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Food Freedom

good-stuffHaving spent my childhood raised on Little Debbie snacks and soda pop, I’ve come a long way. It took me 20 years to completely give up my addiction to sugar and cravings for junk food––which is not food at all. Further, my children at very young ages taught me that they were capable of choosing their own foods and learning from their choices––I did not need to make decisions for them.

Aside from a small handful of breathetarians in the world (yes, people who don’t need food to survive), most of us eat food to grow and maintain our bodily functions. Proponents for all possible food realities exist: from raw food to fasting, vegetarian to macrobiotic, vegan to carnivore, paleo, gluten-free, organic, free-range, blah, blah, blah. We all eat. And we’re all different. We all enjoy different foods at different times in different quantities, prepared uniquely to our meet our evolving tastes. Well, that is if we’re lucky enough to be able think for ourselves and experiment with/choose foods that appeal. Ok, that is not likely true for most of us. Just a few of us.

As parents, we are often very concerned about the quality and quantity of food our children eat. We tend to apply our own likes and dislikes, standards for quality and preparation to what we serve our kids. We like to think that what we serve them will be nutritious and nurture their bodies and brains. How do we know? We make lots of assumptions based on our experience and knowledge but we rarely create an environment for our children that allows them to make these important, perhaps even critical, decisions for themselves.

Let’s talk about this. First, is it possible to offer a complete array of food stuffs to a child so they can choose for themselves? Second, could it be important that they be given this opportunity? Third, are we just asking for trouble with the approach? After all do we really want to be preparing different foods for each of our children every day? And what if they choose foods we don’t approve of, like candies and sodas and ice cream for dinner and, and, and?

I am going to skip the theory and philosophy with this discussion and just jump into what I currently think about it all.

Just as infants each breastfeed differently––nursing for longer or shorter times, often or less often, more some days and less on others––it is only natural that as they move to solid foods they will maintain their (ever-changing) eating patterns. As a mom, I want to honor my child’s natural tastes, preferences, likes and dislikes. As a toddler, I will offer her as wide a range of foods that I deem tasty and nutritious: fresh fruits and vegetables cut into small pieces or blended into smoothies or steamed lightly to make soft. I’ll offer fresh cooked beans, eggs, small pieces of fish and meat, bits of cheese, whole grains and breads. Watching her enjoy or refuse foods tells me what she wants more of and gives me incentive to find/invent more options in the areas of food she is enjoying.

As she gets a bit older and spends more time in the big world of friends who eat candy, fast food, other things I might call junk, I just watch as she experiments. Because I no longer eat those foods, she’ll ask me why when she notices and I will explain to her in as neutral a way as possible why I choose not to eat them. I will continue to trust her food choices, even buying the junk things she asks for. Even when, as challenging as it can be, she might want nothing but.

Here is what I have learned about this: when solid food offerings as in-arms babes are of whole foods (including, critically, breast milk), when they are supported later to make independent decisions about food choices in a non-judgmental environment as toddlers, offered a wide range of their own versions of tasty whole foods when they are hungry (not according to your schedule) always, the child will always return to foods that support their maximum growth and well-being, even when it may appear from time to time that they have fallen in love with a junk item. As a mom, I have lived through a few bouts of candy loving, a few years of what I considered very picky eating. All now adults, each of my kids has long been aware of their personal responsibility over their health and its relationship to the foods they eat. They’ve all learned how to cook, and do it very well. None of them regularly eat fast food or processed food––they all live away from home so I can’t be sure of this but based on our conversations and our many discussions of food and lifestyle, I know they place extraordinary value on consuming fresh whole foods. I also know they never report getting sick, aside from a cold every couple of years or so.

So, while I believe in this notion of “food freedom” and in a child’s natural ability to choose foods that support their body’s desire to thrive, I also believe in being the best role model I can be for this. Which means that I am responsible to myself for thinking about the quality of my own mental and physical wellbeing and what is required to maximally support my highest state. I admit that I have come to believe that processed foods, far removed from their whole state, with significant amounts of dyes, preservatives and synthetic additives are toxic to the human animal. Why would I offer them to my precious, beautiful children? That doesn’t even make sense to me. But since I trust my child’s ability to experiment and learn what promotes a healthy, vital state, I am comfortable with his exposure to the “real world” as he moves through life and his need to consider and understand the wide range of food options out there.

The bottom line for me as a mom who cares both enormously about the quality of my child’s health and his need for self-ownership is this:

1. My child is learning by watching me and the other adults in my home. What do we eat, how do we prepare it, how much do we enjoy it, how healthy are we, how much energy do we have?

2. Take maximum responsibility for knowing what foods allow for your own maximum state of wellbeing and commit yourself to offering that as a backbone to your infant and young child. As an example, even if you eat a macrobiotic diet and your child eventually chooses to eat a raw or omnivorous diet, he will come to understand at a very young age that the type and quality of food you eat is not random but carefully considered.

