Thursday, April 21, 2011

Food Freedom

We are nation confused about food. It seems like every week, there is a new study about what's good for you and what's bad for you. Experts do not agree. We have people advising us not to eat any meat, and others to eat mostly meat. We have some touting the goodness of whole grains, and others saying we don't need any grains at all. You can find advice to go gluten-free, dairy-free, low fat, low carb, raw, fermented, or a hundred other things.

One of the most difficult things about nutrition confusion is when you become a parent and suddenly you are responsible for not only your own choices, but also those of your children. Parents are advised that they know best. Parents are told to decide what their kids should eat, when their kids should eat, and how much they should eat. I've seen lots of articles over the years warning against giving kids too much food freedom.

But how are we supposed to decide what is best for our kids if the experts can't even agree on what's best for us?

I have recently come to a very important conclusion: I am the only expert on my own nutritional needs. I can read about the benefits of all the different diets, but in the end, what matters most is how I feel. What's good for you might not be good for me. There are not many absolutes when it comes to food.

How does this translate into my parenting? My husband and I know our children are experts already. Even at ages two and four, they know what they want and what they need. We trust their abilities to listen to their bodies, and this is how it looks around here:
  1. They eat when they are hungry. We do not expect them to eat "three meals a day." There is no "you can't eat now because dinner is in 20 minutes." If you are hungry now, eat now.
  2. They stop eating when they are full. There is no expectation that the kids should eat a certain amount at any time. No "two more bites" or "clear your plate."
  3. They eat what they want. We don't label foods "good" and "bad." Instead, we offer them a variety of foods we know they enjoy or think they might enjoy, and the kids get to figure out how different foods make them feel.
  4. They eat where they want.* This usually means sitting on the couch, at the coffee table. But sometimes it means having a picnic on the floor, sometimes in the car, sometimes in the bed, and sometimes at the dining table.

For those of you who think children need to be taught  how to eat right, using restrictions and force, you should try observing a child who has complete freedom over her own food choices. Watch her take a bite of a food that she loves, then decide leave most of it on her plate because she really isn't hungry anymore. Watch her hold a popsicle in one hand and a watermelon wedge in the other, and alternate taking bites of each. Watch her get as excited about buying a mango as she does about buying gummy worms. Watch how willing she is to share her food with others.

Listen to her say "That made my stomach hurt last time I ate too much of it, I don't want to do that again." Marvel at the fact that a bag of candy can last for months and be forgotten. Count how many times a "treat" is found with one bite eaten and the rest left behind. This is not to say she always chooses what others would consider "healthy," but many of us could learn something from this child.

*We do respect the rules/wishes of others when we are in someone else's space. For example, if we are at a house where eating is only allowed in the kitchen, we only eat in the kitchen.


  1. this was so refreshing for me, i've been stressing about how much my daughter is eating, as many things regarding parenting, trusting our children is key

  2. I agree with the above comment and I too stress about my kids eating. I will enjoy a bit more of food freedom!

  3. It's so easy to get stressed about this. But once you let go of the stress, it feels great!

  4. I love love love this and feel grateful that you wrote it. My own fear (about my own love of sweets and my internal judging of that as horrible) has been passed onto my 5 year old and now I want to undo it. I hate that I"ve said "healthy" versus not. Any ideas/inspiration/advice for transitioning back to his own internal truth and self awareness that he came with (and I messed up)?

  5. @Kris, The good news is, just by recognizing it, you could be on your way to undoing whatever fears you have passed on. I think the key to transitioning at this point is to start saying "Yes" more, and saying it without hesitation. Realize that things could swing in the other direction for a little while, meaning that your child may take every opportunity to get previously limited "treats" until he figures out whether you are going to change your mind again. This initial phase may be uncomfortable, but if you try to let go and enjoy, it will make a big difference in your life.

    Start buying or making some foods he will enjoy (ice cream, candy, or something else he asks for) and then just say yes whenever he asks for it. Enjoy something with him. It is really fun to have ice cream for breakfast. :) And there is plenty of time to get other foods in during the day.

