We adopted a 5-year-old girl from Ghana, West Africa seven years ago. Here are some of the things we did and some of the things we wish we had done to help her transition from her native diet to ours.

What we did:

  • We spent time in Ghana and ate the native food—from the orphanage, from street vendors, and from nicer restaurants. This helped us gain an understanding of the tastes and textures she was accustomed to. It also gave us an appreciation for trying something new and different that we may not really like.
  • We gathered recipes for foods we knew she liked and was used to eating, or found similar versions of that food. For instance, she ate a type of porridge every morning in Ghana. We made oatmeal or cream of wheat for her to replace the porridge.
  • Since most of her meals included some type of rice, we purchased a rice cooker and had rice available for her daily, at first.
  • We cooked Ghanaian food occasionally at the beginning to make sure she liked something and was getting adequate calories. We ate the Ghanaian food with her and eventually “Americanized” some of the recipes.
  • We offered fruits and vegetables daily, and encouraged her to try them. We didn’t force her to eat them after her first taste. She thought we were trying to poison her if we gave her anything green. Eventually, she learned to like some greens, but to this day dislikes others.
  • When we found something she really liked, we added that into a weekly menu. For example, she really liked spaghetti, so we started having that once a week. Eventually the weekly menu plans became more diverse as we found more meals she enjoyed. After a few weeks, we only had spaghetti once or twice a month, rather than weekly.
  • We tried to make mealtime routine. In the orphanage, she experienced real hunger. It was important to let her know that she would eat three meals a day plus snack and we wouldn’t let her go hungry.
  • She was accustomed to eating with her hands, using her first two fingers as a “scoop.” We were patient with her learning to use utensils. We also had to remind her to use a napkin rather than her shirt to wipe her hands.

What we wish we had done:

  • We should have spent time researching how going from malnutrition to good nutrition can affect growth.
  • We should have introduced portion control sooner. Our thought at first was to let her eat until she wasn’t hungry. What we didn’t realize is that she didn’t really have a sense of when to stop. If there was still food to eat, she wanted it, regardless of how many helpings she already had eaten. I think this comes from being hungry and unsure of when the next meal would be. Once we realized this, we began preparing less food, so there was still plenty, but less leftovers, eliminating her “need” to finish it off.