» View the Archives
You don’t need to be a foster or adopted child to be a picky eater. However, children who have experienced trauma and upset at an early age create a population of people who are far more likely to have issues with food—sometimes for the rest of their lives.
I spent almost ten years in foster care, during which time I had 14 foster placements. This meant more than a dozen cultures, practices, flavors, spices, meal times, recipes, and eating habits. Two of these placements were facilities where meal times were strictly scheduled and mid-day or evening snacks were sparse. In one abusive foster home, our food was intentionally limited or we were forced to consume spoiled food or curdled milk as a punishment. On a good day we might be served a stew of half-rotten vegetables or mystery soup. A few of the hungriest kids tried to steal food and were punished by being locked in their rooms and we regularly received beatings. School breakfasts and lunches were savored and I hoarded what I could gather from my friends’ leftovers.
When I was twelve years old, I was adopted by an incredible family. My mother is a writer, my father is a filmmaker, and they are both gifted in the kitchen and have worldly, refined palates. They were eager to expose me to new foods and flavors, and were very health conscious. I would cringe and turn my nose up at almost everything they offered me. My three food groups consisted of Macaroni and Cheese (Kraft only!), Grilled Cheese, Sliced American Cheese, and the occasional pickle—also wrapped in cheese. Fast food was also something I craved because it was predictable, I knew exactly what it would taste like, and everything was already portioned. My new parents were at a loss over what to do about my eating habits. My mother would even try to make chicken nuggets, but I would refuse to eat them. She would dumb down her culinary capabilities and serve foods that she knew I would like, yet I rejected those as well. Some of this behavior may have been stubbornness, or the inability for me to let my guard down and be parented, but I’ve now learned that some of this issue goes much deeper.
As an adult, I still have intense cravings to eat out and I find that I order the exact same things at my favorite restaurants and chains. I still have picky eating habits like not being able to eat chicken on the bone, eating white meat only, not being able to stand even a glimmer of fat on any meats. I won’t consider drinking milk that’s even close to the “Sell By” date. I still have compulsive eating habits and portion control is very difficult for me—just like the days when I really did not know where my next meal was coming from. I spent so many years trying to consume as much food as I could as quickly as possible and many of those habits still exist. As adults, some former foster youth develop substance abuse problems; I joke that I have developed a sustenance abuse problem.
Nutrition, food, and diet concerns often overwhelm families of adopted and foster children. My parents were torn between allowing me to indulge and consume five grilled cheese sandwiches, or intervene and restrict my intake for my own health. My mother was also worried that too much attention or ridicule to my diet may cause me to develop an eating disorder, and she hated that I rejected her every attempt to feed me in a healthy way.
Eventually, my parents decided they did not want to fight this battle—and told me so. If my mother was preparing a sophisticated meal, she would allow me to have my own separate dinner. They would even let me pick up a burger on the way home from school but would also encourage me to make smarter eating out choices—like getting sliced apples as a side instead of fries. Slowly, I began trying new foods on my own without pressure and I learned there were many other foods that I really liked, including sushi and filet minion. So much for those $.99 hamburger days!
Still, stressful situations make it difficult for me to control portions or make wise choices. My head knows better, but the cravings of a lost, abandoned child—for love, stability, a family, and, yes, food—still haunt me and wreak havoc when it comes to a balanced diet.
So, what can you do as a parent?
Understand that you can’t win this battle.
A child will eat what they want, and often balance their own diets in the long-term.
Don’t label them as “picky eaters” or let others continually comment on their food intake or put children down for their choices.
Don’t force kids to clean their plates or sit at the table past the normal meal time. Meals should not feel like a punishment.
Assume you don’t understand all the many conflicts this child may have about food.
Have their weight checked by the doctor and ask the doctor, therapist, or nutritionist to talk to older children about weight, nutrition, vitamins or creative ways to get what our bodies need.
Offer at least small portions of comfort foods every few days (mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, etc).
Serve at least one dish per meal that your child will like, but don’t get angry if they choose not to eat it.
Don’t serve junky snacks and don’t keep them in the house for temptation or meal substitutions (this might be a good trick to help your weight loss goals too!).
Avoid hunger pangs. Have easy and free access to fruit, nuts, raisins, carrots, or other healthy choices and put them out after school and at bedtime. Presentation can be everything to kids!
Be lenient about sugared cereals—these may be the only kind the child ever knew.
Avoid fast food restaurants or choose chains that have healthy variety and alternatives on the menu.
If age appropriate, let the child make their own sandwiches or meals. Preparation is an important part of the process because kids get to see what goes into their food, and frankly, why make more work for yourself?
Have the child pick out foods in the supermarket and feel they are participating.
Teach them to cook and bake (everyone loves to have a skill or feel accomplished). Make things around the kitchen fun and mealtimes a time to share thoughts and jokes, not a source of pressure.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent almost ten years in foster care, living in 14 placements before being adopted at age 12 by Phil and Gay Courter of Crystal River, Florida.
Ashley graduated with honors from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she completed a double major in Communications and Theatre with a double minor in Political Science and Psychology. While earning her undergraduate degree, she was one of 20 college students selected nationally for the USA Today All-USA Academic Team and Ashley was named one of GLAMOUR Magazine’s Top Ten College Women. She is currently earning her Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Southern California.
Ashley has spent time in South Africa and China working with children and exploring their child welfare systems. Nationally, she serves on several child welfare boards such as Children Without a Voice USA (Atlanta, GA), Family Focus Adoption Services (New York), and the American Humane Association (Washington D.C.). In her local community she works with several organizations including the Heart Gallery of Pasco & Pinellas and is also a Guardian ad Litem Volunteer (or CASA), and licensed foster parent.
Ashley has received national and prestigious awards from the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the Child Welfare League of America, and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Ashley also won a GOLDEN BR!CK Award for outstanding advocacy by “Do Something” and donated her $25,000 winnings to a child welfare organization.
In 2008, Simon and Schuster published her memoir, “Three Little Words” which quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. Her book has received many national and local awards, and is currently being used in classrooms all across the country. The book has also been optioned for a major motion picture. Ashley hosted a television program called “Explore Adoption” which was produced by the State of Florida to raise the public’s awareness of foster children in need of loving and permanent homes. This segment later won an Emmy.
In 2010 Levi’s Corporation recognized Ashley’s outstanding Youth Advocacy efforts and named her as an ambassador for the launch of their Women’s Empowerment community: Shape What’s to Come. On www.shapewhatstocome.com she serves as a mentor and guide for women all around the world. Ashley attended the 2010 TED Women’s conference where her story was featured in the Levi’s Travelling Journals Room.
Ashley has been featured on Montel Williams, The Today Show, CNN, Good Morning America, $.99 Cool Ranch Doritos bags, and many national and local television shows, magazines, newspapers, and websites. She is currently maintaining a full calendar of speeches and workshops all across the country and has a passion to share hope with struggling youth and professionals, encourage adoption and permanency, and promote community action.
You can learn more about Ashley, and order her book, at http://www.rhodes-courter.com/.
Click here for more ideas for feeding children who are considered “picky eaters”: http://adoptionnutrition.org/feeding-challenges/does-not-want-to-eat/
The Nutrition Profiles on this site express the views of the individual authors and not SPOON Foundation. SPOON Foundation has not conducted any independent verification of the information contained in the Nutrition Profiles. As a result, SPOON Foundation makes no representations concerning, and assumes no responsibility for, the accuracy of the information or the appropriateness of advice contained in the Nutrition Profiles. You are encouraged to confirm any information obtained from the Nutrition Profiles with other sources, and review all information regarding any medical condition or treatment with your child’s physician.