Feeling safe around food again.

When you haven’t been fed enough, either as a kid, or as an adult for a significant period of time, the fear of going hungry kind of seeps into you. It starts to change your behaviour around food and eating. All of this is your body’s way of making sure it gets fed. This is about survival, not about character, and not about morality. You do what you have to do.

Sometimes people with a significant history of food insecurity or restriction will hoard food or feel preoccupied with food. While this can be good for survival, it can seriously complicate your food-eating life.

As you know, I’m a big fan of the regular meal. Planning to have, and actually following through on, regular meal and snack times gives you the chance to plan ahead, to put together nourishing combinations of food, and it also, crucially, provides one thing the scared, underfed part of you desperately needs: a guarantee that eating will happen.

When kids who were underfed are placed in a foster home or adopted by new parents, they often hoard, binge, and are totally preoccupied with food for a while. This scares a lot of caregivers, so they may clamp down with controlling practices that, unfortunately, sometimes serve to frighten the kids even more.

What can actually help (though it’s never easy, of course) is to provide structure and permission, rather than control and restriction. Part of that structure means setting regular meal and snacktimes, and crucially, communicating those times to the child. Some people will write the meal schedule on a whiteboard or tape it to the refrigerator, so anytime the underfed child is scared of going hungry again, they can look (or be gently pointed to) the meal schedule and remember, “Oh yeah. Food is coming in a comfortable amount of time.”

This is part of breaking through trauma in order to provide a sense of safety. Trauma does weird things to the brain, like keep it stuck in events that happened long ago, making it difficult to form new memories that build a bridge out of those events. People often need guidance, someone to walk with them, and sign-posts to remind them that where they’re going, and where they are, is not the same as where they’ve been. A meal schedule is one of those sign-posts.

As for what the meal structure should look like, I’m going to borrow from one of my colleagues (I can’t remember who, I’m sorry! Please feel free to add your name in comments if you’re reading) what she called The Rule of Threes, which I thought was a brilliant way to remember: three meals and three snacks, no more than three hours apart.

If you need to feel safe around food, if you need to reassure the part of you that is scared of not getting enough to eat, write it down somewhere. You can write times of the day, or you can just write the rule itself, and put it somewhere you will see it when you’re thinking about food. Whenever you wake up, eat something (within an hour or so), check the clock and make a mental note of the time you’ll need to eat again.

These are not enforced eating times — rather, they are the times you will commit to providing yourself the CHANCE to eat. That means physically putting food in front of yourself (whether you think you want it or not), sitting down, and deciding whether/how much to eat. If you don’t want to eat, put it away. If you only want part, only eat part and put the rest away. If you eat it all, check if you’re still hungry and want seconds. If you’re not sure, wait 15 minutes and check in again. Look at the meal schedule and remind yourself that food will be coming again in three or less hours.

At this point, don’t worry about what you are eating. Just put anything you have available, or anything you think you want, in front of yourself at meal times. Anything is better than nothing, and you can always build on it later. Regular eating times are the foundation, and the walls and roof will be built in time.

You are going to be fed. Someone is taking care of you. The people who raised you might have messed up in some way, or just plain didn’t have access to enough food, but things are different now. You’re taking care of yourself now, and you’re going to follow through.

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21 Comments

  1. Renée
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Thank you! Our foster child has so many food insecurities and it is so hard to know how to help. He is too little to read and posted times mean nothing to him because he doesn’t really doesn’t understand how much time has passed. He wants to eat breakfast at home before he goes to preschool where he is served a full breakfast. He gets breakfast, lunch and snack at school. Then he wants another snack after he gets home. Then of course we eat dinner a little later. And on Wednesday when he goes to church after school (where they have snack) he still wants a snack at home before he goes. He gets really upset if you ask him to wait for food or tell him he can’t have food. He will have a huge tantrum if you tell him “no I’m not going to give you breakfast here but if you get into the car I will drive you to 2 minutes to school where you can eat.” We have started just feeding him whenever he asks even if that means 2 breakfasts, lunch, 3 snacks and dinner. I want him to know he is safe and loved but I was worried giving in would set him up to have overeating problems in the future. It is nice to read that maybe my instincts are right after all and it is ok for him to eat that much right now.

    • Posted March 16, 2016 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Hi Renée – you might also (if you haven’t already) want to check out the book Love Me, Feed Me by Katja Rowell. It’s entirely about feeding foster and adopted kids, many of whom come from food insecure backgrounds.

