PAM: Hi, everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today we are trying something a little different, as you can see. It is kind of a round table focused on a single topic and I am joined by Sylvia Woodman…
PAM: …Jo Isaac…
PAM: …and Meredith Novak.
MEREDITH: Hi, everyone.
PAM: So, this week, we are going to dive into unschooling and food. It is a pretty frequent question on the listener Q & A episodes, and around in the unschooling groups, so I thought it would be great to dedicate a whole episode to talking about it.
So, just to get us started, you guys have all been on the podcast before and I will link to those episodes in the show notes, but …
Can you give everyone a quick intro to you and your family?
And why don’t you get us started, Jo.
JO: Oh, ok. My name is Jo, I am married to Brett and we have one child, Kai, who is 12 tomorrow. And he is always unschooled.
SYLVIA: I’m Sylvia Woodman. My two children are Gabriella, who is 13, and Harry, who’s 11, and they’ve never been to school. I’m married to Jim, and … I don’t know what else to say…
PAM: That covers it!
MEREDITH: I am Meredith, and my kids are Ray and Morgan. Ray is 24 and Morgan is 16, and Ray got the full process package; homeschool, school, unschooling. And Morgan got to be unschooled from the start, so I have had both ways.
PAM: That is awesome. Alright, so let us dive right into our topic.
I would love to hear a little bit about your journeys around food and control. So, maybe an idea around what life with food looked like when you first began unschooling and kind of where you have gotten to now.
PAM: And I should have brought something to like, roll the dice, that three-sided dice. Sylvia!
SYLVIA: Ok! Let’s see. Well, very much I feel like my personal relationship with food is still evolving, you know, and I am still thinking about it in new ways all the time. I feel like this is a big area for my own deschooling process.
When Gabriella was born, I was going to La Leche League and was very heavily involved there and was very sort of inspired and influenced by what La Leche League was talking about with food. There was a big emphasis on breastfeeding for as long as was agreeable to the mom and the baby and so we were nursing for a long time, and also, they have some philosophies about parenting, but also about nutrition.
One of their philosophies about food was to eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods and as close to its natural form as possible, so that was definitely where I was coming from when the kids were small. We were part of an organic community supported agriculture farm-share thing, there was a lot of spending the afternoon at the farm, picking strawberries, you know and we have always liked to cook.
Both Jim and I do a lot of cooking; we make a lot of things from scratch, but I have also been someone who has always struggled with my weight and my parents had a lot of issues around food, so I had a lot of issues around food and I was trying really hard not to pass that along to my kids. So happily like, unschooling ideas sort of came in just to sort of intersect with these La Leche League ideas and so I do not want to say that La Leche League ideas were bad or wrong or that I threw them out completely, but it was more like unschooling ideas kind of got added on, like, ‘Sure, organic strawberries are great, but you know what else is great? M&Ms.’
And it started with Gabriella; as a baby she tended to eat very much like she was born to be a yoga instructor, you know what I mean? Like, she really does not have much of a sweet tooth and never really did—she liked tart things, she liked sour things, she liked spicy things. Harry, on the other hand had a very limited palette and really only now as he is hitting adolescence are things really opening up and really breaching out for him.
So, I remember going to my first unschooling conference in 2009 and I think all weekend, all he ate was Hershey bars. He was still nursing at the time, but the only solid food that passed his lips were Hershey bars and so I felt kind of embarrassed about this; I did not want anybody to see because I was with all of these other people and I desperately wanted to be doing it “right.”
But the problem was, there were things that I was still learning about my son, like that he was, and still is, fairly introverted and big crowds and lots of people and being away from home stressed him out. And when he is stressed out, he shuts down and he went with what he knew: chocolate. It’s smooth, it’s sweet, it’s creamy, it fills you up, you know what I mean? So, he went with that and even things that I knew he liked, he was not touching it because the rest of the weekend for him was stressful. I was still learning, I did not know that these are the kinds of environments that we should avoid for him, or if we are going to take him there, we have to plan escape routes for him. We have to plan an errand to take him offsite and feed him.
But those were things that I was learning as we went forward. That’s enough, right?
PAM: Yes, that is beautiful.
MEREDITH: Can I jump in? Next!
MEREDITH: Okay, because some of this is all so familiar with Morgan.
I am going to back up a little bit because I started out as like the stereotypical picky eater, you know, and my childhood was staring at the plate trying to choke down “three more bites.” So, if nothing else, I went into parenting with a decision that I was not going to do that—I was not going to fight about food. Ray was the perfect eater, he had this huge metabolism, he would eat anything. He would complain about it, but he would eat it. So, we thought we were doing good.
And then Morgan came along and took conservative eating to master class level and I do not even know where to start. I mean, Morgan is the kind of kid where other people say, “Oh my kid doesn’t eat,” and then they list like, seven or eight things that their kids eat and I am like, “Okay. Wait. Stop. Some of those things contain ingredients. Not all of those things are white or come in a Fruit Loops box. Do not tell me what your kid doesn’t eat.”
And, like Sylvia said with stress, she also had a tiny appetite and, any kind of stress, it would just go away entirely. If we were visiting, if there were people, my kid could subsist on milk for days. There was one summer she subsisted on milk, which was the ultimate master class in how not to panic with a picky eater.
But I remember the first unschooling conference we went to, and we go to the big eating place and my kid is curled up in a ball on her seat and cannot function. At the same time, I am noticing for the first time in my life I am in this room and I am surrounded by families and nobody is saying, “You have to take three more bites,” and it is like, “Yes!”
