This is the beginning of a series detailing some of the ways we live our lives as a family, what has worked for us, what hasn't worked, and how we're progressing through issues that are both adoption-related and just plain typical.
When Zinashi came into transitional care in Ethiopia, her nutrition was marginal and she had been ill. She was small for her age in both stature and weight. At age three (or nearly three), she was at the bottom end of the 18-month clothing size height and weight range. Tiny. She gained five pounds in the first ten days in care; she was that hungry. So it was no surprise to us that she had some food issues in our first weeks together. We are actually quite fortunate that she did as well as she did, and that now her eating habits are quite typical for a girl her age. We did a few unconventional things to get where we are now, which I will detail here.
The purposes we have with feeding our daughter are twofold. First, we want her to get excellent nutrition. Second, we want her to feel secure in the amount of food that is available. To those ends, we eat primarily homemade meals comprised of mostly organic ingredients, and she is allowed a snack anytime she says she is hungry. I try to keep portable snacks in my bag both for food quality and budgetary reasons. (Confession: I tried to stop doing this, as she was okay waiting a little while to get something, but then there were three days in a row where we left the house for a more extended period of time than I anticipated, and I had to buy her a snack at a coffee shop. Three days in a row. My wallet says OUCH!)
For breakfast I've found it's easiest to stick to the same two meals and alternate days. Sometimes we will do something special, like go to Starbucks for breakfast on her birthday, but for the most part we eat at home, around our table, together. I like to cook a hot meal to get the day started on the right foot. We have either oatmeal (cooked with milk, topped with bananas, if desired) or scrambled eggs, with a side of whole wheat toast. Lately I've been making homemade nutella on a regular basis, so we spread a little of that on the toast. To drink, Zinashi can choose tea (honey chamomile is a hit) or juice (half water, half juice) if we have it. She usually asks for a glass of water as well. When we first arrived home, I made her hot chocolate every morning to be consistent with what she had in Ethiopia, but now it's a rare treat.
We keep lunch pretty low key, and in fact, I rarely sit down to eat with Zinashi. She is happy having a light lunch on her own at the table while I do some cleaning in the kitchen. Because our other two meals are fairly substantial and are all eaten as a family, I'm not too anxious about having her eat something small by herself. Usually she chooses cheese and crackers or pita and hummus, and I try to offer her fruit that she'll actually eat. She's not been too keen on any of the fruit choices lately, so we're going to start doing lunch smoothies. I'll be sneaking some spinach in there as well, as Zinashi has been picking vegetables out of her food lately and offering them to Jarod and me.
At dinner time, I often cook a one dish meal, like pasta with vegetables, curry over rice, or a hearty soup. Zinashi loves french fries, so sometimes I'll do oven fries and we'll have burgers (veggie or grass-fed beef or bison). If I'm feeling really ambitious, I might make a meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and sauteed spinach (my favorite). At dinner, sometimes we have something for dessert, and if Jarod and I finish before Zinashi and are eating dessert, she is allowed to have a bit even if she's not done with her other food. What we've found is that if we don't make a big deal out of sweets, she doesn't either. Given dessert mid-meal, she usually takes a couple of bites, tells us she's all done with it, and then goes back to her meal. We think this is fantastic, and probably much healthier than if she thought that desserts were some special treat to be earned. Put in the place of being just another food, dessert loses its allure.
At all meals, Zinashi is free to eat what she likes, as much or as little as she likes. We do not make separate meals for her, and we do not cajole her to finish something or try something. We might encourage her to try something that we think she'll like, but we don't make a big deal about it if she declines. (Unless you call eating that same food and making food enjoyment noises making a big deal out of it.) I'm a big fan of the Ellyn Satter school of thought, which dictates that parents decide when and what is served, and children decide if and how much they'll eat. Like most young children, Zinashi will sometimes eat very little and sometimes eat a whole lot. When she doesn't eat much (such as this morning: two bites of banana for breakfast), we don't worry. We know that she'll make up for it another time. There is never a requirement to be a member of the Clean Plate Club.
When it comes to food quality, we believe strongly in feeding Zinashi organic foods as much as possible. My philosophy is that if I wouldn't hand my child a cup of pesticide to drink, then I'm not going to hand her food with pesticide in it either. Would you offer your child a sip of Roundup? Then you probably don't want your child to "sip" it by consuming it in food either. This just makes good sense. I know that organics are more expensive, but when we dine at home most of the time and take advantage of the bulk aisle at Whole Foods and fruits and vegetables that are on sale, it's really not that bad. We've also been known to keep a garden (probably just limited to herbs and tomatoes this year) and to shop at the local farmer's market. Many farmers using organic processes are not certified organic, so talk to your farmers! We are not people of great means, particularly now that I am only working one day per week, but good nutrition from good sources is important to us, so we figure out how to make it work.
When Zinashi first came to us, her main issue was eating way too much and not wanting to leave food on the table, but try to take it all with her. She had a delightful habit of stuffing french fries under her chin and shrieking as we walked away from leftovers. This makes a lot of sense for a child who never had enough to eat. Trying to hoard food was her way of making sure that she'd have enough for later. Now she is delighted by the American way of the to-go box, but also no longer frets if we can't take something with us. She also never stuffs herself unless she is truly hungry (though she is a really good eater sometimes, like full-bowl-of-pasta good eater). The main thing we have done to ease her food insecurity is to have meals at regular times and to always give her a snack when she asks for one. Food is predictable now. We don't allow her to be picky about her snack, but we do offer a couple of choices, and if she comes up with a third choice that is readily available and healthy, then we'll say yes to that. For example, if we offer an orange or some rabbit crackers and she says she wants raisins, that's fine.
Judging by Zinashi's rate of growth and her health, eating this way is working very well. We feel good about what we put on her plate, and she enjoys eating it. Everybody wins!