Friday, June 14, 2013

Serving up Plates of Food

Whenever I sense that one of the kids has a food issue (re)surfacing, I immediately resort to the strategy I used when Seth and Lizzie first came home:  Free feeding.  Basically I make food available to them to eat whenever they want it.  Usually that means preparing a plate of food for each child and putting it on the table shortly after breakfast has been completed.  I try to make the food choices mostly healthy, usually with one treat-like thing included on each plate.

Recently Lizzie was manifesting signs of food anxiety again.  Within minutes of finishing a meal, she would see some food sitting on the counter waiting to be put away and she would ask for it; or she would have just finished a huge meal and, regardless of how short/long afterwards, would ask someone for whatever food she saw them eating or being prepared for a later meal.  Basically her interest in food seemed pretty intense, most of the time.  This has happened a few times in the past year, and we're trying to deal with it by providing what she needs, whether physically or psychologically:  More food.

So, despite the fact that the kids have lots of access to snacks throughout the day, I reverted to the method I've used on previous occasions...preparing plates of food for each child to nibble on throughout the day.

Here's an example of what I might serve: 6-8 slices of cantaloup; a handful or two of cherries; a box of raisins; an orange; a mini bowl of plain cheerios; cucumbers; carrot chunks; plain popcorn; and (the unhealthy contribution!) little peanut butter cracker sandwiches.  To this plate I also later added a small bowl of roasted chick peas (roasted with grape seed oil, garlic, dried basil, and tossed with a sprinkle of ground parmesan cheese).  If I want to serve something cold (such as cheese to eat on crackers, or a container of yogurt), I simply put a small plate for each child inside the fridge and tell them that it, too, is theirs for consumption.

The rules for these plates are pretty simple:

* You can eat from them whenever you want to throughout the day except for an hour before lunch and an hour before dinner, at which time I'll transfer the plates from table to counter until after the meal;

* If you finish your plate throughout the course of the day and want more, I will happily provide more (note: if everything but for the carrots/whatever is eaten, then I will ask the child to finish the carrots/whatever before I add more food to the plate...that's a way that I can ensure the healthiest foods are also being consumed...this has become a non-issue, though, because they're used to this method)

* Please eat sitting at the table;

* Whenever you've finished eating something, please wash your hands.

This method seems really to work for reduces her anxiety about not having access to enough food.  I find very true what I have heard Dr. Gordon Neufeld say many times (about attachment, but it applies just as well to food issues):

'The provision must be greater than the pursuit in order to reduce one's preoccupation.'

It's not the actual provision of the food that he's talking about - it's the child's confidence in the provision that must be there in order for his/her preoccupation to relax.  In my own language, the child's confidence that sufficient food will be provided must be greater than his/her pursuit of the food in order to reduce his/her preoccupation with it.

This is what I'm striving to do every time I see food issues arising.  So far, it's helped and the issues resolve themselves for many months at a time.  However, I am constantly on guard for it - because of my own weight issues, but more so because I have seen where my two younger children have come from and and fully appreciate their need for confidence in the provision of food.


  1. I totally LOVE that Neufeld quote. I heard him say this in an online video and it totally freed me up to pour the love and physical affection on to my children without guilt, which was my inclination in the first place. (If they weren't supposed to be kissed 1000 times a day, why do they come out so darned cute?) And I love your interpretation of it re food. Made me teary. Reminded me of the story behind the book "Sleeping with Bread." Thanks.

  2. Sigh. Our middle (5 year-old) little guy is SO preoccupied with food. I keep getting stumped as far as what to do about it, though.

    Pre-adoption, he actually didn't really eat. He was picky as a baby, and flitted about so much at meal times in the foster home that he wasn't consuming enough (and had people following him around popping bites into his mouth, so he never had to actively pursue eating). He was underweight and the foster parents had been told to put him on a high calorie diet for a while. When he did feed himself, he would often take huge bites or stuff multiple mouthfuls of food into this cheeks and practically choke on it.

    With large food-focused dogs and our own need for some semblance of order, we immediately taught the boys to stay seated at meal times, and put away any unconsumed food once meals were over. We also did not allow them to ask for food and drinks between meals (which they had been able to do at the foster home), because we were constantly fending off requests, and it had a sort of entitled/controlling flavour to it (I realize I could be wrong...but with our eldest, who is very "alpha" that was more the issue, I am pretty sure). I realize now that we should probably have eased in on that one, but it was really interfering with daily routines, and with three kids all at once, our heads were spinning.

    Anyway, he quickly learned to stay at the table, and very gradually learned to eat everything in a reasonable time frame (not without some power testing). Now he seems to have an obsession/anxiety issue with food. For a while things seemed to have resolved wonderfully, and then he went to the extreme of (usually) eating very quickly. He still takes huge bites, and we often have to cut his food up quite small. He had a serious choking incident while camping (no phone nearby), and has choked a couple of other times. For that reason, we keep a close eye on his eating (even though I would rather give it less attention), and he basically has to eat at the table, in our presence.