      • Posted March 16, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for sharing Michelle! I was so excited to see this post! Much of Love Me, Feed Me (http://www.amazon.com/Love-Me-Feed-Adoptive-Struggles/dp/0615691315/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1458155143&sr=8-1&keywords=love+me%2C+feed+me) will give concrete steps to reassuring your child! Intro and chapter one are free on Amazon so you can check it out. A few quick ideas: instead of “No, I’m not going to give you breakfast…” Try, “I see you are hungry, we will eat SOON. let’s sing the alphabet song 5 times, (or listen to this story…) and then we will eat…” You may also use a “tide-me-over” or small snack if you are late with the routine, or snack was small due to distraction etc. I have lots of “scripts” for what to say, and reassure! Early on, offering food every 1-2 hours may reassure as well, and then you can space it out. Ultimately, being fed regularly is more reassuring than letting him eat whenever he wants. Also, snack at school may be very small and not enough food or he may be not getting enough time etc. You could offer a sit down (or in the front seat of the car) snack right after school. (I did this with my 2 year old after daycare since her afternoon snack was tiny!) You can help him feel safe and trust you while working towards structure and enjoyable family meals and snacks! Good luck! Michelle, hope you don’t mind my chiming in!

        • Posted March 16, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          Not at all, in fact thank you thank you thank you!

        • Courtney
          Posted March 17, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

          Those are excellent points. Something to think about for school/daycare/activity situations besides adequate time to eat and distractions is bullying. When my stepson was in elementary school there was a period where he was STARVING after school every day. Not just need a snack, but desperately, ferociously hungry. I finally got him to tell me what the problem was: someone was stealing his lunch every day at school, and none of the teachers noticed.

          Just because a meal or snack is on the schedule doesn’t mean it ended up in the child’s belly.

  2. EZLiving
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    When our son first came to live with us through foster care, he was nine and very preoccupied with food. He told me he just like to look at all the food in our pantry and asked me if I thought we would ever run out. I told him, no, we wouldn’t. He would also eat with his hands at mealtime when he was hungry – even spaghetti and meatballs. I put a “snack bowl” on the kitchen counter top where he could take whatever he wanted when he wanted. At first, he cleaned out the bowl – oranges, granola bars, bananas, raw veggies, etc. But after a few weeks, he realized the food would always be there and would just grab one or two things after school as a snack before dinner.

    I realized after watching him, in a way, that’s how I learned to eat as a child. I had three brothers who could eat huge amounts of food and never gained weight – they were always hungry. When I was seven, I started to gain weight. My parents were concerned because my eating habits hadn’t changed. They found out my thyroid had quit working and I was put on synthroid.

    In order to lose weight, I could eat very little. However, at mealtimes, I could save NOTHING for later. If I didn’t eat it then and there, one of my brothers would eat it. So, I learned to stuff myself since there would be nothing for later. There was no saving my piece of dessert for later – there was no later. Dinner at 6:00 p.m. meant there would be nothing to eat until the next morning. I remember them eating everything in my Easter basket that I was saving to enjoy one piece of candy a day – all gone in ten minutes.

    We didn’t have a lot of money for food but potatoes were free so there were potatoes at every meal. I don’t ever remember there being any leftovers. It took me a long time as an adult to feel my leftovers were safe and I could save them for another meal or snack. Same with dessert – I don’t have to eat it NOW but can save it for later and it will be there. And, I always have a dish of candy sitting on the dining room table, out in the open – I don’t remember the last time I took a piece of candy from it, but it’s there if I want it. I still keep the “snack bowl” on the kitchen counter and our son, done now with college, will grab a piece of fruit when he’s hungry as I do too.

    I still deal with weight issues but it’s stable now. I’m still taking synthroid 57 years later and my doctor STILL adjusts the dosage up and down. But even after all this time, I sometimes get that feeling of “I’d better eat it all now because it’s going to be gone.” Old habits die hard!!

