Embarking on an adoption and fostering journey often brings about unforeseen challenges. Food insecurity can be one of them. In this episode, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber draw upon their personal experiences to provide crucial insight and ideas that can help fostering/adoptive parents help their children adjust to the difficulties food insecurity can bring into the home.

In addition, our hosts share a few resources designed to give listeners tips on how to help their children develop consistently healthy eating habits.

Find out how to give to the Ministry Adoption Fund by visiting sendrelief.org/foster-care-adoption/.


Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way. And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.

Lynette Ezell: Hey, thanks for joining us again today. You know, Tera, we’ve heard statistics lately of the starvation in America.

Tera Melber: We really have. And food insecurities.

Lynette Ezell: Right.

Lynette Ezell: The latest data I got is from 2017, that one-in-eight Americans, like 40 million, live with daily food insecurities.

Tera Melber: Isn’t that unbelievable in our country?

Lynette Ezell: Oh, it really is. I grew up in a really low income area, so I’m sure it was all around me.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: It was my normal, you know.

Lynette Ezell: But recently we had a listener bring this topic up and ask for help with their child surrounding food issues, behaviors. What we want to share today is that when children who enter our homes have not been fed regularly, the brain doesn’t develop in that area and give them security that they’re going to eat again. That neglect, they pretty much carry throughout their life is what I’m learning. Do you agree with that?

Tera Melber: Right. I do. There was a report about an actor that was recently interviewed, or not recently, it’s been a few years ago, who was interviewed and he had on this incredibly expensive, like $1,000 suit.

He was talking about his childhood and how he had grown up very, very poor and very, very hungry. He asked the interviewer, he said, “You know, I could take you out for an expensive meal today, but I want you to ask me what’s in my pocket.” The interviewer said, “What’s in your pocket?” And he pulled out a candy bar.

Lynette Ezell: Wow.

Tera Melber: He said, “I know I’ve got on $1,000 suit and I know that I could go get my food. Anytime I’m hungry I could go get whatever I want. But because I grew up this way, every day I put this candy bar in my pocket or a candy bar in my pocket so that I know anytime I’m hungry, no matter what, that I can eat right then.”

Lynette Ezell: Well, that’s incredible. We’ll talk about this more in depth. We have to practice this at our house. That story’s incredible.

Lynette Ezell: I know.

Lynette Ezell: So today, let’s explore the topic of food insecurities and how to help our children overcome them. Now, we have to keep in mind that there’s not a quick fix to these issues.

Tera Melber: That’s true.

Lynette Ezell: Resolutions to these behaviors, I mean, I have found can take years.

Tera Melber: Yes.

Lynette Ezell: I know we were saying days and weeks and that sort of thing, but it’s taken years. And we can grow weary of that healing process, like, you should know this by now. But they don’t. They can’t help that. It’s just what they experienced in early trauma. So when the road to healing seems long, and frustrations run high, we have to keep looking at our children’s behaviors through the eyes of very deep compassion.

Tera Melber: That is so true and we have to remember that food hoarding behaviors are really a survival mechanism that are based in fear, for our children.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: And according to many adoption medicine physicians, food insecurities, really, the reason that they occur is because: one, children haven’t gotten enough to eat, or they’ve had unpredictable meal times. Maybe they got fed breakfast on Monday, but they didn’t get any food until Tuesday night at dinner.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: Or they’ve had very limited selection of foods and textures, so oftentimes it’s even just a textural issue with our children. But as we increase our connection and trust with our relationship with our children, which is the basis of our relationships, our children can really learn coping skills to overcome their insecurities. We have to equip them to be able to know how to deal with their insecurities, just like that actor dealt with his by keeping a candy bar in his pocket.

Lynette Ezell: Absolutely. There are many of those insecurities, but the one we’ll focus on today are the food insecurities. I just think this is really worth talking about today. So what does this look like on a daily basis? If you don’t mind, I’ll jump in here.

Tera Melber: Absolutely.

Lynette Ezell: At our house I have one and it looks like just eating quickly.

Tera: Right.

Lynette Ezell: I grew up on the Mississippi River. Even growing up, they just can clean their plate in no time. Like some of the boys in my class who didn’t get to go to school year round because they had to help on the farm or whatever or just from very poor situations, they would eat their lunch so quickly. Their plate when they were done never even looked like there had been food on it.

Tera Melber: Right.

Tera Melber: So we have to think about, too, when our kids come to the table, if they start scarfing food down, if we are focused on the fact that we’ve raised other biological children and we’ve taught them great manners and that’s what our focus is on, we’re not really getting to the root of why they’re eating poorly.

