There has been little research done about food in fostering, but it is being recognised as an easy way to put children at ease and communicate with them. Louise Tickle reports
When a child is taken into foster care, their social worker can take it as a given that they’re going to be fed decent food at regular intervals. But other than some basic information around nutrition and healthy eating, very little discussion of what food means in family life is entered into during the training undertaken by prospective foster parents.
For a child who has been placed in a strange house with strange people far away from home, however, how and what they are fed is likely to be very important indeed. Eating food you’re familiar with is comforting for anyone no matter what your age. By the same token, it’s upsetting to have no choice over what’s put in front of you.
In recognition of this, a project called Recipes for Fostering run by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering has been working with 10 foster families across the UK to see how food can act as a catalyst for strengthening relationships and helping looked-after children to feel more comfortable in their new homes.
“There is very little research about food in fostering, though there is a study about food in residential care homes,” says Andrea Warman, who led the Baaf project and interviewed each of the foster families in depth. “Food means so much more than just getting fed, and that became obvious the more we listened to people.”
“What we found was that good practice in how foster carers approached food could lead to a sense of closeness and caring. It’s an everyday strategy that is not always recognised or valued. Most of the time it’s done very quietly, but I think the nurturing and bonding potential that comes from feeding people should be addressed in training.”
Food is central
Sandie Ford from Croydon has been fostering for two years, and says food has always been central to building a sense of family in her household. Regular mealtimes are important, she says, but forcing children to eat food they hate is anathema, and so she takes a lot of trouble to ensure they enjoy mealtimes.
“When any child comes through the front door, one of the first things I do is give them a notebook to write in their likes and dislikes,” she explains. “I’d hate to cook something only for them to have to say ‘oh, I don’t really like that.'”
Some children’s attitudes to food have been distorted, she’s noticed, either because their parents had not given them much variety, or, sometimes, because they’d never had enough to eat.
Looking through children’s recipe books together, and then getting out the mixing bowls to make a dish is one way she’s tried to address these kinds of issues. Most kids love cooking, she observes, and doing a fun activity together in the kitchen also gives her a chance to listen and chat, which in turn develops and strengthens her relationship with her charges.
Helping children to understand where food comes from is a major focus for foster carer Justin Brown, who grows most of his own produce on the smallholding where he and his partner Dan live in Frome.
“We’ve got a bit of an upper hand, because when it’s time to make a meal, we just head off with the lads and dig up some potatoes or whatever,” laughs Justin.
“We’re lucky with the space we’ve got, but even in big cities you can grow salad crops in window boxes, for instance. Instead of forcing kids to eat things like vegetables they’re not used to, if you have a medium- to long-term placement, you can get them growing things. If they’ve helped grow something they’ll probably give it a go.”
Taking a laid back attitude to mealtimes has worked for this couple and the boys they foster, but Justin Brown emphasises that this may be because their placements have been a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old. However, while a fixed formal mealtime for this age group might not be appropriate, a younger child might need something more structured.
Recipe for success
● Think about the child as an individual, and appreciate that they will have valid likes and dislikes in terms of ingredients and dishes.
● Ask the child to list what they do and don’t enjoy eating, either in a notebook, or though discussions without any pressure over a period of time. Use this information as a guide, but remember it’s worth occasionally trying out something that they think they don’t like – they may change their mind.
● Try to find out what food has meant to that child in their family home. Have they regularly sat down at the table as a family, or is a designated mealtime an alien concept that they feel uncomfortable with? Take the time to ask what works for them, and gently explore what changes they might be able to make now they are in a different family setting.
● Make an effort to involve children in the choosing and preparation of meals – it may take longer, but it can be a huge source of enjoyment for everyone. It will also give a child an appreciation of the effort, time and care involved in cooking a meal, and is a great way of helping them learn practical skills to keep them healthy throughout their lives.
This article is published in the 6 August issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The right recipe for fostering