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Foster carers play a crucial role in promoting the health and well being of looked after children

Foster carers play a crucial role in promoting the health and well being of looked after children in their care. They are required under Fostering Services Regulations (National Minimum Standards) to give particular attention to the health needs of children in their care and this includes diet. A balanced diet should be the primary aim for carers hoping to boost children’s nutrition. Many local authorities are now running healthy eating schemes and family cooking projects to support foster carers in this task.

Children’s eating habits are currently a constant topic of discussion in the media with parents and carers bombarded with information and advice. It is now commonly accepted that what children eat has a direct effect on brain performance, mood and behaviour. Nutritional deficiencies early in life are associated with hyperactivity, aggression and defiance in older children. Children whose brains have experienced the stress of maltreatment and compromised attachment may be more susceptible to the ill effects of sugar. Studies carried out in juvenile detention centres showed a significant reduction in angry, defiant and violent behaviour when sugared foods were removed from the menu.

A healthy diet is important for all children but particularly for those in foster care because they often come into care in a malnourished state. It is also possible that food may be an issue for them because of the way they have been treated in the past, for example not being fed regularly or having food withdrawn. This can lead to food becoming associated with conflict and stress. Children who have been maltreated early in life feel deprived and their fear of “not getting enough” can be manifested in gorging, hoarding and stealing of food. The food itself becomes the source of comfort rather than the adults providing it.

It is important that foster carers do not make eating a source of conflict but rather try to make food fun. Allowing children an element of choice in what they eat, and encouraging them to help prepare it, will result in them being much more likely to eat it. A way of encouraging children to eat more healthily is by exposing them to lots more varieties of food, avoiding processed convenience foods and snacks that are loaded with fat, salt and sugar.

Eating together is a great way to build up friendships in a family and will help foster children feel welcome and a valid member of the household. Sitting down together for a meal is also a good opportunity to talk about all sorts of things. Children often come into foster care without having the experience of sitting at a table for meals and sometimes do not know how to use knives and forks. Foster carers want children to feel they belong but at the same time do not want them to feel they are trying to take the place of their own family. Children are separated from their families and need as many things in their lives that familiar. Food that they are used to eating will provide something that is familiar so it is not just simply a case of stopping them eating certain unhealthy foods. It will be a gradual process of introducing more nutritious food. For example many foster children may have eaten only frozen convenience foods in the past and are not used to eating fresh vegetables. Rather than criticise what they have eaten in the past, it is better to try and change their eating habits very subtly, without forcing it on them.

The benefits of good nutrition for looked after children are wide ranging including the control of obesity, behavioural problems, developmental conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism and even mental health problems. Research by Oxford University has shown that the performance of under-achieving children with physical co-ordination problems improved dramatically when their diets were supplemented by fish oils. The data revealed a significant improvement in reading, spelling, concentration and behaviour.

It is well established that good nutrition is essential for health and well being of children. Many children in foster care have significantly increased health needs compared with their peers that may affect their education and well-being for the rest of their lives. Foster carers can make a big difference to the outcomes for looked after children by improving their health whilst at the same time using food and mealtimes to build and sustain relationships with children and young people.

South African born Keith has lived in the south of England for most of his life. After graduating from University with a degree in Business Information Systems Management he decided to start Strawberrysoup; a website design company based in West Sussex and Dorset.
Keith successfully gained entry into the Southampton University Air Squadron and spent over 12 months training to fly. Since then he has continued to follow his interest in flying and has now began his own training in the form of a Private Pilot’s Licence.
Keith also spent 13 months working within the Image and Printing Group at Hewlett Packard in Bracknell. Throughout his time there, he was responsible for many activities including events organisation and website design and maintenance.

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