5 Tips to Help a Foster Child Obsessed with Food
Before living with their foster family, many children in care didn’t know when their next meal was coming. This trauma can see them develop food obsession disorder symptoms, such as hoarding, bingeing or stealing. Here are 5 tips to help your foster child forge a healthy relationship with food.
Why is my child obsessed with food?
Having breakfast, lunch and dinner - along with a few snacks - is a given in most households, however for youngsters that have come from troubled backgrounds with abusive or neglectful caregivers, this isn’t always the case. Some children will have been left to fend for themselves, which could have meant rummaging through the bins for scraps, stealing food when given the chance or stockpiling food for more vulnerable siblings. These are all food obsession disorder symptoms.
However, even when living in an environment where regular meals are provided by a loving foster parent, the uncertainty around when they’ll next eat is deep-rooted and doesn’t disappear overnight. This is why it’s common for foster children to have a food obsession disorder where they’ll overeat (or overcompensate for their previous hunger), hoard food under their beds or continue to steal. These behaviours are not easy habits to break as they stem from trauma, but there are ways of overcoming food obsession so that your foster child feels more comfortable, confident and in control of their eating.
Is your foster child obsessed with food? Follow these 5 steps
1. Don’t restrict food
You might think the obvious thing to do is limit or restrict their food to curb the obsession, however this makes matters worse. Studies have shown food restriction is linked to further insecurities around eating and also childhood obesity.
It’s important to remember that foster children are typically victims of trauma. Trauma experienced early on in life can make it difficult for young people to self-regulate their emotions and impulses. A foster child with a food obsession eating disorder is more likely to overeat, eat too quickly and binge on food if their intake is restricted. Restriction can also trigger horrible memories of their past.
2. Feed at regular, set times
Routine helps ease the stress and anxiety your foster child has over when their next meal is coming.
To help a food obsessed child in your care, you should:
- Plan meals and snacks ahead of time.
- Stick to set times for meals and snacks.
- Make it a household rule to not eat outside of those meal and snack times.
- Always be the one to provide the food, even snacks – you don’t want your foster child thinking they need to fend for themselves again.
- Feed frequently depending on the child’s age – for example, a toddler obsessed with food may need a small snack, such as fruit or yoghurt, every few hours in order to build up trust that you’ll be there to feed them.
- Dine in the same place to establish a safe space to eat.
- Set table rules such as no phones, no television etc so eating is seen as a fun bonding time and associated with a caring family unit.
- Be consistent! This is the key to success.
3. Don’t be strict about how much they eat
When something is forcibly taken away, it makes you want it more, so the trick here is to encourage your foster child to learn about self-regulation. You do this by setting routines, structure and timings around eating without putting anything off limits – including sweets! When children are given ‘food freedom’, you’d expect the snack cupboard to be raided and the fruit bowl left untouched. However, research showed that children who were given access to all foods and told they can have whatever they want actually ate less than those who were restricted of certain items.
Here’s how to get over food obsession without restricting intake:
- Keep everything freely available but still stick to the timings schedule as mentioned above.
- Allow them to decide for themselves when they’re full, as this will help them become more in tune with their own body.
- Encourage them to try new foods if they’re focused on a particular type like sugars or carbs, but don’t be too forceful.
- Allow some sweets as part of their weekly snacks and eat small desserts periodically throughout the week to show that moderation is a good thing.
- Ask questions! If they’re still hungry after meal times, ask why they’re unsatisfied so you can try to work out what foods they enjoy but aren’t receiving. Seeing their eating habits through their eyes will help you help them.
4. Let them have their own cupboard in the kitchen
This is a popular strategy that can help a foster child obsessed with food feel more in control of their own eating habits. While you as the foster parent should always be the one to cook, prepare or hand over the food, having their own cupboard that is always full will reassure your foster child they won’t run out of food and that nobody can take their food. For children with hoarding behaviours, this can be very effective as it can also prevent them from stockpiling in secret.
5. Lead by example
They might be young, but children are highly intuitive! They learn from the adults around them, often emulating behaviour and emotional responses to certain situations. Children with caregivers who are emotional eaters, are vocal with worries about weight or don’t follow any eating routines themselves are more likely to present with similar issues as they grow and develop.
Overcoming food obsession isn’t easy, and if left untreated, can sometimes go on to develop into more serious eating disorders, which are mental health disorders. For more information on how to deal with complex needs like disability and mental health, download our guide Disability and Mental Health: A Foster Parent’s Guide to Complex Needs.
Or, if you’re interested in becoming a foster parent, please get in touch and we’ll gladly answer any questions.