How To Parent Children With Food Issues.

3 Game-Changing Perspectives

A common issue among children adopted or in foster care from traumatic places, is food hoarding or food issues. While it can be frustrating to deal with as a parent, there are some keys to handling it successfully.

Dirty dish on dirty wood table

A few years ago Oprah Winfrey interviewed Academy Award winning actor Sidney Poitier about his career and his life growing up. In a gripping moment, Oprah asked Mr. Poitier about being poor as a youngster. Often his family didn’t have food and he would go hungry. “How did you work to overcome this as you became an adult?” she asked.

He opened his suit coat and pulled out a Snickers candy bar. “Oprah,” he said, holding the candy before her. “This is a thousand dollar suit. I have 10 more just like it. I have enough money to never go hungry again. Yet I always have this in my pocket because deep inside of me I still worry I’ll be hungry.” The trauma of an experience, decades in the past, will always live with him, and haunt him. I began to think about my own children, and the places they’ve come from. As I wiped tears from my eyes, I realized the food issues that some of them dealt with back then, were not their fault.

It was trauma speaking. I was a deep-seeded belief they were going to starve. And that belief propelled them to grasp for an extra cracker, or a fist full of candy. It caused a desperate fight for survival.

To be frank with you, I was frustrated with their food issues. They frustrated me. Scratch that, they burned me up. I would lecture, argue, give ultimatums, or demand this nonsense end. Every time I walked into my son’s room and found a plate with crusted spaghetti sauce and moldy orange peels under his bed, I wanted to cuss. Sometimes I did. But then my heart was awakened to the reality of their situation. The desperation of their past life. Through personal refinement and realization, I’ve learned a few key responses that equal much healthier results…

  1. Compassion. Remember the place they’ve come from. Fact is, I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to be starving as an infant, toddler, or youngster. I grew up never needing a thing. My parents always provided food, clothing, shelter, vitamins, and a comfortable place to sleep. I didn’t miss a meal….ever. The biggest lesson I’ve had to learn on this journey, and parenting children with food issues, is compassion. I have to take a step back, before I react, and remember where they’ve come from, what their brain is whispering to them, and what they live with. For some of my children, they live with the constant fear that they’ll starve. When I consider this reality, my heart breaks.
  2. Reassurance. Let them know it’s going to be okay. We often say to our children, “Moms and dads never let their children go hungry. They always take care of them. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to get enough to eat.” Even though my son has lived with us his entire life, we reassure him of this. It’s reassurance that builds up walls of self-confidence and belief that they actually will be okay. It’s reassurance that plants seeds of trust deep within our children’s souls. While the trauma of not getting enough food to eat will always live with them, we can bring about a sense of peace in the middle of it, by the reassuring words we speak to their hearts.
  3. Allowance. Set aside portions. If you have a child like mine, they are up all hours of the night, often rooting through your cabinets and consuming anything from cocoa powder to frozen pizza, chips, or ice creme. We used to deal with this a lot and, as I mentioned earlier, would become frustrated. Until we received some valuable advice- “Give them a portion and let them know this is there specifically for them if they wake up and feel hungry.” We tried that, and it worked, most of the time. Each night, before bed, we placed a specially wrapped container food, with our child’s name on it, in the fridge. Then we would show our child the container. We walk them through the process: “This is for you, for if you get hungry. There is plenty of food in the container and it’s just for you. It didn’t work 100% of the time, but upwards of 80-85% on most occasions. This allowance added to reassurance.

This may take some time to implement. Remember, food issues and food hoarding come from a place you and I will never really understand. It’s a deep-seeded belief there won’t be enough, they’ll be left out, or have to go without getting food. That’s something no human being should ever have to go through. For our children, we can do much to help ease their worries, and find comfort.

Question: Are you parenting a child with food issues? What is your biggest struggle? Share with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Cheri Johnson

    When we adopted our first three almost twenty years ago, our agent told us to put a plate of food by their bed every night so they know there’s always plenty of food. It worked. We only had to do this a couple of weeks. We still had a few food issues — mostly having to do with candy — but nothing like what several of my friends had to deal with. Almost every adoptive family I know (and I know lots) have had to deal with this. Great advice here.

    • Cheri, that’s great advice. We’ve actually done that too. Worked well. Thanks for sharing.

  • Dawn Goebbels

    Maybe put a cold box with the food in the bedroom? That would be pest-proof and maybe more attractive in the middle of the night than going all the way to the kitchen. Plus, maybe just the visual reminder would be enough to settle the heart.

    • Great insight Dawn. Thanks for sharing here. 😉

    • DG

      I would love more insight about how to do this. We tried something similar but it didn’t work. Even though she’s 11, she still struggles with keeping things where they belong. When we tried allowing food in a special container in the bedroom, there was always a mess. We ended up with roaches, spiders, and mice because of food being crumbled around and left out (under the bed, in the bed, in her drawers, you name it). We do have special containers in the kitchen with each child’s name on it. It’s just for them, filled with healthy snacks (and a few sweet ones).

