The Emotional Significance of Food


“You will need to be accepting of how and what the child eats.”

Children and young people that come into care may be highly resistant to being nurtured. This could come in many forms including nourishment (food). Some children may not have had regular meals or food may have been scarce, so that when they come to live with you they may hoard food, over eat, be fussy eaters or only eat food that they are used to having.

Food generally gives most children a feeling of being cared for – it shows that adults are aware of their presence and needs and that adults will do something for them. Children that have been neglected often do not have this experience.

Humans are not predisposed to dislike certain foods. In fact, we are predisposed to like the majority of them (with the exceptions of being bitter or spoiled). The problem comes with the messages we receive about food. Studies suggest that it takes 10 to 15 exposures to a food to like it. We don’t just eat foods because we like them, we like them because we eat them.

Learning to like a new flavour is relatively easy, but switching to a whole new diet takes time. Such a change will take two to four months. Your body is already very used to certain things, so it’s more than just making psychological adjustment, it’s about learning to like new flavours and textures – your taste buds need to adjust.

The latest research indicates that what we learn to like as infants paves the way for what we eat as adults.

It is important to take this into account when we have a child or young person placed with us. You will need to be accepting of how and what the child eats. They may not have been exposed to healthy food, regular meal times or sitting together to eat.  Children who have experienced trauma are often controlling. Eating and the food they eat may be the only thing that they feel they have control of. You now have the opportunity to expose your child to positive ways of eating, to healthy food and to having some control – remembering that this may take time, patience and perseverance.

Here are some tips that may help:

  • Don’t try to feed a child when they are not hungry – but make sure they are offered food regularly. The child may have been deprived of food in the past.
  • Understand the child’s taste preferences. They may not have been exposed to a variety of foods or had the opportunity to be exposed to new foods.
  • Pair new foods with favourites. If your child will only eat pies or chips provide a choice, the usual food and a new food together.
  • Don’t pressure your child to eat. This will increase their anxiety and will probably increase their dislike of the food you are trying to get them to eat.
  • Keep exposing your child to a variety of foods. Try and encourage them by describing the foods positively and eating them yourself.
  • Get your child involved in the growing, buying and preparation of food. Studies show that children eat more fruit and vegetables when they help to grow them and less wary of them when they help to create the meal.
  • Try being curious about new foods. Explore with your child where the food comes from. What does it taste like? How can we use it?
  • Be playful with food – re name some of them – such as ‘x-ray vision carrots’, ‘super duper broccoli’, ‘silly dilly green beans’.
  • Try new foods yourself. Show your child it is fun to eat something new.
  • Praise your child when they do try something new.
  • Set clear boundaries around meal times. Eat together at the table.
  • Offer choices. Instead of just handing them a plate with pear slices on it, ask them “would you like apple or pear or both?” They tend to try new things if they have chosen it.
  • Allow the child to choose how much they will eat and whether they want to eat all the food that has been prepared. Have different side dishes for your child to choose from. If your child over eats then provide a variety of small portion dishes.
  • Try new recipes and involve the child in choosing and helping in some way.
  • Keep offering and don’t give up.

There is much focus on the nutritional aspect of food for children and healthy eating, which is important, but the emotional significance of food is often neglected or not realised. Therapeutic parenting aims to provide children with a balanced diet and to tune into their emotional needs where food is an issue.

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