Food Choices (and lots of them)

This page used to be called Food Freedoms, which is good alliteration,
but too many new unschoolers misconstrue "freedom" so I hope this will be clearer.

Here's the big idea: If children are allowed to turn foods down, they're not forced to eat, and they're given choices, they will come to choose good foods, know when they're hungry and when they're not, and actually learn to listen to their bodies and know what they need.

This is such a departure from tradition in our culture that it seems altogether wrong, at first.

I didn't think it up. My first exposure was an article in Mothering magazine when Kirby was a baby, so that would have been 1986 or so. It said when toddlers are given a full range of food to choose from, they choose a balanced diet. Or that's what I remember from the article anyway. (If that's online and anyone knows what/where it is, I'd be glad to link it!)

Because of La Leche League and natural weaning, and the idea that children will reach for food when they want some, so you don't have to schedule and spoon it into them, it was easy for me to see the smallest seedling-root beginnings of how our culture creates the eating disorders they bemoan. Letting kids decide what THEY think is good and bad, instead of labelling things good and bad in advance for them, allows a child to think spinach is wonderful but donuts are kinda yucky.

Without choices, they can't make choices. Without choices they can't make good choices OR bad choices. In too many people's minds, "good" is eating what parents say when parents say (where and how and why parents say). That doesn't promote thought, self awareness, good judgment or any other good thing.

Food is for health and sustenance. Eating with other people can be a social situation, ranging (on the good end) from ceremonial to obligatory to courtesy. There's no sense making it hostile or punitive.

As with other magical sacrifices some people make to become "good parents," some parents prohibit sugar. I've seen very bad things come of that. And as magic, it doesn't work any better than the magical sacrifice of plastic toys, or of TV, or of video games, or of wearing clothes with logos on them. Those are lame attempts at magically assuring that a child will be peaceful or healthy or creative. What they tend more often to do is give children reason to be sneaky, and depending on the parental presentation or justification of the restrictions, can help the child learn early on that the parents aren't as bright as they would like.

Seeing the sweetness in the sweets

Megan Valnes, August 2016:
We have been radically unschooling for nearly three years now and came from a place of heavy food restrictions. My two older children remember the days where Coke was bad and McDonalds absolutely evil! My younger three cannot recall any such nonsense ever being forced upon them.

At the beginning of our journey when restrictions were first lifted and the wide world of food became available to them, there was a period of binging. Constant candy eating, soda drinking, asking for more, and it never seemed to be enough. My oldest son (9 at the time) was drinking a liter of coke every day! I was very uncomfortable with this, but I also realized that he had always *loved* coca cola and I had been thwarting him whenever he tried to get some. So, I chose to really trust in the process and let time pass, and sure enough, the forbidden fruit slowly lost it's luster. Mostly because it wasn't forbidden anymore. It also helped that I began to really see the candy and sweets as food that my children love!

We had a lot of fun in those early days going to the market all together and filling the cart with foods they chose. What could have been a challenging experience for me turned into a fun game and I really enjoyed seeing what they picked and buying it for them. We all felt good and ate their choices merrily and how much better that felt than insisting they eat food they had no interest in! Or didn't like, for that matter.

The experience became something joyful and I was able to see that my children could be trusted--hell, I could be trusted to eat what I wanted! I say that because the trust component of unschooling is so absolutely critical and as parents we are challenged to look at our childhood and glean information, such as, maybe *I* was never trusted with food or making choices and so never fully learned to trust myself.

Fast forward to now--three years in, living joyfully, fully trusting in my kids, myself, and the principles of radical unschooling. On Tuesday a 5lb box of candy arrived from Amazon. Lollis, hard candies, and sour sweets galore! We opened the box together and I placed bowls of the candy all around the house. On the kids' desks, in the kitchen, family room, anywhere they could possibly think of a sweet and reach for one. Well, most of the bowls still sit full. I think my toddler has eaten the most lollipops and even she seems to be tiring of them. We have a big jumbo box of lollipops on the kitchen shelf (in kid-reach distance) and it sits full. My oldest daughter has another jumbo box of candy in her room and it too sits nearly full on her desk.