    Anyway, the issue now is that he is very sneaky about food. This happens at school, too, and anywhere we are. He has been found eating random bits of food off of the ground in parks and public places. He licked icing out of the garbage can at church. He hovers around food tables and plates. He takes food off of other kids' plates when they're not looking. He has taken food out of drawers at home. He eats crumbs off of the floor, and licks other things off of surfaces. He continues scraping his plate long after there is any observable food residue remaining on it. He will put anything remotely food-like in his mouth, no matter where he finds it, and truly looks like a magnet is drawing his eyes and hands toward food.

    If dogs, choking, and other children weren't factors, I would have long ago started keeping snacks for him on the counter, or packing him a lunch bag to carry around - I would love to set things up to lessen his anxiety and preoccupation. The problem is, if I leave food out unattended, he will eat everyone's, or will choke on it when I'm not looking, or will leave bits of it lying around, or (I worry) will end up in an alteration with a jealous dog.

    I end up stumped every time I try to come up with a solution. Maybe over the summer (my husband will be home with them once school is out), we can do something like ridiculously frequent timed snacks - every 15 minutes for a couple of days, working gradually toward a more manageable interval. Dunno - just thinking as I type. I don't really know how much of this, for him, is about access to food (whether he chooses when/what/how, or has someone offer it to him), or control/self-efficacy in regard to choosing when/how/what to eat. If it's just about access, the timed snacks might work. If not...I'll have to think more...

    Anyway, interesting post. While I'm not sure your approach can be implemented here in quite the same way, maybe it will help us figure something out...

  3. Hmmm... This makes sense. I'm going to need to experiment with this over the next little while, because someone seems to have re-started some minor food scavenging, especially at night and especially, but not limited to, sweets. Tried putting out crackers at night, but that only worked for a week or so and then the scavenging was back. As usual, definitely food for thought!

  4. Joy, it sounds very much like Lizzie's tendencies...not so much any more, but her issues have definitely been of the same ilk. What your boy is doing is pretty clearly pursuing the food....given that he's only five, I'm not sure the motivation matters...his brain's not developed enough at his age to be able to process these things deeply...he simply can't. I have totally come to believe that Neufeld is right in his assessment, which means that your boy's preoccupation with food won't have any chance of lessening until his confidence in the provision of food is greater than his need to have the food.

    I'm curious about what led you to telling the kids that they couldn't ask for food or drink between meals...

    I find it incredible (and true to Neufeld's statement) that the more I offer Lizzie food, the less she seems to have a need for it. It's not really about the food, clearly and she's also only 5 so I don't think her motivation matters. My own simple analysis is that I need to help her to stop thinking/obsessing about food, and what I see in her is to offer her more than she even wants. It has absolutely worked with her...and hopefully will continue. I want to take the mystery and temptation out of the food for her and for her to really KNOW that we will take care of all of her needs, including the one that has her needing to know that food is available beyond what she needs.

    These are tough issues..and I am a living testament of the complexities of food issues! But when I look back on my own life I see decades of patterns that fit exactly with what Neufeld talks about. Food control does. not. work. That's my personal belief based on my life.

    I'll be curious to see what works for boy of you, Joy and Ellen...let's keep the discussion going!

    Hugs to you both,


  5. Joy, one dog-related could always buy a tupperware (or other) container for each kid which can sit covered on the table so that the dogs can't get to it???


  6. Hi! I'm stopping by after not being on blogs very often and thought I'd add another idea, which may bring an ahha to some people who continue to struggle with food anxieties even when food is left out for their children. Our youngest two have also had huge "food issues" and the anxieties, and with the lack of chewing (back when we met) and stuffing and over eating and screaming when food was made available and in their sight lead us to another attempt. We learned rather quickly that our children could not handle it when food was left out. It then had to be eaten and eaten quickly. Through trail and error, we came to a place much different than most recommend for children who come form an orphanage, but we needed to keep food out of sight. We would have the food in cupboards and when it was meal time or snack, we'd have the food on their plates at the table for them. There would be huge anxieties if food was stored in pots/bowls on the table and our 2nd youngest especially would stuff his food quickly and scream for more, wanting to eat until it was all gone. WE would serve them what we considered to be a healthy amount and then, if they still wanted more, we would fill another plate for "bohela", or later and wrap it up and let them put it in the fridge. Not having food sitting around seemed to ease them of their anxieties. Some days they had the need to look in the cupboard to check that there was more food, which was fine. We also provided regular healthy snacks (I have low sugar levels and need to snack too!). They have come so far in three years although there still are some times where I notice one eating way more then they "need", or we see one stuffing his mouth and not chewing before swallowing or we notice they have been given a big plate and have an anxious need to have food cover the whole surface for each helping, but these anxieties often come along with behaviors and traumaversaries and so we go back to working on our attachment relationship and showing that we will meet their needs... Just another idea in case someone is needing it... because just like we are all different, our kids can need different approaches too... :-) ( hope makes sense in such a condensed form...)

  7. Thanks Ramona...I'm betting that someone reading here will find this helpful! Our kids manifest so many variations of anxieties about food that there's really no one-size-fits-all solution. So thanks!


  8. Just popping in again, it's been a little bit, just wanted to say that I wish I lived with you--I want to eat your snack plate!!!--YUM!!!