  3. katieh
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Reading this reminded me of something – my folks divorced when I was 13, and after some adjustment (understatement) we ended up with a pattern of spending an evening mid week with my dad and his girl friend. They lived about 15 miles away, in the nearest city. My sister and I would get on the bus straight after school (3.30ish), and that dropped us off at the place where my dad worked. then he would pick us up, and we’d meet his girlfriend and we’d go to the stables where they kept her horse. We would help shovel horse poo and watch as she rode the horse for an hour or so, and then we’d drive with them across the city to where their house was, probably stopping off at the supermarket on the way. When we got back to their house, they would prepare dinner, and usually a bowl of houmous and open a bag of tortilla chips to snack on while they cooked for another half an hour or so.

    we would sit down to dinner at about 8.30pm-9pm (instead of at about 6pm at home, after an after school snack at about 4pm), then my dad would drive us home, in time to go straight to bed. We always knew there would be food, but we had no control over it or when it would be. there were chocolate bars at a sort of tuck shop, at the stable, but they were in the office, and we didn’t ever really know the people there, or feel particularly welcome. I remember wanting to dive into the houmous, but felt self concious because i didn’t want to eat ‘too much’ or ‘ruin my meal’ – and so my memory of a lot of that time was consumed with hunger, and resentment and guilt for needing ‘so much’.

    (We didn’t have an afternoon break at school so it’s likely that I ate lunch at 12-12.30 then didn’t really eat again till 8.30pm that night. but i felt like i was being silly and gluttonous to feel so hungry. just writing this down makes me realise how unfair I was being to myself. I was just a kid.)

    this happened on weekend visits too. we would be dragged along to horse-related competitions, and there would be cheese sandwiches in small rolls, and maybe an apple for lunch. if they were busy we might not eat till 2pm after getting an early start, and so as a growing teenager I was still really hungry after eating my meal. I don’t think my dad or his girlfriend were trying to do anything wrong. They were folding us into the lives they were building for themselves. but they also didn’t really attempt to cater to our actual needs, as teenagers or as people who didn’t have the same priorities, or privileges as them.

    the rest of the time i had plenty of food, and at home with my mum I was able to make a lot more of the choices, including cooking some of the evening meals myself. but somehow even these relatively short periods of time (coupled by a number of years in retail jobs where you couldn’t snack if you were hungry and might not get a break of any sort for 5-6 hours) have left their mark in my thinking even 25 years later.

    now I work from home and home educate my kids. they have access to snacks if they want them and we take snacks with us if we are out. I am working through intuitive eating, and trying not to pass on my food issues to my children.

  4. Gabbi
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    This hit home for me. I grew up food insecure and I still struggle with the worry that there is not enough or I won’t have enough. I like the Rule of Three. I have worked through a lot of my food issues, but they are sneaky and creep back in from time to time. I think the Rule of Three will help me during those times…like today, when I am coming off of an emotional food binge and feeling afraid.
    Thank you, this was very timely for me!
    Gabbi

  5. Kathleen
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    My god, you’re amazing. Thank you for this.

  6. Tiffany Makres
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I remember being able to eat a lot as a child and being chastised and told to slow down. I was a really tubby kid and still am very heavy and I developed a lot of food insecurities over being hungry. Not that food was ever running out or that it wouldn’t be there, just that how much I’m eating won’t be enough and that I’ll be hungry later. For me, hunger became a sign of my weight and that I was only hungry because I was fat and that every time my stomach audibly growled it was just reaffirming the fact that I was too heavy and ate too much. I still eat a lot and struggle with binge eating and stress eating and I don’t know how to portion and end up eating too much or not knowing when I’m still hungry or satisfied. I’ve been too scared to open up about it for fear of people pointing straight at my weight or limiting how much I eat and have trouble admitting to myself that I have troubles and feel vulnerable around food because of the stigma on overeating disorders. I don’t know if I fall into the category of underfed as a child but I know I struggle with similar affects now.

    • Mich
      Posted March 17, 2016 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      I think the general rule of thumb is that if your stomach is growling, you’re not eating enough. I’ve read that anorexics who keep up that behaviour for a long time (eg. years), your stomach actually stops growling, and you no longer feel hungry, just really cranky. I went through this, but since I was fat, no one took it seriously, and I was always called a harpy.

  7. Jenny
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Michelle, you rock. So much. I’m so glad you’re blogging again!

  8. Tesla
    Posted March 16, 2016 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, this article is really helpful! I grew up in a house where food was uncertain and often off (moldy usually), so I got good about pretending I’m not hungry/pushing my hunger to the side. I’ve found myself doing a lot of the hoarding type things you mentioned…my wake up call was when I realized I could eat for a year, only needing to get fresh milk and eggs, with the stuff I had in my cabinets. The last couple years I’ve slowly working back to ‘normal’ food habits, and this will help a ton; I’m still working on the idea that I’m safe to /not/ eat when food is available, and that seconds are ok!

