My daughter’s choice for dinner last night
Baby-led weaning was great. My daughter tried everything. I was pretty sure this would be the solution for one of my biggest fears, that my daughter would end up like me as a child. I had been fussy and scared of food. I remember being filled with anxiety everytime I went to a friend’s house. What if they served something I didn’t like.
Baby-led-weaning did work for the baby stage, but when my daughter became a toddler things were more challenging. Gradually foods started dropping off her list, more and more as time went on. Was this just natural for a toddler? There were also inconsistencies about her eating. For example she would eat crackers at her playgroup but not at home. She’d eat cashews with a friend who babysat but not with me.
All around me parents were making lovely meals for their kids while I was feeling like a failure, because I just couldn’t seem to time it right. I went with the flow, and was never very good at schedules. If my daughter said she was hungry, I would feed her. It would inevitably happen that my daughter would have a croissant as a late morning snack and not want any lunch, or do the same on the way home because she was starving and then not want any dinner. My daughter was a natural grazer, and I kept questioning whether it really was natural to manipulate her in my assumption that she should eat at mealtimes.
Hand in Hand parenting helped to some extent. Laughter and connection helped her to release fear about foods and try new things. Sometimes I would set limits, and staylisten. But often she was just not hungry or would just point blank refuse to eat. I felt that something was not quite ‘right’ about the way we were approaching her eating, but I wasn’t sure how to change things.
A friend told me that picky eating is often about control, but I wondered how this could apply to our family. I gave my daughter lots of freedom and choice. She isn’t in school yet, so mostly the days are dictated by fun activities and playdates, or playing at home. I always respected her needs and wishes. What more freedom could she possibly want!
Over the summer. I started being more free with food. I had heard about unschooling, which is all about trusting children and giving them as much freedom as we can. Unschooling families have found that when children are given complete freedom that after an initial experimentation period where they binge on the ‘forbidden foods’ they learn to self-regulate and eat a balanced diet.
I began to realise that once my daughter was a teenager, she would have more freedom anyway. She would be able to sneak food without me knowing, and I didn’t like the idea of her doing things in secret, along with the guilt. That didn’t seem like a very healthy attitude.
So she ate ice cream most days over the summer, and plenty of crisps. But I was fearful and worried, and would be quite inconsistent swinging from complete permissiveness to trying to control her. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t sure about whether this ‘unschooling’ approach would really work. I was also worried that if I said yes to all food, my daughter would be free to use food as an emotional prop to stuff her feelings down.
Then we’d be in the supermarket, and my daughter would say she was hungry, and suddenly start refusing the healthy food choices I offered, but wouldn’t say what she wanted. I realised that she was thinking of ice cream or crisps, and yet she didn’t even feel like she could ask for them. She knew I thought she was bad, for wanting bad foods and was feeling guilt.
One time, I saw it on her face, and I told her, ”I’m so sorry, I made you feel bad, about wanting these foods. I’m going to give you the choice from now, so you ask me what you want.” She started to cry, and I realised that making these foods bad, was instilling a hurt. She was starting to feel bad for wanting ‘bad’ food.
But I still went back to saying avoiding crisps and chocolate, or not offering as options. My daughter didn’t talk about it, but I knew they were still there under the surface. And she was getting fussier and fussier.
Finally something happened that allowed me to embrace food freedom. I read about it on an Aware Parenting online discussion group. There was a mother whose child still had Halloween sweets in the fridge. Because all foods were permitted, and not limited she didn’t feel the need to binge, and eat them constantly.
Aware parenting is very similar to Hand in Hand parenting, in our approach to listening to feelings. It was like a revelation to me, to think that I could possibly allow my child food freedom, and also make sure that her feelings were heard so she wouldn’t use food as a prop to stuff down her emotions.
I also got some great advice from parents on the UK unschooling network online group. Thanks, Educating Sausages!
