The Impact of Food Culture

Foster and adoptive mom Carrie Dahlin shares thoughts on navigating food challenges she faces with the children in her home. Photo courtesy of Carrie Dahlin

When my husband and I got married, we had to learn how to combine our ideas of meals and grocery shopping. We both grew up with different types of food and as you would expect when a newly married couple come together, grocery shopping was tricky to navigate. While it was a fun adventure to shape our household, it brought many opportunities for compromise.

My husband grew up having butter in the house and I grew up with margarine. We each had specific brands and tastes that we were used to such as which cheese or bread we wanted or how we made pizza crust. I remember compromising on many items in those first few years, but if you came over, you would probably see that we still had two different brands of toothpaste or two different types of other small favorites. Over the years we have shaped the food culture with our own kids and have new family favorites.

I often think of this scenario with new foster kiddos who come into our care. Only I try to consider the child’s point of view, who was removed from their home, put in the care of people they didn’t yet love, in an environment they never knew with strange smells, new foods and a different routine. I remind myself that they will not want to compromise on every area, let alone understand why their peanut butter and jelly looks different or why pizza has thin crust instead of thick crust.

Food is often an area where the kids in our care can struggle because the food we all eat as a child is part of our culture. Many meals can bring a sense of comfort, or even trigger memories. Often times, food and nutrition can be a sense of stress for a child, if they have a history of neglect, which causes intense emotions. I have had many children who didn’t even want to sit at the table, or felt overwhelmed eating at family gatherings. I have also raised kids who don’t know how to regulate when they are full, so food is something they constantly seek. We don’t think about how much food culture can impact a child or how much we will have to focus on getting through obstacles regarding food while they are in our home.

Our foster kids go on visits and often come back with treats, snacks, candy and items that we typically say no to. Many times this will frustrate us because it will spoil our plans for dinner, or we fear the sugar content will have them bouncing off the walls. I have been this foster parent, mumbling under my breath when I hear what unhealthy treats were given instead of a healthy lunch. However, the familiar foods may bring a sense of comfort to the child.

When my husband and I were first dating, we were at his grandma’s house for a family gathering and she served the most amazing apple pie. I grew up eating store bought pies. Little did I know that his family did not. I still remember sitting at the table after taking my first bite and asking his grandmother where she bought the pie we were eating. Everyone laughed in shock that I would ask such a thing. It never occurred to me that store bought pies were not a typical thing for his family.

Remember to give your foster kids grace — you might serve homemade macaroni and cheese but they might have grown up with the box variety. Give them time as they get used to their new surroundings.

Teaching our children about healthy options and a balanced diet is an aspect of fostering. However, it takes evaluating our own bias from our experience with food and making efforts to introduce healthy balanced meals in a loving way. I am a big believer that food affects our health and behavior but I also enjoy a night of take out. So as we navigate the food culture of our foster kids and our own habits, balance is important.

Food is a big part of how we define ourselves. Food culture is different for every household, and can change depending on the current family budget or season of life. I encourage you to dive into your child’s food culture if you can. Find out what was typical for them and give them something familiar when possible.

Of course healthy eating is important to teach our children, but if buying them their favorite treat at the store invites connection and bonding, it might be the better choice. Navigating food culture for your children is something to be done with intent and grace.

Find more about Carrie Dahin at www.carriedahlin.com. Her book, “What Led Me to You,” is available on amazon.com.


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