      • Dawn Goebbels

        Sorry, it sounds like you need a child like my 3 year-old. He’s afraid of insects and rats so is pretty good at keeping food scraps put away. We put a large plastic mat on the bed when he is eating and each one gets rolled up/ folded after meals or snacks and then taken away for cleaning each morning.

  • Colleen Ncrew

    Hardest thing for us is the “refeeding” weight gain that comes from the bodies need to save every calorie in case it goes back to the malnutrition part.
    My husband and I need calories to keep weight on and so it is a constant struggle to keep everybody happy at the table. We have tried mirror eating where the one with food issues has a buddy (me) and we eat the same foods and portions. Works for awhile. We have tried several dietary tricks. Put fork down between bites. Wait ten minutes after firsts while brain registers the satiety of tummy. Works but only if nobody else is having seconds at that exact time. And the other is a scale of how you are feeling before during and after so it monitors under eating and over eating. Last but not least. Avoid buffets and eating out in general and church potlucks lol. Food doesn’t need to be carried around but portion control has no filter. Also the desire to be fulfilled like with comfort food, often doesn’t work because they have an emotional need that isn’t met that they cannot name. We often say name to tame it. We often get roped into ordering for at a restaurant just because she can’t decided to waitress is standing there but she only wants us to order so she has somebody to blame for not liking, not being big enough, whatever. Sorry for the rant. Hard in the moment to find the compassion, and give them a chance to save face.

    • Yes, this is so hard to deal with. And we agree, buffets and potlucks can be the worst. 😉

  • Jim Buchanan

    It’s like you’ve lived in our house… It can be so frustrating. We don’t have any kids at the emoment, but when we foster more, I’m going to suggest that we try some of the ideas I’ve read here.

    • So good to hear Jim. Let us know how it goes.

  • Allisonm

    All of our kids came with food issues, many of which were bound up with abuse issues, as well. We started off making sure that food was always visible in our kitchen, e.g., clear plastic containers on the counters, fruit bowl, etc. Food had been used to punish our kids, so it was like a minefield at first. One child led would ruin food so that no one else could eat it. We set aside night food, had snack boxes, a “stealing” jar (because they felt they had to sneak or steal the food to feel safe), and a long list of other strategies intended to help our kids feel safe about food. Nothing has “worked,” but slowly, over several years, all of the kids have shown through their behavior that they feel safer about food. At this point, I just ask that the kids bring all of their dishes and food trash to the kitchen daily to keep the dogs from squabbling over it and so that we don’t run out of dishes and silverware. I don’t get full compliance with this, but at least we aren’t seeing massive meltdowns every time the subject is raised. Hunger is a deep-rooted and often chronic trauma. Compassion, respect for our children’s determination to survive, and a consistent effort to meet their needs on all levels have helped me cope as a parent with the rotting stashes and thousands of dollars in wasted and adulterated food, the missing dishes, the squabbling dogs, and the missing food I’d planned to have for dinner.

    • Sounds like consistency has paid off for you and your household. Well done.

  • Jodie Tipton

    Our son, now 16, has only lived with us for 2 years. He went hungry for many years and is now anorexic. He told me that no one will ever make him go hungry again. (So, he makes himself go hungry so that it is his choice.) Have any of you experienced this? What has helped to overcome it?

    • Hey Jodie, I am so sorry to hear this is happening to you. I am curious to hear from others perspectives or input on this. Usually when a child has gone through what he went through they fight to get more food all the time.

      • Jodie Tipton

        Yes! He hoarded for years, but then after so much further neglect in the foster care system, this is his more recent approach. He has mentioned several times that he has never seen so much food in his life than at our house. He only hoards his holiday candy now! 🙂

  • Dawn Goebbels

    I have the opposite problem. When Mr Nearly-Four is stressed (by issues outside of my control) he will eat almost nothing at home. Having routines and offering favourite foods helps a little. School food has been his salvation. Even food that he takes from home he will eat at school. Picnics at the beach and eating with other people didn’t help at his worst and he lost 15% of his body weight. Any ideas to help with this please?

    • Hey Dawn, we’ve had this happen at times with one of our kids. Fortunately, we have landed on foods he likes now since we moved to mostly all organic. Would creating an intentional menu each week that includes his favorites help?

      • Dawn Goebbels

        We’ve tried menus and choices between two options, but he’s often changed his mind before the food is served. He’d rather starve than eat what he asked for! We’re generally in a better place now. When his stress in other areas was reduced his appetite returned. His “I don’t want” is often negotiable and he will eat if fed like a baby or if we agree on a set number of spoonfuls of food before he can have a piece of cake or chocolate-banana-avocado mousse.

