When is a carrot not orange enough?
Despite all best practice and preparations there are just some things that swing in from left of field at the start of a fostering career and make it into the true challenge that it is. We coped, even though we say so ourselves, admirably with being sized up with suspicion, the outright objections and being told how much evil would be visited upon us in the days to come. These were, after all, early days.
It is relatively easy to manage obtuse behaviours, relatively easy to see these behaviours are born of part suspicion, part anxiety, part disbelief that any placement will be positive or beneficial. The thing that floored us was a simple thing, something that we would not -had you paid us – thought of, and something even the best training cannot prepare you for. You see the thing that floored us was a carrot – put quite simply it was not orange enough. It sat alongside the chicken breast that was the wrong shape and the peas that were green enough but not quite round enough. Food was our first-day, everyday challenge.
Apparently there was absolutely nothing wrong with the cocktail sausages ordinarily reserved as treats for our terrier and lurcher. We know this because our child ate 70 of them whilst we were watching Coronation Street. No such luck with the next meal – a usually welcomed plate of not so healthy beef-burgers (day 3 and resorting to home-cooked fast food bribery). Beef-burgers are apparently okay if cooked by your ex-carer only; a problem given the ex-carer did not live with us . We had a hungry child and no obvious solution.
Answers to prayers come in many different and often unexpected guises. Ours arrived in the form of a culinary swear word (or to be more precise two culinary swear words) – Pot Noodle. Despite best efforts to give us the hardest of times and reveal only what was not liked, and no idea of what was, in a momentary lapse of concentration it was revealed that chicken pot noodles were a dietary “must have”. The checkout lady at Morrisons looked at us sadly as we saved her the tedious task of scanning each pot individually – there are 24 of them we announced proudly. 24 pots loaded, 24 pounds spent and 24 evenings with a ready food solution at hand.
We promised our child that we would never insist on them sitting at the table, this was a place you only sat when happy to do so. We promised you would only ever have to eat food you had said you enjoyed – after all we only cook what we enjoy so that is only fair. So each night we cooked. Each evening we watched as the food shape, colour, texture, smell were examined and inhaled. We listened as the faults were found, explored and reported back to us. My husband, who has patience untold and much more than me, would smile, say how interesting the explanation had been, remove the meal, open the cupboard and place a chicken pot noodle and a fork next to the kettle with the immortal words “Eat only what you like, there you go, we know you like that”.
It took three weeks before we found out that our child liked fresh fish, tinned tuna in pasta and salad. It took a further three weeks before we were joined at the table for the first time. It took a further 18 months before a full roast dinner was eaten without comment. However in all this time we did not have a cross word about food, neither did we enter into argument or battle because there would be nothing to win other than misery.
As an adult, and especially someone thankfully free of the experience of personal trauma, it would be easy to underestimate the importance of food and the role that it plays. It is not only a sustaining necessity in life, but also something that provides us with memories of places and people. It is a luxury that allows us to form habits and have favourite meals and most enjoyed smells. For the foster child this can be difficult. Food and smells can evoke bad memories we know nothing of. A child who has seen numerous placements might not have a favourite meal because they have never had time to form habits. They might have learnt early on that favourite things do not last or are not carried over from one placement to another. Sitting at a table might appear to be polite and respectful – to a child whose family never owned a table it could be a trauma untold.
If we have any advice to offer around the unexpected difficulties diet can cause (and accepting it relates to children old enough to choose) it would be to accept and respect your child’s choice, even if that choice flies in the face of mealtime convention. If chocolate is all they can face then chocolate it is – we have time to do 5-A-Day later when the colours and shapes are all right!
We still smile when peeling carrots, and still utter the immortal words “orange enough or what?” and laugh out loud. Seems much longer than 2 years ago ……..