Food Freedom

© Daemys | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Daemys | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

We did an elimination diet once.

We were convinced that our children reacted to certain foods, and being unsure which ones, we figured we had to either ban all suspect foods (which we’d been trying to do), or work out which ones were causing the problem. Like with most diets, we found it incredibly restrictive, and we didn’t finish the program. Like with most diets, we gained two pounds a whole lot of baggage surrounding the issue of food. We had been slowly heading in this direction anyway, assuming that most “bad behaviour” was being caused by foods the children had eaten. The elimination diet just sealed the deal.

Food went from being something we ate, to something we thought about, restricted and controlled. It went from being a benign substance, to a powerful monster.

Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate that some people have food sensitivities. And eating those foods (if you are able to determine which ones truly do cause a genuine problem) can have annoying side effects. Then there are allergies, which obviously need to be taken much more seriously. The problem is, many people treat sensitivities and intolerances as seriously as they would if it was a life threatening allergy.

And most people also give food in general WAY too much power.

We all want the best for our children and ourselves, so many of us seek the “perfect diet”. What floats your boat? Paleo? Vegan? Vegetarian? Lacto-Ovo vegetarian? Raw? Blood type diets? Nutritional typing? Atkins? A see-food diet? 😉

It really wasn’t meant to be this complicated! I know, I know, I can hear the cries of “But it would be different if we weren’t surrounded by all this JUNK food!”

In an ideal world, we would have easy access to an abundance of only natural foods, without the temptation of man-made or man-altered foodstuffs. But we don’t live in that world. Our children are surrounded by all sorts of food temptations, as we are. When we react to those foods with fear, judgment, lecturing, restrictions and controls, our children will no longer be able to have an unfettered relationship to food. It will become a powerful substance capable of inciting all sorts of power struggles within a family, all sorts of internal struggles and all sorts of drama and hang ups about an item that is primarily there to nourish and satisfy us.

Oh, but “sugar is addictive”! We can’t just let our children have free reign over food! All they’d eat is lollies and chocolate! They’d never eat anything other than junk food! They’d live on coke and chips!

Do you really think that’s true? Do you really think that a child living in a house filled with a wide variety of foods is going to only ever eat the “bad stuff”?

What about if there was no hierarchy of foods drummed into our children? What if it was just food? What about if they were TRULY free to choose?

Let’s say a child chooses to eat a bag of lollies for breakfast. (I’ve never heard of that happening, but I’m sure it’s possible, especially if they are never normally allowed to eat them.) Let’s say they also decide to eat a bag of lollies for lunch. What do you think they’d eat next time they were hungry? Do you really think they’d ONLY eat lollies, chips, coke and chocolate?

Chances are, they are more likely to eat those foods if they have been elevated on a pedestal and labelled “Bad” and “Forbidden”, which the child is mostly likely to interpret as “Good” and “Desirable”! Even then, they are extremely unlikely to live on a diet consisting only of “junk food”. They may binge for awhile, especially if they fear the foods will be taken away again soon, but before you know it they will develop a better relationship with food, eating when they are hungry, stopping when they are full, and choosing from a wide variety of foods.

In a research paper reviewing available data on the effects of parental feeding attitudes and styles on child nutritional behaviour, it was found that parents tend to use two primary forms of control regarding food: restriction (of junk food, and amounts of food) and pressure (to eat healthy foods or more food in general). Restriction of “junk foods” was found to have a positive outcome in the short term, but more negative effects in the long term, including increased intake of food in the absence of hunger, and a poor ability to self-regulate. Pressuring children was also found to be counter intuitive, with a further study specifically linking “pressure to eat” with a reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables. Generally, the research suggests that “In the long run, parental control attempts may have negative effects on the quality of children’s diets by reducing their preferences for those foods.” I highly recommend reading the above article (it’s not all that long, I promise!) if you want to understand some of the research showing the potential harm caused by parental good intentions when it comes to attempts at ensuring children have a “healthy diet”.

Here’s what my free-to-choose-their-own-food kids chose for breakfast today:

The older boys chose to have organic eggs from our own chooks, and toast.
The older boys chose to have organic eggs from our own chooks, and toast.
Declan's choice was a green smoothie
Declan’s choice was a green smoothie
Molly chose Chocoate Banana-Nut “Ice Cream”.
… which ended up being more delicious and fun inside a real ice cream waffle cone, apparently 🙂

I love finding delicious home made alternatives to commercially prepared foods. This one is a winner, for sure. Ingredients: raw cacao powder, frozen bananas and raw pecans. Recipe courtesy of the lovely Jo Whitton of Quirky Cooking.

Most days they make similar choices, although it’s not often “ice cream”. The younger two mostly choose a green or fruit smoothie, or a raw breakfast of some kind; the older two teens typically eat our home-grown organic eggs for breakfast. Prior to getting chooks, they usually ate Weet Bix. 😉

Do our children eat a “perfect diet”? No.

Do I? No!

Will restrictions and fears and limitations help us eat a better diet? Maybe, for the children, for a short time (if you work VERY VERY hard at it, and are prepared to say no a lot and fight the ensuing power struggle). But at what cost? Will those restrictions, fears and limitations improve our relationship with food? Not at all. Will it improve our relationship with our children? Absolutely not.

