoughtful way to consider his needs. (If your family enjoys mostly cooked-from-scratch foods, the packaged foods will be a novelty at first, and your other children may seem to eat a lot and enjoy them, but they will likely tire of them and go back to preferring the foods they are used to. Meaning, everyone will probably do just fine with some of the packaged foods added to the mix.)
- For example, you might have chicken and broccoli and serve with a side of a prepackaged rice mix that he likes, or maybe a bread that he loves. If he prefers boxed mashed potatoes, you can make a small bowl of those and put it in the middle of the table. All foods are presented the same way.
- Rotate his familiar foods at meals and snack times. If he likes pizza rolls, offer them at snack time, and let him choose a fruit or vegetable to go with it (canned or frozen may be familiar to start).
- If he is reading, consider making a dry-erase menu or a paper menu so he can see there is something he can satisfy his hunger with at every meal and snack. When children feel safe at the table, and know that they can find something to eat, they are more likely to be open and curious about new foods.
- Try not to preach about nutrition. It’s a turn-off and will likely have the opposite of the desired effect. As Ashley Rhodes-Courter wrote in her book, Three Little Words: A Memoir, about her adoptive mother, “I knew Gay was trying to please me, but for some reason, I resisted every attempt she made. She made chicken nuggets in the oven so they’d have the KFC flavor but not as much fat. They were quite good, although I was annoyed by the way she preached to me about eating healthy foods.”
- See if he wants to explore learning to make some of his favorites at home. He might like baked or grilled chicken legs with his favorite barbecue sauce. He might enjoy making shake-n-bake as a bridge to your home-made version. He might enjoy making chicken tenders.
- Look for condiments and toppings that he can add to your family foods to make them familiar. Have hot sauce, ketchup, or whatever his favorite is on the table at all meals and snacks. Think of sauces and condiments as training wheels.
- Think about flavors and textures he enjoys. Look for similar options. If he likes crunchy foods, he may branch out first to veggie straws, then freeze-dried veggies. He might enjoy learning about new flavors with smoothies and frozen fruits.
Time for an Attitude Shift
The way food is approached matters as well. These are familiar foods that have nourished him so far and are linked with his family and his past. Try using more neutral descriptors such as “packaged” or “fast” foods versus “junk” or “crap.” There is likely already some shame around those foods, and ironically, when we accept young people as they are and how they eat, there is likely to be far less pushback or resistance for the sake of opposition.
Children and teens will be more likely to learn to like the foods the family eats if they feel respected and invited to explore at their pace. If there is a lot of pressure, nutrition lecturing, and conflict over food, they are likely to eat less well. Good luck on this journey! Family mealtimes are an excellent opportunity to build relationships, even with picky eaters.
When you’re at the table, try to focus on connection and each other rather than who is eating what.
What is your biggest eating pet peeve with your adopted or foster child? What worked with your picky eater?
Image credit: David Goehring; Clarke Mackey; Tommy Lew