Radical Unschooling and Food

I was thinking, tonight, while preparing green quiche and salad for dinner, about how the principles of unschooling actually apply to food, in the simplest of terms. I mean, I get that they do, and it’s how we live, but I think many people don’t necessarily understand why food gets included in the radical unschooling checklist. Radical unschoolers often say, “Oh, we don’t put restrictions on food”, or “They can eat what and when they like” and sometimes I wonder if people are making those choices simply because they have heard that radical unschooling means extending the philosophy into all areas of life, which means “no limits on food, bedtimes, media etc”, so if they do those things, they will be “qualified” to use the term. I’ve been wondering how many people have paused to consider *why* radical unschooling means not arbitrarily limiting food.

Then there are others who are trying to embrace radical unschooling but really struggle with “letting go of limits on food”. They often  say, “But I just can’t let go of my beliefs about food!” or “Surely you wouldn’t just let your kids eat whatever they want! All they would eat is lollies and chips and chocolate!”

Many people seem to think that they will be automatically considered a “radical unschooler” if they jump through certain hoops and tick all the necessary boxes (There are others who like to use the name and NOT jump through the hoops, but we’ll save that for another day!). This is the typical checklist that many people believe will qualify them as bearer of the grand title: radical unschooler.

  • No curriculum
  • No limits on food
  • No limits on media
  • No forced bedtimes
  • No forced chores

Do all those things and hey presto! You’re a radical unschooling parent!!

But I think it is much more than this. It isn’t just about doing the things a radical unschooler does. It requires thought, contemplation and mindfulness. It requires some mental shifts, and possibly some discomfort as we unpack our baggage, conduct critical analysis and undertake courageous self-examination as to why we tend to want to control certain areas of our children’s lives, why we find some areas harder to let go of than others, and whether we can still be considered a radical unschooler if we, for instance, still make our kids eat their broccoli! Radical unschooling involves re-thinking the status quo, and delving deep within ourselves to find that place where we truly can trust our children’s natural learning process in every area of life.

My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.
My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.

I think it also really helps to contemplate *why* the things on that list up there are actually on the list! Why is it that radical unschooling involves removing arbitrary limits from things like food?

So I spent some time thinking it through and this is what I came up with.  I think, like with unschooling academics, it is a multi pronged approach:

* With unschooling, we honour what our children love and we support their passions. We don’t elevate one activity as being more “educational” than another. Even if it is something we don’t personally value, we still respect the fact that they see very real value in it. We hold fast to the truth that they are learning all the time, whether they are choosing to watch a television program, or read a book, or draw in the dirt, or research medical eugenics.

So also, with food, we honour our children’s freedom of choice regarding food. We provide the foods they love. We say yes to them when we are out somewhere and they ask for a particular food. We trust in their ability to learn which foods feel good in their body and which foods don’t. We trust in their ability to know when they are hungry, to know what foods they do and don’t like, and to know when they are full.

* With unschooling, we provide an enriching, interesting environment with a wide variety of resources and opportunities for the nourishment of their minds. The resources and opportunities are always available for them to choose to use, or not.

So also, with food….. If we restrict their exposure to only ever include “all natural, all organic”, or we restrict their access to foods they want to try, or we rarely ever provide fresh, foods, relying instead on a diet of processed food, it’s a bit like how unschooling might look if we only provided TV, or only provided outside play, or only let them read books. That really wouldn’t be a great unschooling environment, and their opportunities for learning, and discovering/enjoying what they love, would be seriously limited. And when they do one day discover the big wide world of “other foods”, they may potentially gorge themselves to the point of being ill, or develop an unhealthy obsession with “junk food” or find it very difficult to have a pure, unadulterated relationship to food. So instead, we stock our kitchen with nourishing, tasty, fun and interesting foods. We provide a wide variety of foods to nourish their bodies. We prepare “monkey platters“. We cook and prepare foods that our family will enjoy eating, and make all sorts of foods easily accessible and attractive to look at, readily available for anyone to choose to eat them. Or not.

* With unschooling, we strew new and interesting opportunities and resources before our children, for them to explore. Or not.

With food, we experiment with new cuisines and recipes, explore new tastes, take them to interesting eating places, buy the weird fruit….. We stimulate the senses with interesting new smells and tastes and colours and textures. We visit the local farmer’s market, talk to the growers, try the samples, laugh together at the funny dog who balances an orange on his nose, throws it up in the air and catches it (click the link and scroll to the bottom of that post for an awesome photo of one very cool dog)…..

* With unschooling, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation.

With food, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation! And for many of us, when it comes to food, we have to do a lot of that self-examination I talked about above to enable us to provide information without it becoming a mini-lecture, or, even worse, a long lecture! In the early days of radical unschooling, it can be quite difficult to do this without the child feeling pressure and manipulation, even if we think we aren’t pressuring or manipulating them! In an attempt to “teach their children about nutrition”, many parents cause their children’s eyes to glaze over, and their minds to wander, and their heels to dig in.

* With unschooling, we are not only interested in what they’re doing, we are interesting people ourselves! We pursue our own interests.