They could eat this candy anytime they want--it's everywhere! And yet, at this moment, all 5 of my kids are feasting on strawberries! And my 5yo old had a tin of sardines and some avocado for breakfast. Some days she has ice cream for breakfast ;). None of it really matters anymore because it's all one in the same--nourishment, both physical and emotional, for my children's bodies. There is no shame in what they choose to eat. And from what I've witnessed in the past three years, they know MUCH better than I do what's good to put into their bodies.

Also, we keep a ton of variety of foods in our home. Lots of everything! Veggies, fruits, snacks, meals, ice creams, popsicles--you name it! And we love to try new things...we will visit the Japanese market occasionally and buy funny-looking stuff. We get a box from around the world once a month and have a lot of fun opening up and trying the interesting delicacies. Usually, my oldest daughter will make a video of us trying the new foods for her Youtube channel :). We have lots of "try the _____ challenge".

As a side note, my oldest daughter recently had a playdate with her best friend. She was so excited to take her some of our newly acquired lollipops over to her BFF and her siblings. Unfortunately, the mother of the BFF is extremely controlling, and as my daughter presented her gift to her friends, the mother barged in and confiscated the lollis and shouted something about "NO SUGAR!". My daughter came home with all of the lollipops intended as gifts and it made us both pretty sad. How different that scene could have been played out if only the mother could have seen the sweetness in the sweets.

—Megan Valnes

Joy, on the Always Learning List wrote:
I was one of those moms, thinking I was being a good mom by restricting television and sugary things. I was pretty strict on it for about 18 months or so, until ds was around 6 I think. I was one of these moms that didn't deny the children sugar and television when out of the house and around others though.

That time in our life is a big part of why I eventually found unschooling. I think it can be that last step for some from homeschooling to unschooling. I was seeing and living what I was reading about denial on these new-to-me unschool lists.

The last straw on these restrictions, after other smaller things happening, was being at a homeschool outing and ds, stashing all the candy he was offered away like a little squirrel and hiding it. I only learned of it because another little boy was complaining to his mother aloud about my son doing this! It really hit me how this behavior, from my restrictions, was affecting how he was with other children and people and in turn how negatively they were reacting to it and him. My supposed good parenting definitely wasn't working the way it was supposed to.

Dawn, on the Always Learning list, in a thread called food again:
We have a little daughter who we adopted at 3 1/2 that is now almost 6. She came from a history of severe neglect and malnutrition. She came home with a tummy full of parasites, and an appetite that seemed to never quit. We treated the parasites, but doing so could not treat her underlying fears around food. Fears that she would never have "enough". She also seemed to have no "off" button and would eat until she couldn't move, or until she vomited. She also panicked if one of her siblings was eating and she wasn't. If we went anywhere, her first questions were always about when and where she would eat.

Two and a half years later and she is NOT the same kid in regards to food. Yes, she gained a lot of weight, but she is healthy and active and is just now leveling off.

I think what's most important, is for you to address your own fears behind your child's eating. For me, my daughter's eating brought up a lot of my own fears from my childhood and mealtimes. I realized at one point, that it was better for me to set her food in front of her, smile at her, and calmly leave the room than to stay with her. She was picking up on my anxiousness and it was making her more anxious. I allowed her to eat in peace, without me hovering over her with MY fears.

We stopped regulating her eating at all. I let her eat what she wanted when she wanted. I also made sure that I was filling her "love tank" constantly. I wanted her to associate filling up with love to get rid of her feelings of "emptiness". We kept finger foods handy in a cupboard where she could reach them at anytime. We told her it was "ok" to be full and that she could eat HER foods anytime she wanted. We told her over and over that there would "always be food". She would often go to the cupboard just to open it and see if there was food still in there.

It broke my heart, but we stayed consistent and loving.

Today she is healthy and her eating issues are mostly a thing of the past. I still remember the first time she left food on her plate and walked away. I cried. :) I knew she had reached a place of some healing. She now regularly "forgets" to eat or chooses to eat later when she is busy playing. She leaves food if she is full. She still loves to eat and still worries some, but she trusts me to care for her now and is not obsessed with food as she once was.