3. Let your child know that he is responsible for making his own choices and that you trust him to know what is best for him. Do this unconditionally if you can, it will carry much more weight.

4. Create or say yes to opportunities for him to explore the world of people, foods, health, disease––in other words, the “real world.” Share your opinions and ideas, continue researching, observing and learning and empower (don’t require) him to do the same. We’re all trying to figure out what works for us and I’ve learned too that our needs are always changing. It is a journey after all. And it’s supposed to be fun.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ahhh! Such a breath of fresh air….Luvin how spacious I feel after reading this! Luv u!

    September 10, 2013
  2. My philosophy exactly, Barb! Although I must admit that I feel pain when I see the kids go through their occasional lolly binge. And, I am also very happy that they’re not interested (so far) in sodas. But what do you do when your five-year-old asks for a sip of your very strong black coffee (my only indulgence, just one a day, and I actually think it is good for me!) and he says, “hmm, that’s so yummy, Mummy!!” (Not what I expected to hear.)

    September 10, 2013
    • Same thing you do when they tell you the lollipop tastes good. Acknowledge their enjoyment. If he says he wants a cup, consider having a conversation with him about caffeine and why you like the stimulation. If he wants to try it, pour him a cup and see how he feels. Talk to him about how he feels. This is exactly what experimenting with life is all about – our sense of taste and bodily responses to what we ingest is, aside from sex, the most sensitive, exhilarating sense we have. He wants to taste life!

      September 11, 2013
  3. Annie #

    Barb, you’ve obviously been reading the work of Ellyn Satter!

    At first I scoffed at Ellyn’s recommendation for structured snack and meal times, but after experimenting for quite some years I can see that when my kids browse they eat a very small subset of foods which need no preparation and the balance tilts far towards sweeter things. It’s cheese, crackers, nuts and yoghurt all day long. Whereas if I keep them out of the kitchen for a couple of hours at a time they’ll be hungry enough to dig into a sandwich (with spinach), or dinner, with all sorts of vegetables and flavours, or it gives me a chance to make up a ‘snack tray’ with fruits and meats and nuts. In terms of them being hungry and faced with a range of foods to choose what their body needs I think she is on the right track with structured eating times (We have eating times at, roughly, 8,10,12,2,4, 5:30, and sometimes a bedtime snack).

    It’s kind of a natural experiment with this if you’re on a hike or at a museum or something – look at the much wider range of foods they’ll choose when hunger builds up a bit more.

    With regard to artificial colours and flavours and artificial sweeteners, because they’re hidden in the food and young children aren’t so great with long term consequences I strictly limit them. Their brains are not mature enough to fully grasp the consequences. We cook lots of delicious, sweet and tasty foods at home, I use butter and sugar freely when I bake. On ‘pizza day’ at school (I have to work) we instead have ‘ice cream sundae day’ where we have a smorgasboard of ice creams and fruit and cream and toppings, all whole foods (except for the naturally coloured sprinkles).

    September 22, 2013
    • Hi Annie. I am not familiar with Ellyn Satter, so my response to your post might not make sense to you. I am only in favor of structured snack and meal times if the child is asking for it, and based on my experience, they don’t. We wouldn’t either if we weren’t so conditioned to eat at specific times of the day. Why should snacks and food on demand not be food you prepare? How about preparing the foods for the day in the morning and having them available under refrigeration or at room temp – depending upon the food – so they can access them when hungry? Just a small sampling of possibilities: deviled or hard boiled eggs; celery with peanut butter; dates with cream or goat cheese; skewers of meat, veggies, cheese; fruit salads; fruit salads with some nuts and dried fruit; sushi; lettuce wraps with hummus and shredded veggies; rice and veggie salads; smoothies of all kinds; sliced apples with nut butter; small sandwiches with egg salad or chicken salad…..

      I agree that it is all an experiment, and an ongoing one. If your family is like mine, our tastes are always changing and so is our hunger. And talking about it all is useful too. The goal for me is to get my kids empowered and responsible to themselves for the quality and quantity of food that serves them.

      WRT to your museum example, I see it just the opposite: the more we visit the museums, with ease and fun and curiosity, the more likely we all are to be more creative, inventive, curious about the world, want to know more.

      I am with you WRT to artificial foods and flavors as infants and as young toddlers… until I can’t control it or them any more. I want my kids be a part of the big, real world and if it means they want to sample “junk” then I will support them. I know that if their minds and bodies have acquired a love for food that tastes and feels good – the whole food that I have learned to feed them, not make them eat – they may experiment but will return to the foods that make him feel great. Unlike you, however, I won’t and never did prepare anything, including baking, with copious amounts of sugar. I read a book called “Sugar Blues” as a teenager, which is all about sugar addiction and the ramifications of such, and chose since then to eliminate as much cane sugar as possible from my diet. I feel like that was a huge upgrade and caused me and my (later) family to have very minimal sweet tooths. I wonder if your use of sugar is what could be causing this gravitation to sweets as you state in your post….?

      September 23, 2013

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