It is only on really stressful days when I refer to them as my unholy army of the night. The rest of the time, at least at meals, it is just “my army” and we really do go through a stunning amount of food.
For example, in late August, right around the time this photo was taken (I can’t usually post pictures of my kids, but this one, with no faces visible is ok – from left, R., Q., Z., and K., our four little ones who at the time ranged from 13 months to 3 1/2), I counted – we went through four large watermelons, 20lbs of peaches, 10lbs of apples, 6 quarts of plums, 4 quarts of raspberries and 3 of blueberries, and a couple of other melons – and that was just for eating fresh.
Or there was the day last week when I made 12 quarts of Portugese-style chickpea, sausage, garlic and potato soup, and after feeding 9 kids (D., 11, the oldest of our sibling group of four came back to us all of a sudden the day before Halloween – we are glad to have her back, but the situation has been very rough on her. She was placed with family but it didn’t work out.) and three adults, I looked and measured and discovered that a pot of soup designed to feed all of us for two consecutive meals had…1 quart of soup left. We’d eaten 11 quarts in one sitting. It was damned good, though.
I’m continually stunned at how much my kids eat, particularly now that I have three (Eli, D. and Simon) going through puberty. Although both D. and Eli get school lunches, I feel like that doesn’t even make a dent in our meals, since both of them come home hungry enough to eat ANOTHER full meal after school. I’ve learned to make extras for lunch so that I can offer them a bowl of soup, a homemade burrito or something else healthy and filling when they get home. But everyone else eats more their share as well.
I’m also stunned at how few food struggles we have. When I started fostering many people warned me that we’d have a tough time getting our kids to eat healthy, homemade food, or getting them used to eating the way we eat. By and large, that hasn’t been true. That doesn’t mean there aren’t kids out there with food issues bigger than we’ve had, but of the 20ish kids we’ve had, we’ve never had a major food problem. That doesn’t mean that the kids don’t have food issues – many of them have had too little and struggle with anxiety over food, and we’ve often had kids who hoarded food (very, very common in foster care). We’ve also had a few children who had spent long days alone without adults, and relied on junk food to give them what their parents couldn’t. But all of them have relatively easily transitioned to eating like us – a diverse, healthy, diet.
Part of what helps here is that we don’t dump too much on them at once. I take every new child food over 4 shopping with me, and at first, I’m just interested in what they like to eat. Pop tarts? Sure, I’ll buy them (once or twice)? Orange mac and cheese? No problems. Yogurt with corn syrup and oreos on top? Sure. We also give kids who have gone hungry a basket of treats that they pick to keep in their room, so they know that if they get hungry at night or any other time, there will always be food. Some of my kids had been starved as punishment, others just when the money and the food ran out. Some have been beaten for taking food. Before I work on anything else, they need to know that there WILL be food here.
My own kids love the first weeks of a new placement, because it is an opportunity to try new things and get to eat foods that Mom won’t buy otherwise. They’d never had a pop tart, never tried Kraft Mac and Cheese (they weren’t impressed by the pop tarts, but they do like the orange stuff now and again). I don’t worry about this anymore than I worry about Halloween or candy at purim – I know that this too will pass, and frankly, I think it is wiser not to make things into forbidden fruit.
Those first weeks we concentrate on introducing fruits and vegetables to kids, making kid-friendly meals with lots of healthy ingredients, and letting them help us cook. Gradually over a week or two, the first junky treats get eaten and are replaced. The basket of peanut butter granola bars becomes one of apples and bananas. Most of the time, the kids don’t care, or even notice. Eventually they aren’t dipping into it much, and we remove it – whenever they are ready and can trust that there is still going to be plenty.
For the first two months the twins were with us at least one of them had a tantrum and had to be removed from the table every single meal – they so afraid to say they were done that they couldn’t let their food go, even when they weren’t hungry. They still struggle sometimes with recognizing what to do when they are full, but by and large, end each meal with a polite “May I please be excused?”
It took 11 year old D. three months to be ready for me to get rid of the paper-containers of raisin bran she would bring home from school. For years, every morning she’d ask for an extra cereal at school breakfast to bring home to the brothers and sisters too young to go to school and have the security of regular school meals. I gave her box for them, and let her offer them to her siblings, who were usually too full from breakfast to want them. Eventually she asked me if I wanted to get rid of them for her, and I did, but it had to come from her.
My sibling group of four loved instant oatmeal – it was their favorite comfort food. We bought it for the first few weeks, then gradually switched to homemade oatmeal, offering instant occasionally. The twins and Q. still eat oatmeal almost every morning, and Z. has picked up the habit. D. has decided she likes toast with butter even better, but occasionally slips back to oatmeal with raisins.
For older kids at meals, the rule is everyone is allowed to pick two things they don’t like, which they do not have to eat. Other than that, everyone has to eat some of everything. We explain this simply and with examples – everyone in the house has different food preferences, usually contradictory ones. If I were to avoid cooking everything anyone didn’t like, we’d be eating three meals over and over again, and that would be boring. Moreover, we’d all lose out on food we love – Eli and Isaiah love apples, Simon hates them; Asher despises cooked onions, Eli would eat his weight in them. In a big family, I emphasize, you don’t have to love it, you just have to eat it ;-).
