What Happens When You Let Children Eat What They Want

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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.

Overcoming Overeating Website for Jane Hirshmann, Author of Kids, Carrots and Candy

It all balances out 

Rethinking everything : Food Freedom 

Not forcing food, not limiting quantities, not eating by the clock

Halloween candy getting dusty

Hand in Hand parenting’s 20 playful Ways To Help Picky Eaters 

 

 

18 thoughts on “What Happens When You Let Children Eat What They Want

  1. Love this. My girls are only young oldest almost 4 and we have unschooled food for about a year or so, and its so liberating and freeing. We have had ice cream for breakfast previously, cereal for lunch, sweets for dinner. I figure who told us that only certain foods are for certain times of the day?? My daughters put odd combinations together like beans and pineapple…..who was I to tell them that didn’t go. They have a varied diet and are the only children I know who when they go to a birthday party aren’t there with the other kids gorging on chocolate and sweets!!! 🙂

    1. thanks for sharing Fayeski 🙂 Reasurring to hear about the birthday parties. This is what I want for my daughter. I feel that ice cream and chocolate still have such a strong novelty value, and that giving her the chance to regulate herself will be really helpful. Even a week into this experiment, and she asked me for an evening snack of red and yellow peppers! Despite having free access to a cupboard full of chocolate and crisps!

  2. Like this post and your ideas and suggestions. Just two thoughts: the self-regulation can work (we’ve tried it a few times with our children), but it can also lead to bigger issues, as many foods contain addictives. Once you’re addicted to sugar for example (and I would say I’m addicted to sugar and caffeine), it’s very hard work to overcome it. The same applies to the times of hunters and gatherers. Children then would explore, test and play with food, and yes, copy the grown-ups to see what’s edible. But again, at those times, there didn’t exist a massive food industry who put chemicals, addictives and other nasties in the food. That’s the problem today. Children (and adults) are being tricked by flashy packages, sugary ingredients, and chemicals to make us feel good… not to mention GM-food which recent research linked to cancer…

    What we try with our children is to show them alternatives: they love chocolate spread (as I do too). Instead of buying it all the time, we make our own using organic peanut butter/cashew butter, cocoa, coconut oil and a little honey. This way they can enjoy the ‘treat’ without us feeling guilty 🙂

    1. HI Torsten, thanks for your comment. I love healthy alternatives too, although now I’m letting my daughter have the ‘real’ chocolate, ice cream etc. This is the bit I’m still not sure about. Are foods really intrinsically addictive in themselves or do we have some control? There’s a famous study where rats living alone in cages were given free access to heroin and used it till they overdosed and died.
      Then when the rats lived together in one big cage with fun coloured wheels etc in a kind of ‘rat heaven’ they didn’t become addicted to the heroin and were hardly interested. There is an addictions expert called Johann Hari who says that ‘the opposite of addiction is connection.’ it’s a connection problem rather than a substance problem. He’s pro-legalisation of drugs I think.
      In my own experience I find that my addictions such as caffeine have an emotional/connection side, and that if I’m feeling emotionally strong, and not overwhelmed by stress and the challenges of life, then I don’t need the caffeine. I could give up with the help of listening time (one of the Hand in Hand parenting tools for supporting parents)
      The book Kids Carrots and Candy explains that the very fact of having things in abundance does not lead to addiction but the complete opposite. Children learn to trust and take control of their inner intuition of what feels right for their bodies. They have a little bit of advice about watching for when your child might be eating for emotional reasons so you can offer some connection so they think twice about choosing food. I’m trusting the authors on this one, and others who have taken this path, as we’ve only just started this week! We shall see as time goes on.

  3. I wanted to like this article, I really did, and you seem a great parent, wanting the best for your kid… Yet, I disagree. First things first, I’m not (yet) a parent myself so I surely don’t know the struggles of teaching healthy eating to kids. What I do know are cases I’ve seen in our endocrinologic pediatrics departement (I work as an intern).

    There are dozens (my coordinator says she’s seen thousands) of obese kids due exclusively to overeating. In each and every case they eat absurd amounts of sweets and pastries, skip breakfast, drink sodas. Or if not absurd amounts, they do it moderately but on a regular basis. It’s like the same story all over again. And we can’t blame binge eating for this behavior (though in some – rare – cases it happens), for the simple fact that children prefer sweets. It’s not about “the forbidden fruit”, “wanting to show control”, since in most of the cases:
    a. The parents are simply ignorant/uninformed about the nutritional values of food so they don’t really care what the kid eats (shockingly, yes, this happens quite often), hence the kids have eaten all their lives only what they felt like (so they can’t really feel “the guilt” of eating unhealthy food, cause they simply don’t know it’s unhealthy)
    b. Sweets/macs/sodas are offered on a daily basis, in order to satisfy the kid’s wishes and thus show their parent’s openness (then again, if children have desserts every day, why do they keep eating it and, inevitably, become fatter and more addicted to it?)

    So I’d rather agree with the Mister who noticed that you can’t really compare the quality of food children were once fed to the one we meet in supermarkets nowadays. It’s incomparably more synthetic and addictive, and though “blame bad food” is a nasty approach to eating, in my opinion it’s a lot more desirable than setting no limits to a kid who is not responsible for their instincts.

    I do agree that in your case it seems that your daughter has been thoroughly informed about the nutritive qualities of food, and might be capable enough of choosing what she wants to eat. But I think it’s simply inevitable to see (let them be somatic, and not psychological) consequences in unhealthy eating. Good luck to you and your daughter, may you find – and keep – the right path for both of you.

