Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Love and bonding through food

Many children have food issues and children from foster care are no different.  Food evokes a lot of feelings.  Children may have been neglected and starved and find themselves eating too much or too fast.  They may refuse to eat at all, or may refuse certain foods.  They are literally in survival mode..."I have to eat as much as I can right now because I might not get fed again for a long time." Perhaps refusing to eat is literally the only control they have over their life.  Or maybe there is a very negative memory associated with a specific food.  They may also steal food from the pantry and hide it in their room.  I don't want to spend a lot of time on the negative behaviors in this particular blog, but rather introduce the fact to my readers that might not be aware of how difficult and emotional sitting down to a family meal can be for a child.  I want to share how food issues played out in MY family.  However, here is additional information if you would like to read a little more and gain some tips on food issues with your child.

When K4 joined our family, I actually had not given a lot of thought to how important food would be in the bonding process.  About 3 days after we had met K4, I planned a meal that happened to be a family favorite...a recipe that had been given to us by a Filipino friend in California.  The dish is called "adobo" and I highly recommend it if you haven't tried it.  Anyway, K5 sat down for dinner that night and her eyes about popped out of her head as the fragrant aroma of one of her favorite Filipino dishes filled the dining room.  To be honest, I didn't think much about it at the time.  I plopped the giant rice cooker on the table next to the pot of adobo and just started serving the meal.  Years later K4 was asked at what point she knew she belonged in our family and she said it was that very night!  The night I served a native dish that she loved and had missed terribly.  She said that she was shocked that a white family cooked filipino food let alone owned a rice cooker!  Her statements got me to pondering about  familiar food being important to us and how important familiarity is when life is hard.  For most people in safe and secure households, the closest example I can find is craving comfort food when you are ill.  Not just any comfort food, but food that that is made the way your mom used to make it.

After K4, "the boy that got away" stayed with us for 2 weeks of respite care.  I immediately requested recipes of meals that he liked but nobody seemed to know.  I even asked him after he arrived in our home and he just kinda shrugged his shoulders.  He didn't seem to have any specific fears or anxieties around food and I just stuck with meals that had been family favorites.  However, every night that his face smiled with delight and he said he liked a dish, I would print off a copy of that recipe.  By the end of his two weeks with us I had made up a mini recipe book of his favorite meals at our house.  I will never know if anybody ever made those dishes for him again, or if they did make them, whether or not he had good memories about our family,  but at least I tried.

When K5 joined our family she started out as a picky eater.  There were times I wanted to pull my hair out because I couldn't seem to accommodate her.  She refused to eat anything with pepper for instance. It turns out this was a traumatic memory for her.  Apparently another foster child had pulled a prank on K5 and she ended up with large amounts of pepper either up her nose or in her mouth.  I have never quite figured out the story.  Regardless, she definitely showed signs of needing to control the meal.  She WAS however a great salad eater!  Music to any mom's ears really!  So, I stopped putting pepper in my dishes...to the frustration of the other children, K2 specifically!  He got over it though as he realized that he could add pepper himself at the table - usually much more than I would have added, much to his delight.  K5 did not like this at all because she didn't even want pepper at the table, but I clearly stated that she could control HER food and not anybody else's at the table.  In time, probably at least a year, I slowly started adding small amounts of pepper to the dishes again.  As she gained confidence in me, she started trying new foods in our house and is now one of my best "new dish guinea pigs," but her favorite dishes remain spaghetti for dinner and pancakes for breakfast.  I can't even begin to tell you how many nights we ate spaghetti in the evening when she first moved in.  I know there were weeks that we literally ate it 3 times!  After several months of that - I truly never wanted to eat spaghetti again!

K6 was probably my most difficult, aside from my son with autism, for refusing foods.  K6 is pretty much a junk food addict.  In the few short months she lived with us, I literally couldn't get her to try anything new.  She refused rice and all vegetables in my home, but get her anywhere near fast food and it was double cheeseburgers and extra cheese pizzas all the way.  Honestly, I never did make any progress with her.  I couldn't, she was just plain too stubborn about it.  I decided that at her age (remember we adopted her at age 18) it was more important to try to form a relationship with her and so I prepared food that the rest of the family would eat and she just picked at hers.  I found that our family quickly fell into a routine of just eating out.  We have always eaten out "too much" due to our busy schedules, but while K6 was here I realized that there were weeks that we never ate at home.  Honestly, I don't know what else I could have or should have done during this time period.  I will say however, that she had a dish she liked to cook.  Fried chicken, and she was very good at it.  I have never been a huge fan of fried chicken but I certainly do like it!  Anyway, now anytime I eat fried chicken I think of K6 and it makes me a little sad.  Sad that I couldn't really help her and sad that the fried chicken I am eating doesn't measure up to what SHE cooks!  Of course, none of this time period was good for my waistline...