Surprisingly, most of my kids really get this. Everyone enjoys picking out their two things, and we do occasionally have to explain that “this makes me puke” is not an ok thing to say at the table, but mostly, the kids adapt. We’re good cooks, and our kids eat hearty. I still buy things they love – that orange stuff makes an occasional appearance at our table, often after an extremely stressful event for the kids – but as long as 90% of the time they eat well, I don’t worry about it. D. has discovered a love for kale, and she adores cooking. Another child who swore he’d never eat zucchini ate frittered zucchini with garlic-yogurt sauce by the pound. K., who used to make himself vomit anytime he didn’t like something he put his mouth (mostly vegetables) now eats just about everything, announcing “I like it this, Mommy!.”
No, now the big issue is mostly keeping them in food. Cooking routinely for 12 (3 adults, 9 kids) has its challenges – I have always cooked in generous quantity, but I often used to rely on the assumption that what we had for dinner the night before might do for lunch the next day. Now that’s an open question – and often the answer is “No, not enough (or any) left.”
Our staples are pretty much the usual ones – this time of year our enclosed porch overflows with potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, cabbage, beets, turnips, apples, pears, quinces, rutabagas and brussels sprouts. Under the guest room beds and Z’s crib we store squash, sweet potatoes, garlic and pumpkins (which need a warmer temperature than the others). Add to that the bulk purchased beans, lentils and peas, brown rice, corn and wheat and rye flours, and we’ve got a baseline to which we add plenty of other things.
During the fresh-eating season, we bought in bulk – but not for preserving mostly, but for eating. A bushel of tomatoes lasts us just a few meals, a half bushel of peaches is snacks for a few days. When I snagged a large quantity of jalapenos, thinking at least no one would want to eat those fresh, my boys discovered eating them in slices, raw, with cream cheese. I got a lot fewer pickled than I’d planned.
My kids love lentil sloppy joes, quesadillas (tortillas, cheese, sauteed beans with veggies dipped in homemade salsa), any kind of soup, sweet potato-bean burgers, jambalaya, fried rice, homemade macaroni, veggies and cheese, pasta puttanesca, bi bim bap (ok, they don’t eat the hot sauce, they like it with ketchup or hoisin), noodles with peanut sauce and veggies, curried root vegetables… and no, I’m not kidding.
We bake bread 3 days a week (two big bakings, plus Challah on Friday nights), most of which gets eaten as breakfast toast, but also taken for PBJ, hummus and veggie or egg salad sandwiches by the twins at preschool, and made into soup croutons as well. I also try to make at least a couple of snacks so I can rely less on purchased ones – homemade crackers, pumpkin-chocolate chip bars, bean dips to go with veggie sticks…
Don’t get me wrong – on days that end late like days when the kids have visits with their birth family or when everyone gets back from Hebrew school at 7pm, I will happily resort to dumplings from Trader Joes if I didn’t get anything into the crockpot. I’ve been less good this year about making snacks so we’ve eaten more purchased treats than I like (although Isaiah and Asher both bake for us regularly), and twice now (actually the ONLY two times my bio kids have ever done this in their lives) I’ve had appointments run vastly late and ended up feeding kids fast food in a car. I’m not perfect by any means. I’m still struggling with keeping up with the army.
This is normal, of course. Over the year I’ve taught food storage to others struggling with changing family dynamics – the folks who have had or expect an influx of grown children and grandchildren or friends and family, and need to manage a larger household, and those who, after years of feeding children and their friends, now find themselves adjusting their pantry and their meals to two or one. It can be overwhelming and disorienting to constantly make too much or too little, to have adjust away from bulk buying to small purchases because you just won’t eat that much before it goes bad, or away from small bags to bushel baskets. It happens to all of us, and it is good reminder to me for my future work just how much time it can take to get accustomed to the new system.
I feel like I finally have a sense of what will provide a second meal after the first (unless they eat 11 quarts of soup every day ;-)), but I haven’t fully gotten organized – there are things that I really need to start ordering in case quantities or in bulk from the coop or the grocer. While I always did lots of bulk buying, and indeed, taught others how to do it, adapting to this new reality has a learning curve, and I’m only now figuring out how fast we go through some things and what it makes sense to purchase in quantity. And I’m perpetually behind on new projects – every time I plan to catch up, something major changes (D’s sudden re-arrival in our house came with a lot of new stresses, since she’d had a very rough time). One of these days I’ll have the organized pantry full of food, the shopping plan, the budget that gets adhered to, the days where I never say “I’d make X but we’re out of Y” and “I have no clue what we’re having for dinner.” Someday.
Ok, who am I kidding? I’ll never have it all down. Even before we began fostering I struggled to figure out how much to preserve each year with four boys who got bigger and hungrier each year. I still ran out of things sometimes. (My husband likes to point out with a grin that I teach other people how to manage a large pantry, so how is it that we’re out of yeast and laundry detergent, honey? Yeah, yeah…leaven this. ;-)) I have been known to observe that I don’t actually care what they eat if they will just eat it and go to bed. And right now it sometimes feels that I’m surrounded by people who think leftover Halloween candy is a food group (And no, Asher, I totally did not steal your mini Heath Bars. That definitely must have been someone else.)
I’m content with good enough. And good enough is this. Most of what they eat is local, healthy and homemade. The kids look forward to mealtime, help select the food and cook the dinner. The bigger ones talk about food – can they try making corn-cheese muffins to go with the onion soup? What do you do with a parsnip? Can we try it? Tonight? The little ones eat and smile. And the four who came to me tiny, underweight and frightened there would be no food now ask me not “Will we have dinner tonight?” but “What’s for dinner?” To which the answer is “Something good. And lots of it.”