Our relationship with food can be surprisingly complex and for looked-after children there may be even greater complexity, with the food on their plate triggering certain emotions, behaviours and memories.
As foster carers, the way we approach food preparations and mealtimes can make a big difference to the children in our care. So, too, can understanding the psychological associations they may have with certain foods.
Food in Care is a two-day course that sets out to unravel some of these complexities, as well as providing crucial information for foster carers about nutrition, religious and cultural practices and the links between diet and health.
Understanding the links between food and feelings can have an impact on foster children from day one. Kath Hamblett, who runs Food in Care, said: “This is definitely not a course about cooking food, it’s more about the psychological aspects of how children and young people approach mealtimes.”
The first day of the course mainly looks at nutrition and health while the second considers the child’s relationships with food. Participants are encouraged to think about their own relationship to food, their memories and associations to help them develop greater understanding and empathy. It can be a surprisingly emotional experience for many and participants are encouraged to stay in touch after the course to maintain the connections forged.
Kath said: “On day two we focus on how food is used to communicate thoughts, actions, beliefs and relationships. Food can be a window into the everyday lives of children and carers. We ask everyone in the room to think about cake in terms of how they feel when they eat it – do you feel good or do you feel bad because it’s a guilty pleasure?”
Some children coming into foster care may be malnourished, so ensuring that they have a healthy, balanced diet including their five-a-day fresh fruit and vegetables, is crucial. Any medical needs regarding diet will be detailed when the child moves to a new foster family, although this may be general rather than giving any specific information. It can be helpful for children to see what ingredients go into their food and to understand where food comes from, in a way that is appropriate for their age. Certain foods may need to be avoided for medical or religious reasons.
While understanding a child’s nutritional needs may be relatively straightforward, understanding their relationship with food and why they react in certain ways can be more complex and it requires patience and understanding.
Teaching foster children how to prepare food or cook meals in a certain way, for example, may trigger memories of a close family member who cooked the dish differently and the child may become upset. Or, if there are distressing memory associations these could cause strong negative emotions around certain foods.
Kath said: “Food is all about our emotions. On the course, we come up with a lot of stories – many of them fond ones – of our relationship with food as children and adults. Then, we switch it and get people in the training room to think about how a looked-after child may perceive things differently.”
Sometimes food can be used as a way of exerting control. Many looked-after children are known to gorge on food and some steal food from the fridge, so the advice to new foster carers is to tell foster children to ask first when they want something to eat, rather than allowing them to help themselves. Food in Care looks at this topic in a little more detail, as well as body image and eating disorders.
The links between food and behaviour can be broad-ranging, from memories and associations through to the impact of food additives or poor nutrition on children. The course was written by a dietician and foster carers so it covers both the nutritional and emotional needs of foster children in relation to food. It also looks at food labelling and participants are asked to determine which packet foods have a higher nutritional content.
Poor dental hygiene can be a problem for many looked-after children and often this is linked to having too many sugary drinks, sometimes from a young age. A recent study found that the risk of tooth erosion was 59% higher in 12-year-olds and 220% higher in 14-year-olds who drank sugary drinks.
There is now clear evidence of a link between mood and certain foods – for example, protein has been shown to help with some of the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. As foster carers, knowing what food to give a child can be very useful in helping to regulate their mood and this is also touched on in the course.
As foster carers, we need to understand that it is not just what children eat but how they eat that is important. We may not immediately think about mealtime etiquette, but this is an area that can be fraught with difficulties for some foster children. For example, they may never have sat at a dining room table before, or even held a knife and fork. Some children may have negative memories of very formal mealtimes and experiencing tension between members of the family while sitting around the table. Such experiences can impact the way looked-after children respond to mealtimes and they may perceive sitting around the table as a very negative experience.
As we grow up, we tend to develop certain “rules” around food that we may or may not be aware of. As children we may have been taught that it is polite to eat as much food as we can manage while visiting a friend or relation’s house, for example. Such ‘rules’ may follow us into adulthood and may become part of our expectations of children in our care. It can be very helpful to understand our own food etiquette so that we have an awareness of our own food ‘rules’ and can avoid unconsciously imposing them or becoming upset if they are not followed.
Keeping records of what foster children are eating and how they act at mealtimes and afterwards is important as it can ensure they are getting adequate nutrition, as well as revealing certain behaviours that are linked to food. The course covers what and how to record this information.
The National Fostering Group’s Food Steering Group is currently working alongside NICE to develop guidelines for looked-after children and young people around nutrition and the psychological relationship they have with food.
Kath said: “This really matters as it means local authorities and fostering agencies like us will have to adhere to these guidelines around food and a child’s emotional association with it.”