Pam Sorooshian from the same discussion:
This reminded me of someone else I know. This teenage girl is kind of a bigger person—tall, broad shouldered, normal weight. Her mother is tall, too, but very thin. Her parents are very very controlling. To the point that the mother controls exactly what food goes into her mouth. I mean - when the girl is eating, the mother is watching and counting the bites. When the girl asks for more, the mother gives her a lecture about eating too much. She refers to her as a "chowhound."

The girl really does think about food all the time. We went on a trip together and when the itinerary was being planned, she was always really panicky if it didn't include exactly when and where we were going to eat. She could hardly think about what else there was to do if the eating plans weren't settled first. When she's serving herself food, she does it with one eye on her mother, who indicates when she should stop. She constantly asks for more and her mother sometimes gives in and sometimes doesn't. She always says things like, "You don't need more," or "If you must, you can have one more and that's all."

When we were traveling together, the mother commented several times on how much my girls eat. My girls are in good shape—they're very healthy and not overweight or underweight. We were at a buffet and the mom stayed right with her daughter and told her, "One biscuit only. And you must have some fruit with it." Stuff like that. My kids just picked out whatever they wanted to eat, and the mom commented on their choices not being "balanced."

Rosie likes potatoes a lot - she had french fries and hash browns, both. Plus a bagel. The mom said something like, "I see you're having a whole meal of carbs." Her daughter constantly asks for more and absolutely always wants dessert. My kids seldom have dessert after a meal, they have sweets whenever they want them, but right after eating isn't usually one of those times.

We had a birthday party here last weekend and had a really delicious huge cake—and half of it was left. It sat here for 3 days with little plates and forks and a cake knife right at hand, and the kids never touched it. They'd had enough at the party and didn't feel like having more cake.

For her, right after a meal is one of the few time her mom will allow it (because she's just had healthy foods, first), so she almost never fails to have dessert. I wonder, when she goes off to college next year, how she'll handle her food issues.

So—I'm not surprised that a kid who has been deprived of food seems to have a desperation about it - but it is interesting to observe some of the same behaviors when the child feels deprived but is actually getting enough food to be healthy as well as when they are truly being undernourished.

Pam Sorooshian, January 2011:
I remember one day in my childhood super clearly. A standout day. It was fall — the air was crisp and we could see the snow on the mountains. I was playing outdoors with a lot of friends from the neighborhood — playing kickball in the street. I'd been running a lot for hours and I remember suddenly being so famished I couldn't function. I ran into the house - my mom had made pot roast and was taking it out of the oven. The kitchen was steamy warm and smelled SO good. But we were having dinner in the dining room and the table was all set and she told me I had to wait for food. She'd been chopping carrots, earlier, and there were still some raw carrots sitting there. I asked if I could have something to eat right now and she said, without really looking or paying attention to me, "No, just wait, we're going to eat in about 15 minutes."

I remember I thought I would die if I had to wait 15 minutes. I waited until her back was turned and I grabbed one of the carrots as I went out of the kitchen. I went back outside and bit off a piece of carrot and it tasted SO sweet and good. I remember just chewing on it and the feeling of swallowing it and everything. But I felt SO guilty - it wasn't like me to be sneaky (it wasn't like my mom to give me a reason to be sneaky). I went back in and told my mom I'd stolen a carrot stick I remember thinking I might get my hand slapped - weird thought since I'd never been spanked or slapped, but I must have gotten that idea from tv or a story or something. I remember she looked a little bewildered and said, "Oh, that's okay, but next time you should ask." Something casual like that.

Later, when my own kids asked for food right when I was in the middle of making something for them that would be done in 15 minutes, that incident came back to me so clearly and I ALWAYS gave my kids some food immediately. When kids are hungry, they are SO hungry that they hurt. Making them wait a few minutes can be really cruel. Better for them to have food offered before they need it.


At the main food page, see what others have to say
about their experimentations and successes at removing their food rules.