5 Ways to Work Through Eating Struggles with Your Child

Do you find yourself needing to work through eating struggles with your child? My experience, along with an article by Katja Rowell may help give some insight and perspective. My husband and I started foster care when we were 26 and without any biological children of our own. We were youth leaders and knew a little bit about kids, but we knew next to nothing about parenting. Our very first placement (who is now our son) came to us as a pre-adoptive placement. He had been in several foster homes and in the system for years before coming to us, but he had very few obvious trauma behaviors. However, we did encounter struggles with his eating habits from the very beginning.

The first weekend he was with us, I took him to a chili cook-off at a local neighborhood so that he could be around other children. He told me that he loved chili, and he tried many different types, including some I never thought a 9-year-old would want to eat. When we returned home, I realized I had all of the ingredients for chili and thought it would be special and fun if I cooked him some, since he said how much he loved it. He rejected my chili after one bite. I immediately felt frustrated, annoyed, and rejected, not realizing that this situation had nothing to do with me or my food. At that moment, I discovered that this parenting journey was going to impact every aspect of our lives, including food.

As a foster and adoptive parent, it is important to recognize that the trauma that our children have faced will create challenges for him or her in behaviors, communicating feelings, and facing triggers and reminders of past trauma. And adoptee trauma is not just for those who have been adopted from the foster care system–it impacts any person who has been separated from a biological mother and father. When entering into a foster or adoptive parent role, it is essential to recognize and understand the need for trauma-informed parenting in every aspect, including eating, which is not necessarily something that is included in the training and preparation for entering into the world of foster care and adoption. Understanding the challenges that your child faces because of foster care and adoption will help you to manage your expectations, look beyond the behavior, and connect with your child in a way that, over time, will change his or her behavior.

How to Work Through Eating Struggles with Your Child 

It is so important to understand what is happening in our children’s’ brains when certain behaviors and struggles arise. When we have a framework of understanding of their past trauma and how that impacts their current state, we can develop compassion and love for them in the present. It allows us to focus on their deep needs instead of the surface-level behavior that is showing the need. We can do this by looking beyond the behavior, managing our expectations, taking practical steps, seeking professional help, and being patient and consistent. All of these parental efforts will contribute to your child’s healing and growth, not just in eating, but in living and thriving.

1. Look Beyond the Behavior. 

Children in foster care or who have been adopted can have many struggles with eating and food. Perhaps a child is accustomed to a certain diet that he received in previous placements or his biological family, and the food in your home is foreign and scary to him. Maybe he did not have enough food and had to steal or hoard food to ensure that his little belly would not be hungry. Maybe he endured significant emotional or physical abuse, causing food to be the only part of his life that he felt like he could control. As with any behavior, it is important that we, as parents, commit to looking and investigating beyond the behavior and into our child’s hearts. What is it that he is needing? How can we meet the underlying need in a long-term way? How can I shift my expectations about meals, eating, and family life to make sure that I am meeting the needs of a precious child who needs love, assurance, and connection more than he needs to eat carrots?

In the article “Relationship-Building Strategies for Adoptive and Foster Parents to Address Picky Eating and Feeding Challenges,” writer Katja Rowell discusses possible reasons that children may struggle with eating times, food, and nutrition. She states that special needs, neglect, and abuse in younger years, and high levels of stress can all contribute to resistance to eating, especially unfamiliar foods. Then, a child’s unwillingness to eat causes stress and worry in parents, which in turn creates more resistance from the child (since the parents’ stress is adding to the children’s stress). Many times, as parents, we feel desperate for our children to eat good, healthy foods and accept our cooking. Isn’t it important that our child receives the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables? Isn’t that essential to her growth and development? And so we insist when she resists. However, as with all trauma-informed parenting, we must go against our instincts to force or bribe children to eat. Instead, we need to come to the problem from another direction.

“Felt safety” is a term coined by Dr. Karyn Purvis, the author of The Connected Child, and it simply means that children feel safe in your home. Of course, the child (hopefully) was safe from the moment she stepped foot into your home. However, actual safety does not necessitate felt safety. The way we set up our homes, the way we talk to our children, the way we structure our days, all of these things contribute to a child’s sense of “felt safety.” And the safer she feels, the more a child can trust you, the parent, and begin to heal. This, of course, is of utmost importance. Since insistence, bribery, and forceful parenting is not realistic in parenting children who come from hard places, it is essential that we find new, connection-developing, trust-building approaches to eating.