    • Carrie Elsden

      Have you tried having him help with meal and snack preparation? Many kids at this age are more interested in eating (esp healthy options) if they had a chance to be involved in preparing it. We also did tons of “snack foods” even for meals so that the child could feel free to pick little bits of preferred foods instead of facing a larger meal (cut up cheese, veggies, fruit, crackers, tuna, etc).

      • Dawn Goebbels

        Thanks. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. What often works is something I picked up from a video: “Can we feed you like a baby?”.

        • Allisonm

          I grew up in a home with a high level of distress at the dinner table. It is still hard for me to eat at the table at home. I can prepare a great meal for my family and sit down with them, but it is very hard to eat. I can eat easily at other people’s dinner tables, but home is hard. So the issue may not be the food itself, but could also be related to other trauma associated with eating at home. It was always easier for me to eat at school than at home, where my stomach was in knots. Being fed like a baby may take your son back to an easier time or may not have the same association with previous trauma.

          • Dawn Goebbels

            Thanks, Allison. That’s a helpful insight.

  • Stacy

    I have a 13 year old that has some food issues. She has gained a lot of weight in the year that she has been with me. She has had to go without food before, although I’m not sure how often this was. She also has Bi-Polar and is on medication that can cause hunger. I never really restricted her in the first 6-8 months, because I wanted her to feel safe, provided for, and not cause any body image issues. She has gained enough weight, that I now have to address this issue. I don’t want her to feel hungry, or like she can’t have enough to make her feel full, tell her she can’t eat because she’s already had enough, or cause body image issues by telling her she needs to lose weight. She gets home from school 2 hours before I do, and that is when she consumes the most food. When I’m home, she has learned to ask and take no for an answer most of the time. However, after school and if she wakes up in the middle of the night is when she eats and eats and eats. I don’t want to lock the cupboards and refrigerator because that would be a hard hit to her self esteem. Any thoughts??? I try not to buy too much junk food, but she will still overeat on other things.

    • Allisonm

      I think you are on the right track. My 13-year-old son is a night eater. He used to be diagnosed as bipolar, but his symptoms also described PTSD and RAD and treating him for those instead has been far more effective. His moods are now much more stable and he has been able to learn coping skills that are less destructive and often actually beneficial. (He was in a nearly feral state when he came to us and fought us during every waking moment, so I admit that my bar for what constitutes progress and hope is pretty low–yet much higher than the treating professionals thought was possible.) Having gone hungry a lot, my son’s anxiety about food is so intense that trying to curtail his intake just puts him over the edge. Because we don’t need any more practice at melting down, we change our expectations to ones that are realistic for our son. He needs practice at success, with incremental increases in expectations as he can successfully manage them. With food, that means increasing his activity level to burn off those calories he feels compelled to eat rather than trying to limit intake. We also will ask that our son wait a few minutes before having more food, to give his body time to register that he is sated. He has progressed to the point where he doesn’t usually melt down when asked to carry his night dishes to the kitchen each morning. He is also eating less at night and hiding a lot less food in stashes around the house. In my view, extra weight, though undesirable in a perfect world, is better than having my child suffer from unmanageable anxiety. My son can’t learn healthier coping and ways to get his needs met when his needs aren’t being met. He only learns those things when his current perceived needs–especially for safety–are being met. So we play the long game and have stopped looking for the magic idea that will solve the food issues. The more we build trust and a feeling of safety, the healthier he gets. We are in our ninth year with our kids. Slow and steady wins the race.

  • Jessica S.

    This was so helpful! We have our first foster kiddo who is 17months and have no idea of his background except that his parents are now homeless, the little guy came to us completely obsessed with food (although in the 90th percentaile for weight, only 25th for height so the pediatrician said to no longer do whole milk, etc). We’ve got 3 of our own little boys, so to say the food issues have me overwhelmed on top of just life with 4 little boys under 5, is an understatement.

    Any specific advice on how to deal with food issues of a toddler who is mostly nonverbal (and hasn’t been parented, disciplined, etc)?

    THANK YOU!!!

  • Mel

    The book Love Me Feed Me was revolutionary. And it always takes time nothing changes over night

  • Vince Crunk

    Our adopted child definitely has food issues and DID experience trauma as an infant. She exhibits the same behaviors you describe. But she came to us at 3 months old and was not a malnourished infant. Ideas?

  • Jamie Worley

    We deal with this with one of ours but she was never malnourished. If fact, they came to us “over-nourished” according to their medical charts. I’ve read Love Me Feed Me, which did have some good insight but as far as I can see, the root of her issue (based on other behaviors) is simply a desire to be in control. If we labeled a box for her, she’d get into everything else before getting into hers. She’s even stolen kids’ lunches at school when she still had her own lunch. It’s SO frustrating… and we’re going on 5 years now…

    • Michelle Sackett McKinney

      I agree it is a form of control for sure. Our son was malnourished in the womb. He only weighed 4.5 pounds full term. Either way there is a need to control their new environment because they had no control over their previous one. It is so, so frustrating for sure even when we know the root cause.