It’s not because they haven’t been taught great manners. It’s because they want to make sure that their stomach gets full as quickly as possible.

Lynette Ezell: Right. This is my chance to eat. Got to do it, I got to do it, I’ve got to get on it and it’s my only chance right here. And so if they only felt hungry, then feeling full is a new sensation.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: That being full was just a new sensation to me.

Tera Melber: Well, and I think we have to be very mindful that we have to teach our kids what is an appropriate amount and this is going to take a lot of time. I can remember holding up my fist and saying, “Remember, your stomach is only the size of your fist. So when you put all of the food on your plate is all that going to fit without your stomach really stretching and you feeling super crummy?”

Or after they’d eaten one plateful saying, “Hey, let’s wait five minutes and set a little timer and see if your stomach feels full. Remember, your brain has to figure out if your stomach feels full.” But because that’s a new sensation for them, their brain and their stomach aren’t talking that well, and so you have to train them in that.

Lynette Ezell: And they’re almost in panic mode when the food starts to end on the plate.

Tera Melber: Yes. Exactly.

Tera Melber: Absolutely. Did you ever have anyone that you know or anyone in your home where their children were stealing things out of the pantry or hiding food in their bedroom?

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of that. Yeah. I have one that keeps a lot of food in their bedroom, packaged things.

Tera Melber: Sure.

Lynette Ezell: So I just kind of let that go. But I have heard of families having trouble with kids stealing food, spoiling food under their beds and that sort of thing.

Tera Melber: Well, that was definitely an experience that we had in our home where one of our kids had had some food insecurities. So this one would take food from the pantry or from the refrigerator, which is always super pleasant.

Lynette Ezell: It’s great for the budget.

Tera Melber: Great for the budget and awesome when you find it in the bedroom because of a smell.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, you smell it from downstairs.

Tera Melber: Yes. Yeah. And so we had to not shame our child or others who’ve experienced the same thing. Not to say, “What are you doing? What are you thinking? There’s always food in the pantry.” Well, our children already have a lot of insecurities as far as just shame, having kind of a shame core. So when we’re shaming them for what they’ve done, when it’s really just an insecurity that they have about their next meal, we’re not being beneficial at that moment.

Lynette Ezell: Right

Tera Melber: We’re not being helpful at all.

LynetteNo, we’re not.

Tera Melber: So we have to remember that the sensation of hunger for our children elicits a fear response.

Lynette Ezell: That’s good.

Tera Melber: So if there’s been food deprivation due to neglect or a deficit of the means to obtain food, then your child isn’t going to know if a meal is going to come at the next appropriate time of the day later. So kind of hoarding that and making sure that there’s something there tends to be kind of their go-to.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. It’s interesting that you bring up the ability to obtain food.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: I had one that when we’d go to the grocery store and I’d go to pay for all the groceries for a big family He’d panic.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, I was keeping Kroger in business. The child would absolutely panic when all of that food came down the belt: “Mom, we cannot pay for this. There’s no way we can pay,” and just lots of panic. And that took months to kind of retrain. Now, we totally ruined this child, as we are so good. I’d say-

Tera Melber: Which is a good thing, yeah, that they’ve been ruined over food.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, but that was a concern and a fear to obtain food. It had been such a struggle for this child to obtain food.

Tera Melber: And if there are children, even within the foster care system, where parents are absent and they don’t know how to get food, then of course stealing food for just their survival is going to be what they’re going to do. So then that becomes habitual: I have to steal food in order to survive.

So your kid who goes to school and takes something out of somebody else’s lunchbox is not doing it because they are going to go to prison because they have a perpetual stealing problem. But they’re taking food, because internally they’re thinking, “I’m not sure that I have enough to eat.”

So rather than just jumping the gun and freaking out and yelling and taking the side of the teacher like, “Yes, I have a terrible kid; this child is stealing everything,” take a deep breath. And as we talk about looking through the eyes of compassion, look for a reason behind the behavior.

Why would that child be doing that? And the child often cannot explain why. But even to be able to talk through and have the conversation of: “You have plenty in your lunchbox, so I’m going to need you to return the peanut butter and crackers to your friend that sits next to you.”

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. And knowing that the meals are coming. I know you’ve had this. I’ve had this. One of mine, I think her first sentence was, “What’s for dinner?” in English.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: And she wouldn’t mind me sharing this because she’s so not there anymore, but she would say, “Just asking. What’s for dinner?” Like what’s the plan? And sometimes I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I better get it together here.” But it was a concern and we had just finished lunch.

Tera Melber: Right, right. That is so true. I know that we’ve talked about this before: getting upset. Have you ever seen children get upset when people take food off their plates?

