FLOG: Thursday, April 16, 2009 & Unschooling Food

This would be a ‘FLOG Jr.”

I found this really fun serving tray at an antique store in Bellevue last week and I just knew that it would make another great tray for Elijah’s food. We decided to take the carrying handle assembly out of the middle because we don’t need it and besides it makes a nice spot to stick a lolly (which I did just after this picture was taken)!

Clockwise starting at the top:
Organic Black Bean Corn Chips
Organic Black Beans (straight from the can, as he likes ’em)
Organic Strawberries & Organic Clementine Wedges
Canned Baby Corn (E’s favorite thing for the last 6 months)

This was the first tray of 2.5 trays for that day.  I think that I am going to start trying to keep track of some of our ‘monkey platters’ around here. I had originally made space on this blog for my FLOGs, but keeping track of my food just isn’t something I am accustomed to doing AND rarely is my food on really neat trays or the focus of huge online debates as to whether or not children can actually ‘handle’ eating what and when they please. By “please” I mean to say, what and when they desire, need, want — in an effort to satisfy some internal need and not satisfy their external parents’ needs.

These conversations or debates usually start out reasonably innocently with a new unschooler asking if it’s ‘okay’ to let their child eat whatever they want or from someone else outside the unschooling frame of thought complaining that their child won’t eat or is ‘picky’, wasteful and so on.

How do the food issues begin in the first place?

As parents, we start out feeding our children in one of two ways: either on demand at the breast or by the clock at the breast/from a bottle. I leave out, on demand from a bottle, because honestly you can’t really feed a child ‘on demand’ from a bottle (regardless of what’s in it), because you have to do something to make that bottle appear and be warmed & yadda yadda, but if you are just breastfeeding then, you just pick up the baby (if you weren’t already holding it) and lift your shirt — that’s pretty instantaneous to me. However, that’s not to say that you can’t feed a baby from a bottle without watching a clock and trying your best to make your baby wait as little as possible to eat.

For parents who choose ‘on demand’, picking up on your baby’s hunger cues can become second nature, because you’re watching and listening to your child and not a clock or expert’s book. Your child also has his natural hunger rhythms uninterrupted and can easily regulate himself with how much he eats and when he eats. These natural rhythms are something that can be and are often interrupted when feedings are done by a clock rather than by cues and have to be relearned later on in life (if that is even an option, depending on a child’s parents’ parenting choices)…it might be that these rhythms aren’t relearned until adulthood, if ever. When we are feeding a child based on the clock and amounts (we can see how much a baby is eating when using bottles), for some unknown reason, we have a tendency to ‘force’ the last ounce or last drop.  If this becomes a habit, then we find ourselves feeding our children not when they are necessarily hungry, but when “it’s time” and then pushing them to finish it all, usually forcing them to overeat. Then solid foods are introduced and the eating issues only get worse!

Unschooling food from the beginning is obviously easier than changing how you handle food and your children later on. In the beginning, you listen to your child to know when *they* need to eat, you do your best to give them what they want and you offer them a variety of foods. When you figure out some foods that they really like, you make an effort to have plenty of them on hand at all times. You let the little ones happily try new things off your plate. Offering very small portions of half a dozen or so things at once can make things fun, ensure that your child finds something s/he likes, help you decode their needs better and not cause ‘wasted’ food to become a focal point for your energy.

There seem to be some issues that keep cropping up in these discussions about food. These issues are presented as reasons why a particular person can’t commit to releasing control over their child’s eating. Here’s just a smattering of the issues:

* They waste too much food or hypothetical concerns about food wastage
* They’re too young to know what they want
* If I let her, she’d only eat [fill in the blank w/ something mainstream parents fear a child eating too much of]
* I’m not a short order cook. I don’t have time to/I don’t want to make four different meals.
* I want us to eat as a family, all together, at the same time and around the table
I want to address these, but in reverse order.

