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Real Family Dinner Projects: The North Family

Posted on: February 4th, 2019 by Bri DeRosa

Meet the North Family! Due to this family’s special circumstances, we’re publishing their story with all names and identifying details changed so that we can help them adhere to strict privacy guidelines related to their foster-to-adopt journey. We hope their insights into the unique challenges and joys of sharing family dinner with their three children will inspire other families!

The Family:

Fred and CJ North, of Western Massachusetts, and their three children: “Jazzy,” (5), “Bug” (3), and “Boop” (2). Grandma also often plays a role in the family’s daily life and dinners.

The Goal:

Among other things, the family is currently working on specific goals for the kids, to help build their independence and personal skills. Getting 5-year-old daughter Jazzy involved in dinnertime responsibilities is a big focus — she loves to help with food preparation and independently pour milk and water for herself and her brothers. She’s also gaining a sense of pride and accomplishment in her skills at making grilled cheese. CJ and Fred are hoping to help her channel her newfound responsibility into one day getting the dishes consistently cleared and actually make it to the sink!

The Challenges:

CJ shares that the family’s biggest dinnertime challenge is keeping the kids seated for the duration of the meal. The two older children have ADHD, and 3-year-old Bug is also on the autism spectrum. Sensory challenges and a need for constant movement make sitting at the table developmentally difficult for the kids. In addition, their impulsivity and high energy mean that Fred, CJ and Grandma have to be extra-vigilant in keeping everyone safe from hot surfaces and sharp objects during dinner preparations and throughout the meal. It can sometimes be difficult to get the food on the table safely while managing behaviors, and keeping everyone engaged in dinner is a consistent challenge. “We’ve tried exercises prior to dinner, a wobble stool, booster seats of different heights and textures. But it is a rare occurrence to have all 5 or 6 family members seated at the same time!”

The Strategies:

As a pre-adoptive foster family contending with early childhood trauma, ADHD, autism and multiple food allergies, CJ and Fred have had to work harder than many families to come up with ways to make the dinner table a positive and rewarding environment for everyone. Since the family collectively has over a dozen serious food allergies plus the sensory difficulties that accompany Bug’s autism, eating at home is a medical necessity. Fred and CJ work with the kids on learning about “not hurting our bellies or bodies” as they work on acceptance of new, healthy and safe foods, which they say has really improved all three children’s willingness to try what is served.

To help manage behavioral and safety concerns at dinner, especially during food preparation and cooking when there’s a greater danger of exposure to heat and sharp objects, the family has established an arts and crafts time with individual storage spots for each child’s favorite supplies and space for their masterpieces. 2-year-old Boop especially benefits from inexhaustible supplies of stickers and reusable peel-and-stick books that can be available at the table to help occupy his busy fingers.

Most important to the Norths, however, is ensuring that all of the children — biological siblings who entered the foster care system at birth and started entering the Norths’ home 3.5 years ago — feel a sense of connection and belonging as a family. They started a Sunday night tradition of dinnertime “Appreciations” when their eldest daughter first came to them as a toddler, in the hope that it would help her connect to her new foster family. “Since change is inevitable and scary,” CJ shares, “we looked for a way to appreciate what we have.” The Sunday appreciations are the family’s intentional gratitude practice and begin with one family member looking at another and sharing something they appreciate about that person. “It can be time-consuming and sometimes the conversations get hijacked or take a turn, but inevitably it’s a funny and heart-warming experience. Fred and I have been shocked by the level of depth in the kids’ responses and how beautifully they see each other.” Sometimes the North kids share appreciation for something outside the family — like a recent expression of gratitude for gorillas — or are keen to express their gratitude for the family pets. Other times, they share sweet reminders of how commonplace experiences and items can have special meaning to young children. Bug, for example, appreciates how Fred lets him help clean the dryer lint trap! And CJ will always remember the night Jazzy said “Mommy, I appreciate you buying me pink cowgirl boots that match yours, so you and I can be the same. When they get too small, can you save them in the attic? Then when I grow up and have a daughter, I will give them to her so we can all match!”

The Food:

Everyone in the North household agrees that dinnertime is best when it includes homemade soup and crusty garlic bread.

The Takeaway:

CJ and Fred have been fostering for 3.5 years, and awaiting an adoption date for 2 years. They share that “for a long time, everything was legally uncertain, and the rhythmic predictability of a nourishing dinner was a way to ground our children and ourselves in the steady comfort of family life. Knowing the abuse these children endured in utero and what may have happened if their lives had unfolded differently has been a sobering guide through simple pleasures like full bellies and silly stories at the table. Food wasn’t guaranteed and nutrition wasn’t reliable in their early development, but boy are they healthy eaters now!”

The Best Part:

CJ, Fred and Grandma appreciate the feeling of arriving home at the end of a hectic day, and find peace at the table where they can enjoy good food and hear about the kids’ days or plan a family excursion. As for the kids:

Jazzy: “Savoring the food!”
Bug: “Appreciations!”
Boop: “Noodles!”

Do you have your own family dinner project to share with us? We’d love to hear from you and consider featuring your family! Contact Us.