Let’s imagine an entirely different scenario to the typical environment where parents exert a lot of restriction and pressure on their children’s food intake: Let’s fill our homes with delicious, nutritious foods, say yes when our children ask us to buy or make something in particular (unless of course there is an allergy involved), allow our children freedom of choice of all the foods in the house, and focus on our own choices rather than micromanaging theirs. Imagine a child growing up in this environment, without all the baggage and power struggles commonly associated with food.

To be honest, in our family we’re still recovering from our former experience with food controls, but I am SO glad we are on the path to true food freedom. I am so thankful for our unschooling journey, because it is due to this life of questioning the “have to’s” and trusting our children (within a context of loving, engaged parents) that I have been able to question the impact of micromanaging our children’s diets.

Does focussing on food and attempting to have lots of control over our children’s diets increase or decrease the power of food in our lives?

11 thoughts on “Food Freedom”

  1. This blog post is BRILLIANT Karen!!!! This is what we’ve come to in the last 6 months, our children now don’t get any lectures over what is ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, just full freedom to choose. Yes at home we try and provide mainly healthy things but if we bring what some would call ‘unhealthy foods’ into the home they have full freedom to choose them just as we do. When we are at the shops my kids always get a “yes sure” to what they ask for (provided we have the money) and I love that there is no guilt surrounding food (like many of us have grown up with). My food issues come from so many areas but added to it was seeing my parents ‘diet’ hearing labels put on different kinds of food and it being controlled (there was many a dinner where I sat at the table having to eat all of it even after it turned cold). I hope with this freedom my children don’t come to have the same issues, I have already seen it working in them so I think we’re on the right track!

    1. Freedom to choose is such a beautiful gift to give our children. It is, in reality, a basic tenet of freedom that all people deserve, whether they be adult or child! I see so many children having their diets micromanaged, and whilst they may eat a higher volume of healthy food in the meantime, it’s not without its power struggles and tears, and it’s hard not to imagine damage being done under the surface even if those things aren’t visible. A friend of mine who grew up with extreme controls and judgments surrounding food has ended up with such a terrible lot of food issues, and in the end, those early “healthy years” probably didn’t account for much in the long run. Here’s to food freedom and a good relationship with food!

  2. Love this post Karen! Ironically, since I was given total food choice as a child, letting go of my last few ‘foody issues’ was hard for me – especially surrounding sweets (otherwise known as lollies or candy!)…It’s so true – all these so-called ‘healthy’ diets are giving food such power – the epidemic of orthorexia is really full-on, and it’s scary to think how children raised in that kind of enivronment will interact with food as adults :/

  3. Karen, we have been on similar journneys! you articulated your position beautifully. It is difficult – when we have such strong convictions in certain areas to navigate the fleshing out of what it means to not control, isn’t it?. I think good nutrition is VERY important. I am fairly extreme with the views I hold. However, here are the things which I think are more important: allowing my people the freedom to choose, becoming comfortable with responding to their own hunger signals, living in this house without stress concerning these issues, and figuring out how to navigate all the choices they have/ will have in society at large. I don’t want my children, or anyone else, to ever think that I think less of them or love them less because of the food choices they make – or flip out when they get a choice – because they have never had the opportunity to choose!” I love this post. )

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Gretchen. It’s wonderful for a parent to hold healthy food as a very important value (I do), but imposing it on our children can indicate that we value healthy food more than we value their preferences and choices.

  4. Hello! I have been reading your blog a lot this week, as my husband and I have just decided to unschool.

    This post really resonated with me. I have been guilty of pressuring my kids into eating healthy foods and demonising junk food! Gave me lots to think about…..

    1. Thanks for your comment, and what a wonderful decision you’ve made. It’s so easy for our parental love to express itself as control because we want the best for our kids, and yet to them it feels less like love and more like control, which often leads to resentment and rebellion, even if it’s not expressed externally – yet. If you do start removing some controls, my suggestion is to go slowly. Simply start saying yes more, and take it gradually. 🙂

  5. We have a four year old. We have been unschooling since two…or should I say we decided to unschool when he was two. Electronics/screen time and food are two of the biggest worries and sources of stress in our relationship with our son. Since I was not given freedom of choice as a child, it was my wish prior to the birth of our son that he be given freedom of choice. Even so, it is hard to implement it when so much has changed from my own childhood. So, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this topic!

    One thing I noticed about your article is that you didn’t define food. Do you define food in your household? My husband and I often talk about how roaches will not eat twinkies because they don’t know it is a food. I’m not sure it is a food either! But one thing I’m not sure we teach our children is how to recognize whether something is a food or is not a food. Sure, we tell them that they shouldn’t eat the dish detergent, and I’m sure if bat guano or sawdust was laying around, we would tell them it wasn’t a food either. But bat guano and sawdust are in many of our processed foods and since we don’t consider those things as food, we don’t let our child eat them for the same reason we don’t let him drink dish detergent. We make the same assertion around “fake” colors (those that are from petroleum). We don’t eat petroleum and we don’t drink gasoline. That sounds crazy, but we’ve been saying it to our child for two years. We don’t restrict it because it’s “unhealthy” but because it’s not food.

    I am not sure whether that is restriction is good, bad or indifferent, but I feel like it’s a bit like teaching children which berries and foods they can eat in the woods and which ones they shouldn’t because they’re poisonous. Previous generations of humans knew that these distinctions were important to pass on at a very young age to protect their offspring from danger. Contrasting that to your article and the cited study, I am interested to hear what you think about defining food and restricting eating things that are not food. thanks!

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