    1. thanks for sharing Corina. I think the point with this kind of eating – also called intuitive eating, is that children intuitvely begin to sense what is right for their bodies, and after an initial phase they will not overeat sweets etc. because it just doesn’t feel good to their bodies. Their intuition will keep them on a healthy path. For example my daughter last week tended to start the day with chocolate, but by the end of the day she eats a normal meal, and then often asks for red and yellow peppers as a evening snack or an apple! Clearly her body’s asking for vitamins, and she already has a sense of what she needs.
      I don’t know about the children that you see but I assume they haven’t had a programme where they are given space to have all their food choices honoured (including the healthy ones), in a positive affirming way, and so haven’t learnt to develop this intuitive style of eating. For example perhaps they do have desserts every day, but their parents never let them have dessert first, and there’s lots of power struggles about eating the main meal first. Or they do not have a wide variety of healthy choices available, that they know and have tasted. Maybe there are also emotional reasons that they are turning to this kind of food, that haven’t been adddressed? I would always take care that my daughter were not eating for emotional reasons.
      If parents have no idea about nutrition then that’s a huge problem!
      Full range of foods doesn’t mean just having sodas and sweets available. It means having all the healthy stuff there, and someone at least who is willing to cook what the child wants (within reason!) I think that’s a massive difference.
      Just my perspective on it. We don’t have macs or sodas – perhaps I would draw a line at certain things like this. My daughter has never expressed an interest. We’re also vegetarian. That’s a limit, but one my daughter has not been interested in crossing.
      If it weren’t working out, then I would change how we do it. This feels like the right direction to go in at the moment, but my thinking is always changing and evolving, and it’s been really interesting reading all the thoughts challenging this approach. The book is certainly and interesting read, and the authors have been helping children and adults with weight problems for decades.

  4. How old is your daughter/how old was she when you started this? Also, are you married/co-parenting, and if so how did your partner react to this method?

    1. Hi Emily, my daughter is 4. We only just started. My partner is okay with it, he really leaves it to me to make all the parenting choices and then follows along! I could see he was a little anxious when my daughter wasn’t eating meals, and he really likes to cook and prepare food, so I think he could see that something needed to change

  5. We pretty much do this. We did EBF for 5 1/2 months, extended feeding to age 4, and BLW when she reached for food just before turning 6 months. We allowed everything – days into starting eating, we were in France in a creperie and she grabbed for my chocolate crepe and we let her have it. I have a fabulous photo! My “rule” is if I’m eating it, she can eat it too (except for alcohol and caffeine – she understands that these foods are for adults only, but she can try them when she’s grown up too).

    I spoon fed and limited food with my older daughter. She was pretty unfussy too, but this was so much easier. No arguing with the child or agonising over whether she should eat this or that – and my responsibility ended wtih putting the dinner on the table. I don’t worry whether she eats it or not. However, (in response to the medic raising concerns above) I would say the food we eat as a family is pretty good on the whole – I don’t buy much processed food. If there’s cake, I’ve made it – if there’s pizza, I will have made it from scratch. Most of our meals are fresh veg and meat.

    She’s 4 now, and eats pretty much everything, and is willing to try most things – prawns, olives, Thai… she loves eating out, and is a dream to take. Compared to other people’s kids that will only eat ham sandwiches on white bread or Heinz tomato soup, she’s a dream. We were in rural Spain last year on holiday, and our Spanish isn’t much cop, so we ordered quite a lot of tapas not really knowing what it would be – and it was no problem at all… we all tried everything.

    We do have sweets and chocolate at home. I store them in an old hat box, which is within her reach. She rarely wants them, though I might take some down when we’re watching a film or something. Last night she made her friend a valentine gift – a paper covered yoghurt pot filled with sweets – and she covered the box, got the hat box down, filled the tub for her friend and didn’t take a sweetie for herself. I routinely have to go through it, and throw away out of date xmas, easter and halloween sweeties. I think her diet is much better than mine… I’ll be sitting there eyeing up a second butter biscuit, and I could offer her and she’ll decline. I think you just have to trust them tbh.

    Most of our friends limit their kids – one in particular is esp harsh. Her 4 year old has never tried chocolate and isn’t allowed a homemade iced cake. As a result, I’ve found myself having to explain the food plate – and how you need to balance fruit, veg, carbs, protein etc., because all the chat about food is unhealthy and healthy food. Totally bonkers – I’m repeating routinely now that no foods are unhealthy 🙂

    1. thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s really reassuring to hear that this way does work. It was so scary to start doing it, but I just felt like I reached like dead-end, with how I was approaching food. Always wishing my daughter would eat her meals, and trying to avoid the subject of crisps and chocolate! This way feels easier, much more about communication and saying yes. It’s a little scary too, since it’s so different, but yet it also feels right for us.

    1. thanks Janet, this is fascinating. I notice that it’s a bit different to the way we are doing it, as the researchers only included healthy food. And what a shame this information isn’t more widely known or accepted. i think because of the way our food was controlled as children we are automatically mistrustful that our children can make good decisions about their diet. Letting go and trusting, is both scary and liberating!

  6. This is so interesting Kate, thank you for sharing. We own an ice cream factory so it’s a bit hard to limit the kids sugar intake when it’s on tap! But I have found that my eldest, despite loving the sweet stuff, has never really over indulged and often leaves some ice cream or choc if she feels full.

    1. wow, so interesting! I can imagine a no limits approach would be the only one possible in your case! My daughter has never overeaten either, although now she is taking advantage of being able to eat lots of chocolate. But she does know when to stop. I’m learning to trust her more and more, and it’s so much easier than trying to control.

    1. Hi Shefali, I let my daughter eat what she wanted for lunch and dinner. But she didn’t ask for chocolate. She has been requesting ‘normal’ meals for lunch and dinner, like spaghetti, chips, rice, noodles etc. She likes to start the day with chocolate though!

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