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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