With food, we follow our own bliss, eating what we love, and learning about nutrition if that’s what we want to do. We eat mindfully and authentically. We don’t do this to try to subtly convince them that they should do the same, but because we are living an authentic life, and eating the foods that we want to eat. When a child is in an environment of trust and respect, without pressure to eat a certain way, they are far more likely to be positively influenced by the way we are living and the choices we are making. If that is a scary thought, and you really wish they wouldn’t copy your eating patterns, then reconsider the choices you are making, rather than getting stressed about the choices your child is making!

So there you have it! When we apply the principles of unschooling to the way we interact with food, we are moving towards what is often termed radical unschooling, or whole life unschooling. And trust me, it’s an AWESOME way to live!

Food that says, “I Love You”

Today my daughter, who is ten, said that she wanted to make me some special food and that it was going to be a big surprise. She asked me to take her to the local supermarket to purchase supplies, which I happily did. She took her own basket and wanted me to make sure I didn’t see any of her purchases while I was doing my own shopping at the other end of the store. After she had gathered her ingredients, she waited separately while I paid and got out some cash for her, and then she went through the self service aisle to complete her purchase.

Home we went, and at this stage she required some help with erecting her privacy barricade, so that she could prepare the mystery dishes without me seeing.



She was hard at work for quite a while, and I stayed nearby of course, to answer any questions. She was so excited to be doing this all by herself, and was particularly loving the mystery of it for me. I had no idea what inspired it all, it just seemed like something fun to do.

First cab off the rank, which she called the entree:

Freshly squeezed orange juice with mint from the garden.
Freshly squeezed orange juice with (LOTS of) mint from the garden.

The next step required some verbal assistance from me, and eventually a brief bit of practical assistance from one of her big brothers, to help with lighting the gas stove. And eventually, there was PERFECT, albeit sparsely filled, sushi. 🙂

She wanted me to tell everyone that it was "non alcoholic wine" - I think so that people didn't think she was getting into the grog in the kitchen lol.
She wanted me to tell everyone that it was “non alcoholic wine” – I think so that people didn’t think she was getting into the grog in the kitchen lol.

And finally, the piece de resistance: dessert, kid style!

She told me it would help me to feel young, because it was "kid food" :)
She told me it would help me to feel young, because it was “kid food” 🙂
Knowing that I really don't like cream out of a can (and that she does, and occasionally asks to buy some - or, in the case of today, obviously buys it by herself lol), she happily helped me eat the cream!
Knowing that I really don’t like cream out of a can (and that she does, and occasionally asks to buy some – or, in the case of today, obviously buys it by herself lol), she happily helped me eat the cream!
Mr 13 decided he wanted in on some of this food too, helping himself to sushi and dessert.
Mr 13 decided he wanted in on some of this food too, helping himself to sushi and dessert.

While I was finishing off my crunchy “fairy bread” (I really don’t remember it seeming quite so crunchy when I was a kid!), amidst lots of discussion about whether I actually ate things like fairy bread back in the “olden days”, she announced to me the reason for my “special meal”:


Food Freedom in Action

I wrote recently about our journey to Food Freedom. Tonight after a bit of Valentine’s Day food fun, I realised it was a good example of what I was talking about before, so here is a snapshot of Food Freedom in action. 🙂

A sleepover on Valentine’s Day seemed like a good excuse to try out a new recipe: Raw Chocolate Hearts, made with raw cacao powder, pure maple syrup and organic coconut oil (I flavoured it with some peppermint essence for extra pizazz!) After letting it set for not-quite-long-enough in the freezer (because who can wait, really!?), the fun began!

The girls had fun cutting out some shapes in the not-quite-frozen chocolate
The girls had fun cutting out some shapes in the not-quite-frozen chocolate – it hadn’t had time to set hard so it was deliciously gooey and messy!
The tasting began and the verdict was………
A definite thumbs up!
A definite thumbs up!
Yummy gooey deliciousness, even for self-proclaimed non-chocolate-lovers!
Yummy gooey deliciousness, even for self-proclaimed non-chocolate-lovers!
Who needs shape cutters when God gave us fingers?
Who needs shape cutters when God gave us fingers?
Along comes one of the teens to see what the fuss is all about, and he has a taste...
Along comes one of the teens to see what the fuss is all about, and he has a taste…
Nah, I'd prefer to eat some grapes thanks
Nah, I’d prefer to eat some grapes thanks
Yum, that was nice!
Yummo! More for everyone else. 🙂
Five minutes after the eating of the raw peppermint chocolate, the choice for yet another child was grapes. Neither food was said to be better or worse than the other. It was all just food, and it was all delicious! No guilt, no judgment, just food.
Five minutes after the eating of the raw peppermint chocolate, the choice for yet another child was grapes. Neither food was said to be better or worse than the other. It was all just food, and it was all delicious! No guilt, no judgment, just food.

I am so glad we no longer have an environment of food tension, judgements surrounding food, guilt, shaming and control in our family. It is wonderful to have children who are free to really taste and enjoy food, even if it’s “unhealthy” or, God forbid, “junk” food. We’ll be waking up to freshly made vegetable juice in the morning, and it has absolutely nothing to do with having to “compensate” for the chocolate tonight. It just so happens that tomorrow is a juicing day. We’ll also have a fresh fruit protein smoothie for breakfast, made with home made raw nut butter and organic chia seeds from the Kimberleys in Australia, amongst other delicious ingredients. The smoothie is nothing to do with anything that was eaten tonight or at any other time. It just so happens to be one of our favourite breakfasts at the moment!

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?