As a foster carer, one of your primary responsibilities will be ensuring that your foster children have easy access to healthy meals and snacks. However, many foster children come from backgrounds of neglect and trauma, which can often result in unhealthy eating behaviour. Such behaviour includes food hoarding, stealing food and other concerning food-related patterns. In addition, foster children may have underlying attachment issues that can also have an impact on their dietary practices. So with that in mind, in this article, we will examine how to encourage healthy eating habits in foster children and learn to tackle these challenges head on.
What Is Food Hoarding?
Food hoarding is a common behaviour in foster children who have experienced food insecurity in the past. It is essentially a coping mechanism that provides them with a sense of control and helps them prepare for times when nourishment could be lacking. A food hoarding foster child may hide food in their bedroom to guarantee that it is there when needed, for instance. If you catch your foster child stealing food or suspect that they are engaging in food hoarding of any kind, it is important to address the issue with understanding and patience. Thankfully, parenting courses can offer guidance on how to approach and manage food hoarding behaviour effectively. In general, however, avoid shaming or punishing the child, as this can often make the problem worse.
How Attachment Styles Influence Eating Habits
We call attachment styles the various ways in which children form emotional bonds with their primary caregivers. There are four main types of attachment styles: secure, avoidant, anxious and disorganised. While children with a secure attachment style feel safe and secure in their relationship with their caregiver — and are more likely to have healthy eating habits — children with other attachment styles will often struggle with food-related problems:
- Children with an avoidant attachment style may avoid food to assert their control and independence.
- Children with an anxious attachment style may cling to food in an attempt to cope with their anxiety.
- Children with a disorganised attachment style may have difficulty regulating their emotions and struggle with both undereating and overeating.
What to Do When Children Are Hoarding Food
There are a number of things you can do as a carer to combat food insecurity in foster kids:
1. Model healthy eating behaviours
Foster children may not have had positive role models in their lives, having picked up unhealthy eating habits from their caregivers or biological parents. As a foster parent, you can model healthy eating patterns by enjoying a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues and avoid unhelpful comments about food in general — including comments related to body image. You can also eat together as a family to create a greater sense of belonging and connection.
2. Practise therapeutic parenting techniques
Any foster parent can also practise therapeutic parenting techniques to help children heal from their past traumas and form new, secure attachments to boot. Some of these techniques include:
- Being empathetic and compassionate. Try to understand the feelings behind their negative behaviours and validate them as often as you can.
- Being consistent and predictable. Set clear boundaries and expectations around food and eating and follow through with them every time.
- Refraining from punishing the child. Use ‘time-ins’ instead of time-outs to spend some extra time with the child and give them the emotional breathing space to calm down.
3. Use our practical healthy eating checklist!
Here are some other things you can do to encourage healthy eating habits in foster children:
- Create a consistent and predictable routine around meals and snacks.
- Set regular meal times and offer healthy options including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins.
- Involve children in meal planning and preparation, as this can help them feel invested in their food choices.
- Avoid using food as a reward or punishment, as this can also lead to unhealthy eating habits. Instead, praise children for making healthy decisions and offer positive reinforcement for trying new things.
- Consider seeking the support of a therapist, social worker or mental health professional specialising in foster children. At Compass Fostering, we also offer therapeutic fostering arrangements.
The Bottom Line
The quest to encourage healthy eating habits in foster children requires patience, determination and a willingness to work through challenges. By understanding the different attachment styles, creating a safe and secure environment and implementing healthy routines and practices, you can combat food hoarding and other negative dietary habits, and support your foster child’s well-being and health.