And so, dear readers, we tackle some meaty issues.
‘Meat! They love meat!’ we were advised by the girls’ foster carers. A shiver ran through me. I am vegetarian. ‘And McDonalds.’
Oh. Oh dear.
I do most of the cooking in our home. When we were getting to know each other I asked my partner, H, what sorts of things she had for dinner. Chocolate and chardonnay she replied.
She wasn’t kidding.
Soon after we met I managed to wean H off the C and C diet, and subjected her to all sorts of exotica: lentil mush, chick pea casserole, butter bean whip (ok, I made up that last one). You get the picture: I gradually introduced her to the delights of vegetarianism. She ate, she coped, and eventually she liked. In our ‘courting days’ (I love that phrase), she even attempted to produce veggie meals. Made more from love than any raw culinary talent, we named them ‘potato volcano’ (veggie sausages arranged lava-like on a cone of potato); mushroom stroganoff (not bad actually); and potato frittata. These glorious offerings were served up with love and candlelight. Mostly when at hers we ate out.
Moving on a few years, when Bubble and Squeak came to live with us they had a very limited range of tastes. Their likes appeared to extend to beans and sausages from a tin. Chicken nuggets. And chips. And…. well that’s it really. Having previously persuaded my partner to extend her palate, I naively thought I wouldn’t have much trouble introducing the girls to other foods.
How wrong I was.
Vegetables were ‘urgh’. Baked potatoes were ‘yuck’. Pasta equally so. We carried on, slowly introducing new foods, with the gaps between sausages and beans getting bigger.
I got the girls to help make food. The very first thing we made was a trifle. They adored helping, and loved all the constituent parts. When it was in their bowls at teatime though, they looked aghast. Both stirred it round and round until it turned to an unappealing grey mush. We threw it away. They could not cope with foods that weren’t separated from each other. They had the same problem with macaroni cheese, pasta sauces with vegetables, and anything ‘mixed up’.
Both girls needed repeated reassurance that there would be another meal, and that they would not be hungry. Whenever a meal finished they wanted to know when the next meal or snack was. Their anxieties escalated – and still do – when we go out. They need to know when and where we will be eating. To relieve their anxieties we stick to routines for meals and snacks, and reassure them that there will always be food. I occasionally open all the kitchen cupboards, and show the girls how much food we have. I get them involved in food shopping, and they help unpack bags and store it away.
Bubble’s mealtime behaviours included banging cutlery repeatedly, eating really slowly; stufing her mouth so full of food she couldn’t chew, and looked as if she was going to be sick; shouting ‘no no no’, which escalated to uncontrollable screaming; and refusing to eat. Squeak didn’t exhibit these behaviours, but wasn’t too keen to try new foods, and wanted to copy her big sister, so would often refuse foods.
The Cherry Tomato Incident will never be forgotten. It took Squeak 10 minutes to eat half a cherry tomato. I believe it to be a world record. Her range of facial expressions was truly amazing, and very funny. 2 weeks later she loved ’em.
When preparing meals I was bombarded with questions and comments every 2 minutes: ‘what is it?’ And then: ‘yuck! I don’t want that.’ ‘How many minutes?’ ‘What’s for pudding?’ ‘When is it ready?’ ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘I’m hungry.’
Mealtimes became a chore and we began to dread them. The emotional temperature around them was awful. We needed help. Social Workers advised us to let the girls help themselves to their portions, and only expect them to eat three quarters. Not suprisingly the girls took miniscule portions, and left the vegetables till last, thinking they could leave them. So we did something the Social Workers didn’t want us to do, and told the girls that they would only get pudding if they ate at least three quarters including all their vegetables. And we refused to engage in extended discussions about the food being eaten.
Slowly, oh so slowly, things began to turn around. It felt horrible saying ‘we’re not discussing this anymore’ after we had set the boundaries at mealtimes, as in every other area of their lives we encourage the girls to communicate. And it was almost impossible to carry out this strategy if any other adult was sharing our meal. Whoever it was seemed unable not to say ‘oh, you are doing well Bubble!’ after a forkful of food had taken 10 minutes to swallow. But we stuck fast to our plan, we worked as a team, and were determined to overcome the issues.
It’s not perfect now. But it’s a lot better. The girls eat lots of different foods. Bubbles’ behaviours at mealtimes have reduced. Their anxieties have lessened. We’re still working on it, and will be for a very long time.
And, yes, very occasionally, they get to go to McDonalds.