  9. R Skye
    Posted March 18, 2016 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    This is a timely article to read! I realised recently I have used coffee for years to self-medicate against my hunger pangs, due to many times when I didn’t have any food and so drank coffee by the boatload at work because it was available and free. As one of the working poor, I just got used to the idea I never had enough money to eat on, and drank coffee all day long. It’s a habit I’ve never completely outgrown, though I now have a long-term illness and drinking coffee is now off the cards for me.

    Not drinking coffee I realised I get hunger pangs and I’d feel myself starting to panic. QUICK, find some caffeine! I never realised that’s what I was doing till I couldn’t have coffee anymore. It has taken a lot (a whole lot) to be ok with eating rather than reaching for the coffee maker, especially as I don’t tend to like to eat at the best of times due to sheer exhaustion.

    I like having a larder and pantry, my chest freezer and so on due to gardening and disability – sometimes shopping just isn’t that convenient for me – but now I’m actually giving myself permission to eat it, and not just COLLECT it.

    Sitting with food and making a decision to eat it or not sounds a good idea. I’ll try that sometime.

  10. Posted March 19, 2016 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    I was homeless intermittently from 3-19 and I lived with dozens of foster families. So much of what you say here is really intense for me. As a kid food was a serious battle. I had major sensory issues to go with my physical and emotional problems from trauma. (It’s interesting watching my non traumatized kid struggle with some of the same sensory issues–which issues cause which reactions?)

    I’m 34 and I’ve been on a journey for 10 years to try to learn how to eat. This is so very hard. I wish I could just eat food and have my body accept it and be healthy. That isn’t possible at this stage. Everything is a struggle.

    I hope that some day I will have learned this process so I can just… eat.

  11. Debrah
    Posted March 20, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this! I have trauma around this as an adult that I didn’t have as a child. I appreciate this post so much. I’m going to sit with it, it has really resonated.

  12. Posted March 20, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I LOVE this post!! One of my favorite memories about high school was the lunch menu, which was posted the week before it happened, so we could plan ahead and KNOW what was going to be available. This was even more wonderful when I moved back on campus in my senior year of college – sure, I had to borrow money to pay room and board ahead of time, but it was SUCH a relief to know that I was “covered” when it came to food – that I wouldn’t have to scrounge around, shop, cook, etc. in order to be fed. I remember that I effortlessly lost weight that year, without having to think about paying rent, electricity, heating oil, etc. every month, since it had all been prepaid thru my student loans. After 1½ years of “being an independent adult”, having to hitchhike to classes and worry about having enough (money, food, time), it was such a relief to just focus on my studies.

  13. Posted March 21, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Love this so much! While I love the Intuitive Eating Model, Ellyn Satter’s eating competence model really resonates so much more for me. It’s what really helped me to turn me into a normal eater. Love structure and permission!

  14. Cassie
    Posted March 21, 2016 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for addressing and acknowledging this type of problem. I feel like I’m doing so much better at feeding myself regularly, but I still panic if I get hungry or even anticipate that I MIGHT get hungry. I’m going to try to use the three rule along with just acknowledging that my past shaped me, and I’ll probably never be very comfortable without eating to a certain point (to guarantee fullness for a long time) or feeling hunger past a certain point. I can know it and just be okay with it. Thank you again for talking about this and giving me some reassurance that I need to respect some things that have happened even if it was a long time ago. It’s easy to forget.

  15. michelle
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m someone who was never fed enough as a child. We were not poor, there just wasnt enough on our plates to fill me up, and I was always hungry and looking for snacks that were not allowed. As an adult I eat all the healthy things and never go hungry – as a result I’m a medium/stocky build. As a kid I was a muscular stick.

    So when my kids were born I swore I would always make sure they could get as much as they wanted of anything (healthy). We don’t do junk food. We don’t do much sugar. I serve dinner at the table and they can go back for as many serves as they like. In my mind that’s creating a healthy bountiful mindset.

    The problem is that my daughter who is now 11, and has always been heavier than her classmates, seems to be getting even bigger, and her attachment to food seems to be getting obsessive. She will sit with a fully tummy of pancakes for breakfast and ask what’s for lunch and if she has time to bake something before lunch. She hides sweets in her room. She will roll the last mouthful of meat around for an hour or so until her dad asks her to spit it out.

    I phoned an eating disorder hotline to see if we may have a problem and they said just to love her up and distract, and I will, but I feel a bit hopeless about this. It’s OK for me that she is heavier, but she doesn’t like being different. Interested to hear your viewpoint. Thanks :)

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