Helping Your New Child Feel At Home

The processes of transition and attachment begin as soon as your new child is in your custody in Korea. Reality sets in and challenges begin to occur as a natural part of those processes whether in the first days and weeks, or perhaps after a “honeymoon period” of as much as a few months. One way to help your child to feel comfortable and to relieve some of his stress and fear in a new place is with familiar food. Providing your child with the smells, tastes, and textures of familiar foods can play an important role in transition and adjustment as you create new experiences with each other around foods that the child associates with the consistency, safety, and love from his Korean foster family. Making familiar foods available to your child is additionally helpful in preventing digestive issues in a tummy that might already be in knots. New foods can certainly be introduced, but done so alongside familiar foods.

A selection of Korean food on a table

Some children, as a response to the loss and trauma of leaving their long-time caregivers, act out negatively with food in the form of hoarding, loss of regulation, spitting, overeating, vomiting, or even a refusal to eat. This is associated, in many cases, with the experiences children have had around food in their birth countries, and the types of foods that have been available to them.

Your Child’s Eating Culture

In Korea, food is not a scarcity, so children have likely not experienced starvation or malnutrition due to lack of available food. However, there is a culture of food, particularly food with children, specific to Korea. One big part of a child’s diet is made up of snacks and treats (hard candies, chocolate, chips, crackers, etc.). These are often used by parents/caregivers as ways to encourage children. One of the first words a Korean child learns is often “gga gga” [까까] for cracker/candy. Generally speaking, children in foster care are being cared for by foster mothers who use food to soothe, calm, praise, coax, or celebrate with children without regard to mealtime. The amounts provided are not large and are often kept in the foster mother’s purse or bag to be placed in the child’s hand or directly into the child’s mouth throughout the day. Children learn from where and under what circumstances “gga gga” is available to them.

FishOutside of snack-time, meal time for your child in his foster home looks different than what you may have seen from a non-Korean family in the States. During meals, it is not typical that a child in foster care uses a booster seat or a high chair. (There are some rare occasions where this is available to the child, but not often ). More typically, the child is walking around the room during mealtime, especially if the family is sitting on the floor at a low traditional dining table. The child is “fed” his meal at intervals when he visits the table for a bite or a handful of something. Often times, foster mother follows the child around the room with a spoon to give him bites and encourage him to eat. When children eat well, they are highly praised. There is rarely any discipline used during mealtime and the child is generally not required to sit still or abide by mealtime rules as might be the case at an American dinner table. Although solids are introduced to a child at around 6 months of age, even at age 2-3, foods are still mashed, mixed, soaked, and cut for the child. While the use of a spoon, fork, and chopsticks is encouraged, it is not uncommon for a caregiver/parent to feed the child directly in order to get him to take a few or final few bites.

Considering the timing, environment, and practices around feeding and types of food your child may have experienced in his foster family, the following are suggestions on how to bring some of those familiar tastes to your mealtimes at home, and create opportunities for attachment with your new child using food.

Snacks And Treats

Easily found in small packaging (so there is not a need to buy in huge amounts), the following are common children’s snacks that can be found at Korean or Asian markets in your area. You will also find individual –serving cartons/plastic bottles of flavored milk including soy milk. These are commonly given to children to drink with a straw (assisted or on their own). Be wary of bringing your child with you to pick out the snacks—the choices, the people and language in the store, etc. could be overwhelming in the early days of your transition. A visit to the store might be something you save for a future date when you’re both feeling more comfortable and at ease with each other.

Korean Snacks

  • Sae Woo Kgahng – 새우깡 – (shrimp chips)
  • Goh Goo Mah Kgahng – 고구마깡 – (sweet potato chips)
  • BBae BBae Ro – 빼빼로 – (thin cookie stick with chocolate)
  • Go Kgahl Kohn – 고깔콘 – (corn chips)
  • Ggahn Cho – 깐초 – (very small cookie with chocolate inside)
  • Banana Kick – 바나나킥
  • Yangpa Ring – (onion ring chips)
  • Roasted Laver – (김)

Korean Meal Suggestions

The key to a quick meal or a more substantial snack is a few pieces of roasted laver cut up in squares. Wrap the square around a small spoonful of rice and you have an instant, child-friendly snack. Packs of laver can be purchased at Korean or Asian markets in larger sheets or already cut into squares for quick access. It can also be ordered on Amazon.

Cooked Rice

Steamed, short-grain rice (밥)

Koreans eat short-grain rice rather than long-grain rice. You can buy this easily in grocery stores. If you can’t do it in a rice cooker, consider buying the rice air-tight packaged in small bowls to be steamed in the microwave. Each bowl has enough rice for 1-2 people at a meal. A common brand is 햇반 [haet bahn]. Your child will most likely not have had an experience with brown rice, so use white rice to start or a mix of white and brown. Here are some on Amazon.

Oftentimes, parents will make jumeok-bap (fist rice) for children, as they are easy to hold and eat with their hands without falling apart too easily. Here is a recipe from Aeri’s Kitchen, a great website for lots of Korean recipes.

Juk is one of the first solid foods that a Korean child is given. This boiled rice is watery and much like a porridge/congee, often mixed with finely minced vegetables and/or meat. Juk is also commonly used to treat a common cold—much like chicken soup for Americans. Not difficult to make, it might be a nice comfort food for your newly arrived child.

Grilled or fried (no breading) fish

White fish, ripped into small pieces, bones removed of course, the pieces are easy to be eaten by hand, and are great sources of calcium and protein. The following are commonly eaten fish that can be bought, already filleted and ready for cooking, in a Korean or Asian market in your area. A typical pre-packaged product would look like this.

pre-packaged, frozen fish

They are often salted because they are meant to be eaten as an accompaniment to rice.

  • Gahlchee 갈치
  • Tuna 참치
  • mackerel고등어

Clear, meat-based soups

With the links below, find recipes on how to make simple soups. A staple item at a traditional Korean meal, soups are served to children conveniently by putting some rice in the soup and serving to the child to eat as a meal with a spoon on his own. Feeding the child from this bowl is an attachment opportunity. If the child does not allow you to feed him, eat the same thing alongside him. Here are a couple links to soups at another great Korean food website, Maangchi.com.

The significance of food for a child in transition to a new family will differ from child to child. Your child may be quite open to new foods, but the emotional and connective impact that familiar foods can play in your attachment can be significant. Whether it is just a familiar snack you can provide in a painful moment, or a meal you can share together, the comfort of familiar smells, tastes, and textures allows your child to begin bonding and cultivates a foundation of trust. And there is an added bonus of maintaining parts of your child’s birth heritage and culture, which can serve as a springboard to greater Korean culinary adventures throughout your child’s life.