    Also realize this is not a prescription for getting your child to eat less of what you might think of as junk food. But he will find his own comfort level, and he will lose the baggage that so many of us grow up with.

    This will be a lot easier if you can try to stop feeling (or at least expressing) your guilt over food. If your son sees your relationship with food improving, that will also help his. I know it's hard because of all the messages we constantly get about food and health, but the most important things are your relationship with your son, and his relationship with food!

    I hope that helps, but feel free to keep the discussion going. Let me know about your progress. I am going to write another post about what food freedom looked like when we first started (my daughter was 2, and she had ice cream 4 times the first day...).

  6. I read your response to Kris hopefully, because I'm in the same boat with Oscar, age five. But here's the thing... he really, really, reacts poorly to sugar. Do I simply "let him go" with it? Will he go batty eating as much as he can and will we survive it? That sounds so silly, but I think you get the picture... I really doubt he'll moderate his own sugar intake. Eh?

  7. I just wanted to say thanks you. I discovered your blog yesterday and I feel like it's opened my mind up it a wonderful way. I had never heard of un-schooling and am so excited by it but your approach to food really made me question how I was treating food/eating. I knew it wasn't feeling right but hadn't thought about what would feel better. I'm so glad to have found this blog! I'm sure I'll continue to be inspired and supported by it. Thank you!!

  8. Nina, Thank you for your kind and flattering words. I love that it has made a difference for you. Please chime in whenever you get the urge. I love the conversations and connections that have come from this endeavor. :)

  9. I was once talking to my sister about this, and I was thinking about how letting a child eat whatever whenever might be bad.

    "What if they just eat ice cream all day?"

    "...Do you think they'd feel good if they ate ice cream all day?"

    "That makes sense."

    Instead of telling children exactly how they should eat, I think that by providing a variety of food and letting them discover it for themselves is better. A child eating ice cream all day would quickly figure out that the ice cream is what makes them sick, and eat less.

  10. @Anonymous, Most people never get that part, but that's exactly it! Kids don't want to feel sick. My kids definitely go through spurts where they eat more sweets and treats, but they balance it very well. Thanks for the comment!

  11. I figure as long as a kid is eating, that's good enough.

  12. @Voice, I agree. It's amazing how obsessive parents can get over what and how much their kids are eating.

  13. I've been thinking about this for a long time and much of it appeals to me, but there are a few things that hold me back. How does this work if your child has allergies or even intolerances? There are foods that put my son in a fair bit of pain and discomfort AND it's a delayed reaction, so I'm not sure he'd make the connection.
    Also, what if they have something like a yeast imbalance that causes them to crave carbs and sugar? How will their bodies be able to tell them what they really need?
    I give him more freedom about food than the average kid and generally don't use phrases like "good" or "bad" foods, but I'm pretty hesitant to allow full freedom over this for fear of him hurting himself or his body not being able to send correct signals. Any ideas?
    I'm also curious how you arrange meals. Do you make something different for everyone? Or make one meal and let them eat what they will? How does this work practically in your house?

    1. As for the first part of your question, my kids do not have any allergies or intolerances. I would imagine that if they did, I would guide them with information about what I think is going on, and I think they would avoid things that cause them pain for the most part. I say "for the most part" because I know adults who are allergic/sensitive to different foods and still decide to eat them, even being fully aware of the consequences. If my child were fatally allergic to something, I would obviously do everything I could to keep them from being exposed to that food. But for a reaction less than fatal, I think I would allow my child to experience the reaction (if he requested the food), and talk to him about it, ask him questions about how it makes him feel. If I knew a reaction were about to happen, I would plan to be home for that day so I could make him the most comfortable.

      For meals at our house, I make sure there are 1 or 2 foods that everyone will like. If the kids are not feeling like eating what I make, I will offer to make something else. :)

  14. Thanks for your thoughts, Vickie. I think I'll be trying to allow him more freedom than he currently has, but I'm still nervous about allowing him to go gung ho. I'm not totally sure if he has a yeast issue (or how to find out if he does), but there are things that might indicate it. I know it would cause him to crave sugar, which would just make the problem worse. Bah. I hate trying to figure out food stuff.