Lynette Ezell: Oh, yeah.

Tera Melber: Or take up their plate early?

Lynette Ezell: That was the biggest complaint with one of mine in middle school, that “someone keeps taking my cookie.” And it was just for fun. They didn’t mean any harm. They were just a friend picking at him, but it was not playful to him.

Tera Melber: I know a family whose child became very animalistic in innocence, of like growling and lunging toward somebody who might take the food off of their plate. So an otherwise very docile child and without a ton of behavioral-type things going on, when it came to food, if you came close to it he would growl and lunge.

Lynette Ezell: Survival mode, yeah.

Tera Melber: And so they had to just practice: If somebody reaches across the table to get something, they’re not necessarily reaching for the food off your plate. So, it’s really going to be okay. But talking through that and even sometimes doing it in a playful way, where you’re not making them feel shame for how they’re feeling about their food.

Lynette Ezell: Absolutely. And I saw with mine, another thing is just desiring the same foods over and over, and toddlers do this.

Tera Melber: Right. Very true.

Lynette Ezell: But even older children that we foster or adopt will pretty much get settled in. One of mine, it was fried chicken, fried chicken, rice, rice, rice.

Tera Melber: Right. True. And sometimes the smells of certain food bring comfort.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: So that was the case for our daughter. But we have to think too, that children who’ve had food insecurities, they may have had some food, but it may have been very unhealthy food.

Lynette Ezell: Right

Tera Melber: So if all they’ve had are very inexpensive, processed foods-

Lynette Ezell: Junk.

Tera Melber: Junk food, Cheetos and fudge rounds, and a lot of bread and carbs, well, if that’s all that their parents could afford, then that’s what they’re going to want to eat.

Lynette Ezell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tera Melber: So you don’t have to bring a child into your home and then have expectations that they’re going to have four vegetables and three fruits today to know how to do that. Nor are they going to be excited about the potential of having to eat vegetables and fruit. So introducing things little bits at a time, but not thinking that they’re just going to walk in the house and not want Cheetos. You know what I mean?

Lynette Ezell: Right. And adjust. I mean, we would go to this Chinese restaurant every Sunday after church when our daughter was little and we just all enjoyed it. It fit our palette and it was quick. Kevin had preached four services and were tired, and so we would do that quite a bit. Not every Sunday, but quite a bit.

Lynette Ezell: But when our daughter came home from Ethiopia, the smell of that restaurant sent her to the moon.

Tera Melber: Oh.

Lynette Ezell: And we were like, “What?” And she just could not stand the smell of cooked potatoes. It was completely foreign to her.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: But when she saw a bag of raw potatoes in the pantry, she was good to go.

Tera Melber: Yes.

Tera Melber: Because that was a staple to her and in her diet.

Tera Melber: Right. One of the other odd behaviors that sometimes children do is that they pocket food in the back of their mouth, and they won’t chew it and they won’t swallow it. We had this experience, but I was glad to know that other people had also had this experience as well.

But what can be a really highly irritating behavior that our children are doing, that can be from just either saving it for later or it could be a textural issue where they don’t like that, but then they’re not wanting to spit it out of their mouth.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, they don’t know what to do with it.

Tera Melber: Right. So just be aware that these are really all symptoms of a food insecurity. And obviously our biological children could do any of these things and only want Cheetos and hold food in their mouth and all of that. But typically, when we have a child that has a real food insecurity, like the statistics we were talking about, one in eight Americans, 40 million of them or more, it’s that it’s a behavior, plus. So it’s an excessive behavior around food.

Lynette Ezell: And I think I’ve shared this before. One of mine has to practice when going to a youth group thing or camp.

Tera Melber: Oh, right.

Lynette Ezell: That, “Okay, I don’t have to eat everything the first night when they put all the food out. There will be something there on Saturday. “Yes, honey, there will.”

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: “They will bring more food in on Saturday.” But this child didn’t trust any of those people that they could meet her needs for the weekend, like for a church retreat or whatever. And so we still talk about it because food is a big issue.

Tera Melber: It is a big issue

Lynette: And we still talk with them. I’m sitting here thinking about all the frustrations my kids, a lot of them, have had in school or being away from me is always related around food.

Tera Melber: Right. And with the whole school food law that was passed or initiative that was passed a few years ago, there’s not a lot of food served on a school plate.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: I mean my 17 year old-

Lynette Ezell: Oh, it doesn’t begin to fill them up.

Tera Melber: No. There’s like four chicken nuggets. And so our boys never eat at school, because I make sure that they have more than enough.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: I always tell them I’m putting more than enough, and when they were younger they would check it.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: So I’m putting more than enough: “You likely will not eat all of this. I’m asking you to eat the healthier foods first.”

