Exploring Food and Children in Care and Adoption

Sally Donovan and Lisa Cherry in conversation.

Sally:  So Lisa, you talked on Woman’s Hour recently about the importance of food and taste to children in care, for those who didn’t hear the programme could you just explain?

Lisa:   Yes. I explored food in my book The Brightness of Stars as for me, it seemed to define each placement I had during my time in residential units and foster placements. What has emerged is that whenever I write or talk about food in relation to children in care it excites a lot of interest and knowing looks.  I know that you, as an adopter of two children, have written about food and had a similar reaction. So when we chatted on twitter it made sense that we had a conversation about it.

Sally: Food has been a major part of our lives since we adopted. I’ve experienced food being eaten out of the bin, it being a constant pre-occupation, consumed at a huge speed and food being taken and consumed in secret.

Lisa: It makes absolute sense of course that when food has been in ‘lack’ and/ or prolonged feelings of hunger have been endured, that the relationship with food is going to be tricky. Food becomes only about survival in those circumstances. For me it was more about it being cultural, socio-economic and filled with an agenda. Having had what I would call ‘loving’ food as a young child (my Gran was French so cooked beautifully) I moved in between daily roast dinners to cabbage and sausages to large canteen style cooking through to locked larders filled with row after row of cheap food. This makes the food a defining feature.

Sally: Anxieties around the availability of food seem to over-ride smell and other sensations in our house. Food is something of great concern and worry. ‘When is tea?’ and ‘What’s for tea?’ are questions I get asked many times a day. Meals are eaten extremely quickly, food disappears and is hoarded and there is a tendency to over eat. The impacts of early experiences of hunger seem to be difficult to shift.

Lisa: What strategies have you tried in terms of shifting early experiences if hunger? What have brought the most success and have any caused more distress?

Sally: The most effective strategy has been regular meal times and simple food. They find a help yourself’ buffet style meal difficult so we manage these carefully. Now that the children are older we try to help them understand why they experience anxiety over food and to reassure them there will always be enough for them.  I wonder how long these issues will persist for? It’s been ten years now. Anything that adds emotion and shame to food and mealtimes is detrimental.

Lisa: Do you have any ‘top tips’ for other foster parents or adopters around food?

Sally: I can explain what has worked for us. It has been about trying things out and seeing what works and always testing strategies against a knowledge of early trauma and therapeutic parenting.

  • Regular meals as they provide a strong structure to the day
  • Not persisting with foods they don’t like – taking away opportunities for failure at the dinner table – taking the emotion and shame out
  • Providing foods that they ate and enjoyed in care – even now, ten years in
  • Planning meals that don’t take long to prepare so that more time is available for one to one parenting and close supervision  – meal prep doesn’t become something that takes away mum’s attention – and the more time between the start of prep and the food arriving, the greater the stress
  • Lots of fruit available to satisfy the constant desire for food
  • Verbal reassurance – ‘there will always be enough food for you’ ‘ I will not let you go hungry’
  • Cooking and baking – preparing food, learning about it, shopping together
  • Some choice – would you like x or y for tea
  • Being tuned in to what they like and providing these foods frequently

Thanks Sally. For more information it’s worth checking out:

Surveillance and Food Practises Within Residential Care For Young People

Recipes For Fostering by Andrea Warman

The Importance Of Food in Relation To The Treatment of Deprived and Disturbed Children in Care

3 thoughts on “Exploring Food and Children in Care and Adoption

  1. Vicki

    Really interesting to read, thanks for sharing this Sally and I’ll be reading the links later too.

    I’m not sure if Mini has food issues or not, food provision was never an issue for him, although he was fed inappropriate food in contact sessions. These days I get the constant ‘when’s tea’ and ‘what’s for tea’, but how do you know when it’s related to their past, and when it’s just because they’re growing children and they really are hungry? Food is also a control point for Mini, but is that because he has a food issue or a control issue?
    On a sensory level, mouthfeel is a big thing for Mini and he’s not good with food he has to chew lots, I wonder if this is related in anyway to other food issues?

    Anyway, once again, thanks for sharing this interesting conversation…

    1. admin Post author

      Thanks Vicki. The simple answer is I don’t know at what point you have to consider past experiences when it comes to food. For us it was very clear. I believe that with any child who has experienced loss, if in doubt, approach therapeutically. It won’t do any harm.
      Sometimes people will say to me, over all manner of issues ‘all children do that’, well perhaps they do, but we tend to see things at the extreme – many, many times a day, every day rather than now and again. That for me is a bit of a bench mark.
      Of course I can only speak form experience – I am no expert!

  2. Vicki

    All children do that is one of my pet hates! As for most of us I expect.
    I’m afraid I did lots of wondering out loud in my previous comment :-) But I found your post really interesting and it’s raised some points for me to discuss with our CAMHS therapist – indeed I wonder if Mini’s control issues around food, are actually MY control issues? See…more wondering, can you tell I’ve been practising?!


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