2. Manage Your Expectations. 

If you are anything like me, you probably have many expectations and dreams of what your family should look like. I always envisioned my children loving my cooking–wanting to invite friends over for dinners because my mom’s food is SO good! I’ve had to shift this “vision” to a more realistic version, where my children still enjoy my food, but it’s not all the favorite foods. If the food was, we would only eat cheeseburgers, pizza, and hot wings. I’m still working on this piece of it, but I’ve had to drastically change my expectations so that my vision and experience are realistic and I don’t get disappointed every time I cook a new vegetable and it is rejected with a face of absolute disgust.

Along with changing your expectations, you can also change the way you talk to your children about food. In the article “Relationship-Building Strategies for Adoptive and Foster Parents to Address Picky Eating and Feeding Challenges,” Katja Rowell says that you should “avoid talking about what or how much children eat.” Many times, what we say to our children can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we tell a child he is disrespectful, he will believe he is disrespectful, and it might cause him to respond with disrespect because he believes that is who he is. Instead of commenting on his eating habits, try positive reinforcement. Say things like, “I am so proud of you for trying a new food today. That must’ve been really hard for you!” These kinds of statements are positive but also do not comment on the food choice or amount. A child will, over time, start to have positive connections with trying new foods.

3. Take Some Practical Steps. 

While traditional parenting generally seeks compliance first, trauma-informed parenting seeks connection first. In her article, Rowell says, “It is not worth sacrificing connection and trust for short-term nutrition goals.” Of course, children must eat; food is essential to life. However, nutrition is not an essential need. As foster and adoptive parents, we can contribute to our children’s healing by focusing on those needs. Good nutrition is important, but not as important as trust. While coercion will cause more distress for the child, love and connection can produce eventual compliance (and even enjoyment). But how do we do this?

First, we can help children to feel secure in eating by providing food and snacks every two hours or so. This reminds the child that we are here to provide for her needs and that she will not be hungry. Karyn Purvis, in her book The Connected Child, even suggests allowing children to hold onto snacks when being asked to wait for dinner. It shows children that there is food and that the children are allowed to have it, but also teaches a child to wait for meals so that she is not eating snacks before dinner.

Second, we can reassure our children with positive phrases. We can replace comments about picky eating with positive statements, such as “There will always be food for you to eat,” or “What is a food that you enjoy that we can add to our meal schedule?” This contributes to a child’s felt safety. Although it may not create an immediate change, your child will start to feel safer over time. The more connection and trust is built, the more children will try new foods and adhere to mealtime rules and expectations.

Third, we can meet our children where each is. If your child refuses to eat non-sugary oatmeal but will eat the flavored oatmeals, then serve the flavored oatmeals. Rowell says food like this can serve as a “bridge” to more nutritional foods in the long run. You can also help your child feel safe by always preparing one familiar or liked food for them. This helps her feel seen and loved, and she is more likely to try new foods when that connection is there.

Finally, we can allow our children to participate in the nutritional journey. Allow your children to help make dinner. It is likely that if the child had the opportunity to help make the food, he is more likely to try it. Ask him what kinds of healthy foods he would like you to add to the meal schedule. Set up dinner so that your child can serve himself. This way, he can choose his own portions based on what he wants to eat, and it gives him more control over his food choices.

4. Seek Out Professional Support.

Foster and adoptive families seek out professional support all the time for all kinds of reasons. If your child’s eating habits and challenges are unmanageable or you feel you need some help, reach out to speech pathologists, doctors, or nutritionists who can help you in providing the kind of connection and nutrition your child needs. There is no shame in asking for help in the foster care and adoption world. In fact, you will be encouraged by the help you receive when you are truly trying to help your child to thrive.

For more practical tips, read Katja Rowell’s article, “Relationship-Building Strategies for Adoptive and Foster Parents to Address Picky Eating and Feeding Challenges.” She further discusses some of these practical tips that I have already started implementing in my family, focusing on connection and “heart needs” above nutrition.

5. Time, Consistency, and Patience.

As with all other aspects of parenting children from hard places, it is important to remember that time and consistency are your allies. Coercion and pressure are only going to cause more distress for you and your child when it comes to eating challenges. Instead, focus on connecting with your child, even if it means letting go of expectations that you once held for mealtimes and food that you prepare. Keep showing up, keep making the healthy meals, keep encouraging, keep guiding–and your children will eventually learn to make the choices independently. Model healthy behavior and your children will begin to mirror your healthy behavior.

Over time, with these small steps towards connection, love, safety, and assurance, you will begin to see small changes. Celebrate small victories–even small wins are indicators that your child is feeling safer, loved, and cared for in your home. And is this not the ultimate goal, for your child to know and feel the love that you have for them? What a joy it is to help our children in that journey toward healing! As parents, we play a fundamental role in this healing process, and we can help our children the most when we are connecting with and loving these children.