Then K7 arrived.  He had food issues all right.  Sneaking into the fridge, hoarding food in his bedroom, literally eating non-stop all day long and begging for food constantly.  Remember he was only 4 years old.  Granted some of the medication he was on turned off the satiety messages from the stomach to the brain.  Because of this fact, his previous family severely limited the amount of food he was served and the poor guy felt hungry all the time.  During his "respite" week with us, his previous mother was adamant about portion control and would push me on it every time she talked to me.  He was only allowed 1 small slice of pizza for instance and I was to ignore him when he cried and begged for more (I ignored HER by the way, not him).  She told me that 3 tablespoons of mac and cheese was his limit and only half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  She even told me to limit his chicken nuggets in the McDonald's kids happy meal and that he had to have diet pepsi.  Do you see the nutrition trend here? This woman seemed to have severe control issues.  On one visit she had with him, he asked for milk with his fast food lunch with her (since that is all I would let him order) and she wrinkled her nose at him and said "you don't like milk, you will have diet pepsi."  I was absolutely speechless.  Anyway, that first week he stayed with us, we had a home cooked meal every night.  In fact, he LOVED my sister-in-law's chicken enchiladas.  He was a good eater and would try anything I served, but within 5 minutes of completing a meal he would start asking for more food and if I said no, would become very anxious.  I finally showed him a drawer in the fridge that I kept stocked with fruits and veggies that he could snack on anytime he wanted.  I bought special treats that he knew were only for him.  My other kids understood that we were dealing with food anxieties and left K7's "special foods" alone, but used the opportunity to tease me mercilessly and claim that K7 was my favorite!  Over time, as he got off medication and gained trust that I WOULD feed him, it became unnecessary to have "special food" for him.  However, we did have to set a specified time that he can ask for a snack.  Within six months, he could read the digital clock in the kitchen for "10 o'clock snack time."  Unfortunately, he is still listening to the clock to tell him when to eat, rather than his body, but hey, it is a work in progress.

When his old family arrived that first weekend for a visit, I presented a checklist of medication administration as well as a documentation of the foods that he ate the previous week.  (I left out that he was so desperate for food between meals and snack times that he ate a stick of butter out of the fridge when my husband and I weren't looking.)  She barely glanced at the paperwork, but did make a point of saying that she prefers to stick with "kid foods with him because he is just a baby and can choke."  Although she did say that she might "baby him too much."  Her comments made me remember the first day he was with us when I went to pick up K3 from a sleep over.  There were apple trees along the driveway and the mother picked one and gave hit to K7 to snack on.  A nice, fresh, organic apple.  He munched on it during the drive home and eventually I asked K3 to take the core from him.  K3 looked at him and put her hand out only to have him spit seeds out of his mouth into her hand.  He had literally eaten the WHOLE apple.  I relayed the story to his previous mother and she stated that apples are a choking hazard and she had never let him have one.  I literally had to teach him how to eat an apple!!!  Anyway, he LOVES apples and somehow decided that since apples are good, they should be GREAT when combined with chicken.  He literally asked for "apple chicken" for weeks.  I thought maybe this was a dish his old family made and requested a recipe but was told that he only ate kid food like hot dogs and mac n cheese in their home and they didn't know what he was talking about.  K1 decided that this was unacceptable and got on the internet and searched out recipes.  K1 was determined to find something that K7 would love.  K1 bought the ingredients, spent the entire day planning and preparing this special meal for K7.  The food was good, but watching my then 16 year old son absolutely dote on my new 4 year old son was the absolute best thing in the world.  We have tried a few different recipes since and I think we have found a keeper!  Apple Chicken stir-fry!  I know this blog is long today, but I would love to share this recipe with you since it is so fast and easy!  Please keep in mind that we are LARGE family and as such make LARGE quantities!

Since K7 has moved in a little over a year ago, he has grown so much.  I do believe that the lack of nutrition and the severely limited portions were contributing to his lack of growth.  In the first month he was with us, he grew an inch and in the next 12 months, he grew 5 inches.  It is amazing what lots of love and nutritious food can do.

This is the picture from the actual dish we ate last night.  Mmmmm.  Yummy.

Apple Chicken Stir-fry

Walmart family size pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
1 yellow onion, sliced
3 cups carrots, thinly sliced
1 can water chestnuts
3 Tbls olive oil
2 tsp dried, crushed basil
2 cups sugar snap peas
2 Tbls water
2 medium granny smith apples, cored and thinly sliced

  1. Stir-fry chicken in 2-3 Tbsp of olive oil in a non-stick skillet. I actually add some parsley flakes to this.  Remove with slotted spoon and keep warm.
  2. Add onions and carrots to the oil in the same skillet and cook until tender.  Stir in water chestnuts, snap peas and water.  Stir-fry for about 2 more minutes.  Add apples and fry until they are warm.
  3. Add to chicken
  4. Serve over hot rice

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