*I* want us to eat as a family, all together, at the same time and around the table. This person probably grew up this way and had a really close family that spent a lot of time talking around the table or they never had anything like this growing up, feel like they missed out and will be damned if they fail their children by depriving them of family ‘togetherness’. Apparently, there is no other time or no other way for so many families to connect than to all eat at the same time every day (regardless of actual hunger) around a table and “talk about their day”. I’m glad I missed out on this most of growing up, because that’s the last thing I wanted to do and if you frequented the same message boards as I, then you would know that most kids today do NOT want to partake in this weird ritual. I’ve always been of the opinion that most meals should be about getting food into our bodies for nourishment and not about recapping the day, which could cause indigestion if it was a rather crappy day! Can we not sit around the table and play card games after everyone has eaten something; eat while watching a movie and pause it when someone has something to comment on or if they are reminded of something they wanted to share with the family? Is it possible for everyone to be in the same room, but not eating if they aren’t hungry? Why does it have to be dinner…even in families who aren’t broken up by work schedules? Is the evening meal the last thing mainstream parents have to try and connect with their children? Why not cancel some of the after-school stuff or lessons so that there is more time to just be a family together…whether or not food is included? Who picks dinner time? Is it a time that is convenient for the parents or the children or is it a consensual group effort? Can the ‘cook’ make a meal when they are hungry and save the leftovers for everyone else? Most children (people in general) are naturally grazers and want to eat when they need energy, not when mum says that it is time to eat.

I’m not a short order cook. I don’t have time to/I don’t want to make four different meals. If you hear this coming out of your mouth, pretend your partner is the cook, you don’t like his choice for dinner and he is saying this to you — how do you feel? You’d want your partner to alter the meal for your tastes, add some side dishes she knows you love, offer to fix you something else, suggest some easy alternatives you can throw together yourself or even offer to order delivery for you — I’m sure there are many more options. Bottom line, you wouldn’t want him telling you that XXX is what he’s making and it’s what you’re going to eat. Why do so many parents have this kind of adversarial relationship with their children? Often times, this issues comes from a parent with more than one or two children and they imagine all their children wanting different things every meal, every day and all they’ll do is live in the kitchen and cook. I don’t think this has ever happened. This person also usually points out that large families living on farms don’t cater to all their children. This might be true, but they forget that in most large families, children are given the skills and autonomy to cook for themselves at very young ages, because the parents understand that no one wants to eat food they hate, there’s not enough time in the day to cater individually to everyone and really, shouldn’t children be able to get their own food when they are hungry? Once you start small, it’s easy to effortlessly make it happen…feed yourself when you are hungry and offer that food to others, hold out some of the pasta without sauce, make the salads, soups and sides fill in gaps for selective eaters and figure out how to love leftovers.

If I let her, she’d only eat [fill in the blank w/ something mainstream parents fear a child eating too much of]. This is where I part ways with most people about food, nutrition and other people’s (children’s) choices. If you can say some kind of untrue statement like the one above, you need to find out why the food you stick into the blank has become so coveted. No person (unless mentally unstable I suppose) would only eat one thing forever, because eventually their body would have them crave other foods so that it could get the nutrients that it needed. So, now that you know your child will not eat ice cream for meals every day until she dies, you can relax. If you can see yourself saying the untrue statement above, I can say with almost certainty, that there are control issues regarding food in your life between you and your child. For food to have become coveted it has to have been limited or forbidden and yes, once you stop the limiting/forbidding, there will likely be an increase in the amount of this particular food being eaten — often as just a way to test that you really are not trying to manipulate and control anymore.

Where I part ways with others on this issue is that I don’t view food in categories of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’. There are things that I’d rather not eat and things I think aren’t the ‘best’ things for anyone to eat, but I can’t tell someone else what they can and can’t put into their bodies — I can keep a child from eating something that could cause him to die or become seriously ill (cleaners/poisons, foods that elicit allergic reactions). I can talk about my choices, the choices of others and information about what food can do for us. I can find creative ways to satisfy my desires for my family to eat more nutritious foods, while satisfying their desires to eat certain things, which traditionally aren’t so nutritious by making healthier versions at home or budgeting to afford buying healthier versions. Don’t offer it, don’t hide/sneak it, don’t refuse/forbid it; mention alternatives, make homemade versions. Set an example with the foods that you eat and go shopping by yourself if you can so that you don’t have to deal with lots of hunger/marketing induced food choices from children. Realize that “I want Oreos”, can mean, “I want cookies (make some at home)”, “I want cookies that look like Oreos (Newman’s Own, et al)” or “I want Oreos (get some freaking Oreos)”.