Lynette Ezell: That’s happening.

Tera Melber: Yeah, “Or at least eat it on the bus on the way home so that I think you had a vegetable.”

Lynette Ezell: There you go.

Well, we’ve talked about too, we shared this when we first started this podcast, to keep fruit in a bowl in their rooms.

Tera Melber: Yes.

Lynette Ezell: I kept bananas in a child’s room. Almonds, that sort of things. Those were safe. They were older; they could do that. But to just kind of lower that tension and that fear.

Tera Melber: Right. So what are some of the other ways that you have reduced food anxiety in your house?

Lynette Ezell: Well, like you said, reassurance. Every day you remind your child that we will be eating. Everything we do is around food. I mean, it really is. We plan life and the days around eating a lot of times. Show them the pantry.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: Like, mom’s going to keep it full. I didn’t really grow up with that.

Tera Melber: Oh, good grief. Neither did I.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. We ate out of the garden. I mean, there was enough, but you couldn’t feed the neighborhood on that. I felt like my pantry looks like a Quick Trip or something sometimes.

Tera Melber: Well, we do have to be really proactive and I think even showing them, especially when they first enter your home, to say, “Hey, I just want you to know that there’s plenty of food here.”
But another way to be proactive is even at breakfast saying, just like when your daughter was asking about what’s for dinner, say even in the summer, “Man, I wonder what’s going to be for lunch today? Should we have peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese for lunch today?”

Lynette Ezell: I’m starving. That sounds great.

Tera Melber: So even discussing the next meal so that they know that it’s in your mind and that you’re thinking about it. And so by doing this indirectly, you’re kind of alleviating anxiety that there is indeed another meal.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. Mom’s not going to forget to feed me.

Lynette Ezell: Right. Right.

Tera Melber: And, too, when I feel hungry, I can say out loud, “Man,” I’m giving you cues right now, “I’m hungry, my stomach growling.” And to say to your kids, like, “Mom gets hungry too. Does your stomach ever feel hungry between meals? Man, mine does. Let’s have an apple together.” Or you know, bring in a healthy treat or something like that.

Lynette Ezell: But for a child who when their stomach feels empty or their stomach is growling, that elicits an immediate alarm or trigger.

Tera Melber: … trigger response, that you can say, “Oh, this is a normal reaction.” So just by your everyday talking, you’re helping them understand this is a normal sensation. And when it happens, then you can just go get an apple.

Lynette Ezell: There you go.

Tera Melber: So it just makes it, you’re teaching by modeling the feelings of hunger.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. And I like this too, that in the beginning especially, food should be done as a family. It should come from us, right?

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: I know that sounds strange. But you think about that’s the normal with our biological kids or the kids that we’ve had since they were infants, that food came from us.

Tera Melber: Right. So you’re feeding the baby the battle, you’re feeding your toddler, all of those kinds of things. So it just is a building the attachment cycle.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, it is.

Tera Melber: We have to remember that when we had babies, our babies cried because they were hungry, wet or tired. And when they cried, what did you as the caregiver do? As the mama, you went in and you took care of the baby and you met the need. So when the baby was crying and their cortisol levels, their stress hormones were rising, and then you came in and took care of them, then their stress hormones were alleviated so their inhibitory hormones came in.

So it’s the same thing when your seven-year-old that’s been in your house for three days is hungry, then you are the one that can offer them food. And even little things like, say you’re cooking something and “I need a taste tester,” and just feeding your child a bite of that builds intimacy and relationship and builds trust and relationship that Mom and Dad are going to provide, or foster parents, are going to provide my food for me.

Lynette Ezell: Kevin and I’ve been blessed with six grandchildren. I’m happy to do an entire podcast series on my six grandkids.

Tera Melber: I love it.

Lynette Ezell: But anyway, every time I’m around them, I’m amazed at how much food they can eat and how often.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: And it’s so important. It keeps them out of “hangry” mode, you know?

Tera Melber: True.

Lynette Ezell: So, yeah, it’s just super important. Even if I’m just taking them to the pool, if I don’t have a bag of snacks ready or something handy for them, everybody’s going to pay for it.

Tera Melber: You know that Snickers commercial where it’s like this crotchety old man and he eats a Snickers and he turns into a supermodel.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: So it’s kind of the same thing.

Lynette Ezell: It really is.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Lynette Ezell: Keep that in mind. It really is. And I’m really big on family meal time.

Tera Melber: I agree.

