Having 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.