They’re too young to know what they want. That might be true in some cases, but they aren’t too young to know when their taste buds or stomachs are repulsed by food, nor are they too young to think something smells or looks unappetizing. A child might not know exactly what they want, but that’s no excuse for forcing them to eat food that they obviously would rather throw across the room or that causes them to gag. Find in magazines, draw or take pictures of foods they really *do* like and make a ‘picture menu’ for them so that they can take an active role in choosing their food. Some children will say yes to a food when it is suggested, but then refuse it once it is on their plate…it might have sounded good, but then looked terrible or smelled off or they were confused about what was offered (thought a burrito was a taco or spaghetti was lasagna in their heads). Keep portions small and consider a compost heap or chickens to take care of leftovers or mistakes if you don’t want to eat them.

They waste too much food or hypothetical concerns about food wastage. Most of us are concerned with waste in one way or another…it’s our culture, a culture of wastefulness. Ways to lessen the amount of food that’s wasted can be as easy as offering foods in smaller portions, not offering foods you know will go untouched, not forbidding/limiting certain foods, including children in the buying, shopping and cooking of their food and making food fun, look appealing or present it on fun trays or to be eaten in fun ways (like with fingers!). Other more creative ways of dealing with uneaten food are to start a compost heap, raise a couple chickens (even in the city) and find ways to use leftovers or give/donate food if possible. Abstractly, try to not think of food as something separate from all the other materials in your life and your children’s lives that you use to explore and learn from; reuse, reduce and recycle as much food as you can like you would paper, paint, books, clothing and glitter. Lastly, remember that people, especially young people, are grazers. We want to eat based on energy input/output and NOT “meal times”, unless our natural rhythms were interrupted and never relearned. Large meals and arbitrarily timed meals are almost always going to guarantee that food is wasted uneaten.

So, they might very well gorge on candy and cookies (or whatever you limit/forbid) once you relax your ways and that’s only to be expected. In the end, if you are willing to trust and believe that your children can make the choices *they* need to about their food and eating habits, things will work out and everyone can be happy. Keep in mind that every time you freak out and decide to hide the chocolate, ‘forget’ to buy ice cream, mandate meal times or pass out ‘treats’ like rewards or something, you set yourself back to the beginning of this food freedom journey.

Breathe, Relax, Trust, Love, Live and Enjoy



  1. Sadly, most of it is either based on ‘scarcity’/waste issues or they grew up in one of those ‘clean your plate and eat what I put on the table’ kind of homes and naturally, they ‘turned out fine’, so why should they parent any differently.

  2. Lynn says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I have to ponder them a little more before I decide how much I agree or disagree! I try very hard to follow my 17 month old’s queues. I don’t make him eat in a high chair (we usually eat on the coffee table while we play together). I offer him the foods I think I have the best shot at him eating, even if its watermelon and blueberries every day. He’s still breastfeeding on demand, so he gets most of the nutrition he needs. I do try to get extra protein/iron in him, though, which takes a lot of cajoling. If I set out a tray for him, he’d truly eat: 10 freeze dried blueberries, 2 pieces of watermelon, and maybe 1 french fry over the course of the day. Is that enough? While we’re nursing, it keeps him going, but I keep offering more, even if it means I get 30 head shakes a day. I do think food allergies complicate things too. He can’t eat wheat, dairy, eggs, or nuts right now, so the field of food we’re working with is very limited. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful article! (PS Waste isn’t an issue — I just eat his leftovers…gluten-free food is too expensive to toss).
    Lynn from Chronicle of an Infant Bibliophile

  3. Lynn~ I’m not a nutritionist, so I can’t tell you whether or not your son is eating ‘enough’. I can however, take your son’s cues into consideration…if he only eats a few things and doesn’t ask for more or grab for your food or other people’s food, then he’s probably following his needs and only taking and eating what he requires.

    Children will naturally crave/ask for more of what they need. We’ve gone days before where I’ve noticed E not eating much in the way of protein and then by the end of day two or beginning of day three he’ll specifically ask for and consume two entire cans of chickpeas!

    My son started to verbalize with around 10 months and by one year could give a real ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when given food options. However, he really wasn’t offered food…we just waited until he grabbed ours and started eating and that wasn’t until between 10 and 11 months. I don’t think I really started to give him ‘his own’ food until he was about 13 or 14 months and he continued to nurse until 27 months. I never second guessed his reply about food offerings (even when he changed his mind shortly afterwards) and I always honored the head shake.

    We forget how tiny their stomachs are (how little they can put in at once) and how high their metabolisms are (just how fast they burn through that little bit of food).

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