Then I began to read an amazing book called Kids, Carrots, and Candy which was written by two psychotherapists, Jane Hirschmann and Lela Zaphiropoulos and was first published in the 1980’s. They explain that when we limit foods, our children feel controlled and begin to crave the foods that aren’t available because they seem more special. They absorb our cultural message that these are the more tasty foods.
They offer step by step advice on how to allow our children complete freedom with food and naturally eat a balanced diet. All foods become ‘legal.’ We stock up on our child’s favourite treats and make sure they don’t run out. The authors found that after an initial binging period on the ‘forbidden’ foods children will learn to self-regulate, especially once they trust that we won’t try to control them anymore.
They begin to intuitively sense what their body needs, and when they are full. They will eat a healthy balanced diet, naturally out of their own freedom of choice and not because they’ve been limited, or controlled or not had any other choice. (The same method can work for adults apparently too!) For me one of the most reassuring pieces of advice that children need to get a balanced diet over a period of two weeks, not necessarily over one day as we commonly assume.
Kids, Carrots, and Candy also has some great reassuring advice, for how to allow food freedom, but also setting limits so we don’t become a domestic slave! For example we can choose to cook only one hot meal, while having an abundance of snacks or food that needs minimum preparation. There’s also tips for shopping on a budget, and explaining that to our children.
So I got in a lot of chocolate and crisps. And now my daughter has been binging on chocolate. I’m sure to replenish the supply before it runs out, rather than my usual tactic of letting the food run out as a means of controlling. Interestingly she’s never overeaten on either crisps or chocolate (perhaps because of the baby-led-weaning) and only eats enough to be full.
What’s also interesting is that my daughter is now asking for foods she hasn’t had in months. She asked for pancakes for breakfast, with blueberries, which is something she’s never tried before. She’s tucked into a big bowl of porridge mid morning. In the evening she snacks on veggies as she helps with the food preparation. Ironically now I have relaxed control she is hungry for dinner every single night, requesting rice, noodles and tofu, and eating a good portion. Before 9 times out of ten she wouldn’t even sit down with us at dinner, and I had just about given up! The photo at the top of this article is what she ate last night. It’s the first time ever she mixed a vegetable with her noodles. Before now she said she said it was too confusing to eat more than one food at once.
I can’t describe the sense of peace I have found at giving up control of food. All that fear I had of unhealthy options, has vanished. I’m reassured by reading Kids, Carrots, and Candy that this binging is just a phase, and when we come out the other side, my daughter will have returned to the natural, healthy attitude to food she was born with. In the meantime we’re carrying our toothbrush everywhere, and brushing three times a day!
In hunter gatherer societies, children were actually given few limits. They foraged for food, learning by observing the adults what was good to eat and what was poisonous. They didn’t have bedtimes, or limits on when they couldn’t play. They learnt everything through play.
Our society is very different. Our children are limited by time, work, and school, just as we are in our busy lives. There is a lot more stress which is why a parenting approach like Hand in Hand parenting really helps to notice when our children are not thinking straight and our stressed and set limits, to allow them to release their feelings through staylistening. Perhaps in the future they’ll be times when I will set a limit about food when I noticed my daughter’s got feelings bubbling underneath the surface, but I’m not going to set the limits out of fear and mistrust of food.
Our children’s brains haven’t changed. They still crave the infinite freedom they had in hunter gather societies. The tools of special time and playlistening can help to readdress the power balance in our modern lives. Trusting our children to make good choices when they are thinking well can also help.
I’m looking forward to how my daughter naturally regulates her eating, and learning to trust that inner voice inside of her. I’m looking forward to using laughter and connection, and listening to feelings, to grow her food confidence even more. And I’m even looking forward to talking with her as she grows older, about how parents don’t always get it right. They get confused with the wealth of information out there, and have their baggage influencing their thinking. And as the title of one of the blogs I share below suggests, we often have to ‘rethink everything’ we’ve assumed to be true.
We’re just starting out on this food journey, but here are some fantastics stories from parents who are further along the path. And be sure to check out Kids, Carrots, and Candy. This book has changed our lives, and I’m so grateful to the authors.