Lynette Ezell: It’s a lost art. I remember my daughter went to a Christian university and she was sitting and talking with all of her roommates. Somehow family meal time came up, and she was the only one out of those four or five girls that even did that at home. Now, ours are not perfect.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: I’m just super simple cook, but just kind of doing like my mom did. But we come to the table together as much as we can. Is it every night? No. But it happens more than it doesn’t.
I just think coming to the table is so important for the family. Now one of mine I had to train. They didn’t know how to sit at a table, had not had that experience.

Tera Melber: Right. I think that the more that we put pleasant feelings around meal time, that food doesn’t become a means to an end or survival. It becomes fellowship and builds trust.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah, fellowship. That’s what it is. We bond at the table. For sure.

Tera Melber: One of the other things that we can do is to really give our children a voice about their food.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah.

Tera Melber: So even if you pick a snack and then they pick a snack, like not being afraid to allow them to help you choose. Then also not being afraid to allow them, if they really need it, to have some package-type snacks that they can keep in their room, so that if they get hungry in the night that you’ve got three peanut butter crackers in a little Ziploc that they can just get to. So it just really builds trust, helps them to relax their brain a bit and know that food is available for them.

Lynette Ezell: You know, before we began adopting, so this had to have been over 20 years ago, I heard a gal share their meal time story at ladies conference, I’d read her books and I still really like her, but when she had brought her older daughter home from the eastern part of the world that had been in an orphanage, she said it was really difficult at first for her to watch her child eat.

That it was hard for them. And she said, “It would disgust me. I almost just couldn’t finish my meal.” But she continued to be the adult in the room. And eventually, of course, that got better. But we have had some really hard mealtimes at first.

Tera Melber: Right.

Lynette Ezell: My older girls remember that, the ones that are married now. They’re like, “wouldn’t want to go back to that time for anything,” but mainly had meltdowns at the table, because it was just so foreign to them. And so if we aren’t the adults in the room to be the bigger person to say, “I know watching you eat is disgusting,” but to be able to say, “Take a deep breath. This isn’t going to last forever.”

Tera Melber: Right.
So just be mindful of all of those things, because your child needs you to be on their team and needs you to be for them.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. I tell my families in training, we talk so much about connecting then correcting, connecting and then correcting, and so many times I forget that. But I look at Jesus. I think it’s in John 15. After Peter had denied him and they’re out fishing, they’ve caught nothing all night…

Tera Melber: Oh, I love this.

Lynette Ezell: The Lord said, “Have you caught any fish?” And he tells them what to do with the nets. And then there’s so many, they can’t hardly even bring it all in. Although the Lord didn’t allow their nets to break, which I’m so grateful for. But he brings them back on the shore. They’re exhausted. They’ve been up all night and they’re weary. And he’s cooking fish, and so he’s connecting with them through food. Man, what a beautiful picture of our savior.

Tera Melber: Right. I mean, Peter hadn’t even seen him at that point after the denial. And so Peter, you know felt shame over everything.

Lynette Ezell: Oh, you know it. He couldn’t even give him eye contact, I’m sure.

Tera Melber: Right. But Jesus does what he always does, and he says, “Come have a meal with me and let’s eat.”

Lynette Ezell: Absolutely.

Tera Melber: So we just have to remember that we’re patterning our parenting after our heavenly Father. He’s patient, he’s kind, he’s full of justice and mercy. And he pursues us, and he patiently guides us and we see it time and time again. So just keep the long view in mind. When we’re weary from the same behaviors and challenges, let’s just take the next step in the journey.

Lynette Ezell: And it is taxing.

Tera Melber: It is.

Lynette Ezell: And living with other people’s trauma and their insecurities is very tiresome.

Tera Melber: It is.

Lynette Ezell: But we can’t cram all those behavior worries of tomorrow into today.

Tera Melber: That’s right.

Lynette Ezell: We can’t.

Tera Melber: We have to just be faithful to lovingly guide our children to a place of healing by viewing them through the eyes of compassion. And that’s only going to happen if you’re also taking care of yourself and having some margin in your life so that when the behaviors occur that you’re able to rightly respond to your child in the moment.

Lynette Ezell: Yeah. I hope this was helpful to some of you today. I wished I had known this 17, 18 years ago.

Tera Melber: I know. We need to do a whole series on things I wish I had known.

Lynette Ezell: I know! And in our show notes, I think, Tera, you’ve got some more suggestions for people to handle things.

Tera Melber: Yes. Well, there’s even like some snack ideas that are easy to do, so just look in the show notes and there’ll be some more resources for that.

Announcer: You have been listening to the Adopting and Fostering Home, a resource of the North American Mission Board. For more information about today’s podcast and other relevant resources, visit namb.net/sendrelief.


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