No, I am not talking about slinging food across the table or declaring a food fight in a local restaurant. I am talking about a battle that seems to begin, for many of us, prior to the flight home from our child’s home country. The battle where each and every meal and snack becomes a time for a child/children to assert control over their world by manipulating perhaps one of the few things they do have control over. That is, the food they choose to eat.
On some levels, this can be expected simply due to different smells, textures, previous malnutrition, sensory processing issues and the like. Food is a basic necessity for life and many, many of our children have been deprived of this necessity. The impact of those traumas may be with us for life. That is the reality we are working with. However, there is another reality. Namely, we need to eat each and every day in order to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy and our food choices greatly impact how we feel and operate in each of those categories. Allowing our children to simply eat as they wish does not benefit the child, parent, or anyone else who has to interact with our children. I often hear people say, “I want my children to have a good relationship with food and therefore don’t force her/him to eat anything.” That sounds nice and may indeed work for some families (I do not believe there is a one size fits all solution here), but I also want my children to have a good relationship with healthy food and therefore do encourage, motivate, and incentivize them to eat the healthy stuff so that they can be rewarded with something they prefer. If they choose not to eat the meal, they are also choosing not to be rewarded.
On still yet other levels, I believe these are control battles. Heck, when all else in your world seems to be spinning out of control, who wouldn’t be grasping for that one little thing that can be controlled. Our children did not choose to be born into poverty. They did not choose to watch their birth parents suffer horrible illnesses and die. For the most part, they did not choose their new family. They did not choose their new siblings. They did not choose where they would or would not go to school in their new country, in their new family. The list goes on. They will however choose to turn their back on a plate of American food and pout like a three-year-old at each and every meal. It is frustrating beyond frustrating. I get it! But, by putting myself in their shoes for just one minute, I can feel the anxiety taking over. The anxiety that is interwoven into our children’ fabric. But, I also am a mom of five strong-willed kids and I believe nutritious food is absolutely essential to overall well being. I cannot, I will not, hand over my sanity and meal time (times three, plus a snack or two daily) to the gremlins. It would be anarchy in our house. I guarantee it! Because of these reasons, our family has chosen to be unwavering and firm regarding healthy food choices with the hope that our children develop a taste for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and other unprocessed healthy food. Because let’s face it, the taste does not come naturally here in America…land of processed, manipulated, over-sugared, over-salted, over-fatted, convenient, pre-packaged food. And because nutrition, fitness, and integrated well-being are extremely important and high on my list of ‘mom goals’, this is indeed a battle I choose to engage in, keeping in mind my goal is never to punish or withhold, but to develop the taste for healthy food that will facilitate an overall healthy lifestyle.
While I understand this approach is not for everyone and I certainly respect diverse viewpoints, we have had great success with this model. Sporty, who turned his back to the table for months after arriving home, will now gobble down plate after plate of fresh vegetables. He will now eat Every. Single. Food. that he adamantly refused when first coming home. Big Sister initially refused anything that she suspected was a tomato (insert anything and everything red). She has only been home three months and gobbles down the reds, greens, yellows, and everything in between. Do they absolutely love everything put on their plates? Of course not! Is that OK? Most definitely. Will I ever force a child to eat what is on their plates? Never. Will I reward children who do eat healthily with ice cream or a another treat? Yup! We all have favorites and least favorites. However, my mama heart and mind rest easy knowing my children are filled and fueled with the best nutrition I am able to provide for them. And while they may think that me giving in to their desires means they can trust me to meet there needs (because let me remind you, food is also a huge trust issue for our children), I tend to take a different approach. Most importantly, then, is that my children trust that I will provide them with the food they need to thrive. All of my children witness me eat healthily and exercise daily. While they may pout and grunt at the vegetables on their plate, I remind them that vegetables are what makes mommy strong and fit. And I know that being fit is one thing they admire about me, because they tell me so. With that being said, I use it as leverage and try to lead by example. Because at the end of the day, our children will more than likely follow not what we are saying, but what we are doing.
One note of caution: it is absolutely essential to understand your child’s past trauma and hurt when incorporating food strategies. For a child that was severely malnourished either prenatally or postnatally, had food withheld as punishment, has sensory processing disorders, or any other disorder or delay, it is critical to discuss nutrition with your pediatrician and other specialists. We came to our decisions after ruling out serious medical and emotional issues tied to food. Please see the video clip below for Dr. Karyn Purvis’ approach to food issues.
The following video clip from Dr. Karyn Purvis, the expert of all experts on parenting children from hurt and broken backgrounds, provides clinical expertise and psychological rationale that may help us better understand our children’s real hurt. She also suggest ways of dealing with food issues and urges us not to make food a “blood bath.” Keeping in mind that I am not nearly as calm as Dr. Purvis and rarely have classical music playing in the background, our family has modified her suggestions to fit our crazy, strong-willed household and while we do not make food issues a “blood bath”, everyone must eat her or his vegetables and whole grains if they would like anything sweet or more preferred. End of story.