Challenges with Food After Living in an Orphanage

Children who have grown up in orphanages are prone to a variety of food-related issues.

Susan Kuligowski July 20, 2015
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It’s hard to say for sure whether or not our youngest had a food issue when she left the orphanage. I do know we were amazed that, at 18 months, she came to us a completely independent eater, easily using a spoon to feed herself soup, able to maneuver a tall glass of juice with nary a spill, and happy to gobble up whatever we put in front of her—and I mean whatever. It seemed there was no food she wouldn’t try. And we couldn’t even think about trying to help her. She wouldn’t have it. She let us know from Day One that she could do it herself and she did not want or need our assistance. Our oldest, on the other hand, was the opposite. At 2 1/2, she was a “picky” eater who would put her nose up at most things and spit out anything too chewy, salty, sweet . . . you name it. For the first two years of her life, I’d had to do the airplane, use a hand puppet, and basically act the jester to ensure she was getting her daily dosage of recommended nutrients. So, to two tired parents of toddlers, this new “great eater” initially got lots of high fives at the dinner table.

Once we’d settled into our home a couple months later as a family of four, however, the “cute factor” of our incredible eater’s appetite began to bug me. Well-meaning friends told me it was no big deal and that I was making an issue out of nothing, but as our little one started wanting seconds—as in adult-sized portion seconds—and sometimes thirds—I began to wonder if we were dealing with something a little more than just a healthy appetite, and so began my research regarding the impact of orphanage living on adoptees.

It is common for children who have lived in orphanages to develop and/or exhibit a variety of food issues. This happens for several reasons. In some cases, if the conditions are poor or the budget is tight, an institution may feed its children a limited diet, in which case, their exposure to tastes and textures will be minimal. In other cases, there may be many children to feed and a limited staff to feed them, which leads to uncertainty on the waiting childrens’ part and, depending how much assistance is required, children may struggle with a meal. And in other cases, if an orphanage lacks structure, children will develop poor eating habits right off the bat because of their uncertainty as to when mealtime will be.

The result of these variables can be extreme. Some children may leave an orphanage as a food hoarder, while others become very picky eaters. In our case, we knew the orphanage took excellent care of our girls, but even still, it’s to be expected that growing up in an orphanage and sharing meals in a busy cafeteria setting, or even a group of four or five, is a lot different than dining in the comfort of one’s cozy kitchen where everything you could want is within arm’s reach, and Mom and Dad are there to assist as needed.

Backing up a bit, while still in country, I should add that our youngest developed some pretty serious belly issues and diarrhea—not that that got in the way of her appetite. I’m fairly certain much of that was the result of a combination of her new surroundings, new schedule, new diet, and nerves.

My goal in transitioning our daughter was to do so without making a huge deal of any issues that came up (call me naive, but that was the plan), and so my husband and I quietly began to lessen her portions, not denying her food, but spacing out servings and allowing for a healthy snack after a meal if she was still hungry rather than presenting mealtime as an all-you-can-eat buffet. So far as drinks went, rather than pouring a full glass, we’d offer a half a glass and pour more if needed. What began to happen as she started to come out of her shell and feel more comfortable with us was that her attention to cleaning up her plate turned to more interaction with the three of us. And as she began to develop a vocabulary a little later down the road, she showed less interest in pile driving food and more interest in sharing sounds and stories with us until we finally began to have to ask her to please finish her dinner.

I’m happy to say that time, patience, and persistence worked in our favor. She remains a great eater today, but has found balance at mealtime and snack time. Being one to look for the positives in any situation, I’m also happy to say that her food enthusiasm served as an inspiration for her big sister to step up her picky eating game (call it sibling rivalry?) And now they are two of the best little eaters I know and will try just about anything. Granted, this didn’t happen overnight and not without trial and error.

As with anything, every child is different and may respond differently. Should you suspect that your child is experiencing food issues, take a deep breath and prepare to experiment a bit to see what works best.

Some suggestions:

Go to the source. Before leaving the orphanage, get that all important list of typical foods. While you may choose not to follow it, it will give you an idea of what your little one is used to and you can build your meal plans from there. It may also save your little one an upset stomach.

Research traditional meals. Just because your child is from Colombia doesn’t mean they’re going to love Colombian dishes; however, presenting certain familiar dishes is a great way to transition them from the orphanage into your home. It also makes kids feel special to serve these dishes at family birthday parties and gatherings. Even if they don’t love the flavors themselves, they are excited to share some of their heritage with family.

Talk to your pediatrician. Get her on board so that she’s aware of your struggles. You and your child don’t have to go this alone. Your pediatrician may have helpful information and/or be able to suggest ways to supplement to make sure your child is getting what they need in the meantime.

Routine, routine, routine! As with any child, keeping a set schedule for meals is important.

If they’re old enough, let them help prepare meals. Kids love to cook and bake and to taste-test their own creations.

Eat together. Eating as a family is incredibly important for a million reasons. It conveys to children that while the food part of a meal is important, there is a social aspect to mealtime as well—it’s a great time to share!

Be healthy. Make sure to keep fruits and veggies on hand to encourage healthy eating. Take your child to the grocery store with you on a food-shopping adventure and let them pick out some new fruits, vegetables, or other foods.

Keep your cool. While mealtime with children can be trying under the best of circumstances, losing your cool, threatening, or punishing a child over food is never a good idea.

For older children, talk about it. Don’t make food issues a dirty secret or you’ll risk an eating disorder down the road. Discuss with her some healthy eating habits and consider allowing some control and access to snacks that are off-limits to everybody but her. Let her know there will always be enough.

Put yourself in their shoes. For picky eaters, realize that many of the tastes and textures you take for granted may literally be foreign to them. Our daughters did not love some of the typical foods that American kids eat (and in some cases, that was a blessing), but we’d still try and serve it up from time to time. In some cases, we found certain foods were an acquired taste.

Make it mini. I read somewhere that instead of a traditional plate of food, you should try offering a picky eater a muffin pan full of tiny samples. For toddlers, this is a great way to let them experiment with small bites, flavors, and textures and you’ll get instant feedback of the hits and misses for future reference without all the waste.

Relax. If mealtime feels like a stress ball, your child is going to respond in turn. Consider playing music in the background, putting out special table settings, etc. Focus on the positives of a shared meal rather than the struggle.

Give it time. Adopted children coming from an orphanage setting are experiencing many new things at once. It’s OK if every meal isn’t the best meal. There will be good days and there will be bad days.

Stick with it. Be firm but sensitive to your child’s needs. The goal is not for you to control his eating habits, but for him to gain control—of lifelong healthy eating. If you’re finding that nothing seems to be working, seek help sooner rather than later. There could be other medical issues going on.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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