So, yeah, a lot of my journey with unschooling and food was, first of all, dealing with a kid who really just did not eat and still at 16, we still sneak and do a little happy dance when she tries a new food. This month? Oatmeal. No idea how she got the idea, the internet is a wonderful thing. She comes up and says, “I want oatmeal!” and we are like, “Have you made her oatmeal? I have never made her oatmeal. How do we make her oatmeal?” She ate it, she ate the whole thing. We have not heard about it since, but you know, new food, this month, yay oatmeal. And she is 16 and we are still doing that happy dance. But she is trying new things, it is just a different lifestyle than a lot of people have, but we are not fighting about food. We are able to do the happy dance instead of like, day after day, being like, “Okay, come of kid, just eat it.”
PAM: That feels like that would create so many relationship issues. Like, she knows herself, that she can walk up now and say, “I want to try oatmeal.” That is one thing that I love, because you can see that they are in a place where they get to make those choices for themselves, they do not feel like, “Oh, mom’s been wishing that I tried oatmeal for the last seven years and I am finally going to capitulate to her,” right?
MEREDITH: Yeah, she can just decide to try something and it is not a big deal because we have not made it a big deal. Quietly in the background, it is a big deal, but we have not made it a big deal, we have let her.
And I know health is further down the road, but, you know, especially when you have a kid who eats so few things, people are like, “Oh, what about their health?” This kid is so healthy, it is unreasonable. I mean, she has tons of energy; very, very busy. When she was little, my neighbors once commented that she had six pack abs; she was out jumping on her trampoline. It was probably like, hour fours on the trampoline and they’re like, “Oh my god, your kid has so much energy AND she has got six-pack abs, how does that happen?” and I am like, “I do not know, she lives on air and sunshine and happy, that’s it.
PAM: That is so wonderful that, you know, just learning about themselves and knowing what they need, and we just cannot prescribe that, you know. You would never come up with that plan, right? “I want her to be healthy and energetic, so I am going to feed her just milk for this summer.”
MEREDITH: But not animal cookies because she does not eat animals. (Laughter)
PAM: Okay Jo, how about you?
JO: I was going to talk about what it first looked like when I had Kai, but everybody has talked about their food background and I was pretty much like Meredith’s daughter. I did not really eat very much as a child and my mom just remembers running around after me trying to feed me chocolate because I did not really eat anything else, and I was super skinny, and I did not really eat much.
I ate chocolate for breakfast until I was about 22, so every day I had chocolate for breakfast; usually a Mars bar. So, with that in mind, my mom really did not ever control my eating at all, and I never was in a house when I had “one more bite” or anything like that. She always fed me whatever I wanted, so I do not know why I decided when I had Kai I was going to be THAT mom. He was going to have no sugar, and eat healthy, and I was like completely the other way, my mom is not a terrible person and…
SYLVIA: Plus, we all have to like, do the opposite of how we were raised, or something?
PAM: I think so!
JO: Yes! For the first year, Kai was really on board with that, he ate everything, and he was scooping his avocado out when he was a little baby and then that all changed when he got a little bit older. He narrowed down as kids do and ate—like Meredith said, “white foods,”—what we called the “Beige diet” for many years. So, bread and pasta and noodles and cereal.
We found unschooling when Kai was around 3, so I started to rethink food around then, and I think maybe when I did start to rethink it, because of the way my mom had been and the way I had been, it actually came easier then. So, it was not too hard when I finally started to think, ‘Well, what am I doing here, what is wrong with a cookie?’
And I remember the first time we took him to McDonalds and I was kind of like, holding my breath, like, “He is eating a McDonald’s,” and I am like, ‘Really, what is going to happen?’ He had McDonald’s and then we moved on, that was it.
Yeah, so what it looks like now is everybody eats the food that they like. Kai used to almost always have a different dinner to Brett and I, and I know that Sylvia just said that Harry has just started to explore foods as well, and I know both of our kids really love bubble tea.
SYLVIA: We need to try to get them together at some point, you know.
JO: Yeah, we should! Now we can do this, right?
JO: And it has been super fun. He is really exploring food and for years he really did not want to eat out. So, if we wanted to eat out, we would take him somewhere else, but now he is the one who wants to eat out all the time and financially that has become a bit of a problem.
He is like, “Let’s go to the Indian restaurant. Let’s go to the Thai restaurant,” and I am like, “Oh wow,” …but yeah, I kind of went backwards and I guess what Sylvia is saying, I wanted to do the opposite to my mom and I had a lot of conventional influences when Kai was little. There was no one who attachment parented when I had Kai and they were all telling me, “You will need to control this, and you will need to do that.”
So, I am really glad we found unschooling and he does not remember that time where I did not make him a birthday cake on his first birthday. I am glad he does not remember. So that is where we are at now. Experiments and eating out as much as we can afford.
PAM: Yeah, that is cool. I know for us, one of the biggest things—I had the conventional messages; did that regular thing. It was not super controlling, so basically when I found unschooling and we moved that way, it was just saying yes more, you know, those occasional no’s and “Gee, I don’t think you should have that,” those just kind of faded away.
I think the biggest thing for us, because, as you are talking about they have things that they like to eat, the way I ended up making dinner with three kids is I would just make a few things. We would have a couple of veggies, a meat, a starch. You know, whatever was being made and I would make sure out of those there was always something that each of them liked. If they did not like that particular veggie, I know they liked the potatoes that I was making, or the meat, or whatever and I always, to this day I still do it, I put out our food on the counter and then they just dish up the bits that they want.
It was not, ‘everybody has to have something of each,’ or ‘we have to fill up your plate and then you take it.’ It was always, ‘okay everything is ready, come, dish up what you want,’ and then we eat. So, as you were talking about the pickiness, Joseph has this amazing ability, he could tell what was in things from the smell. Like, he could tell if I changed a brand of an ingredient. I will never forget the day I made meatloaf and he came in and he is like, “There is something different,” and it was a different brand of ketchup.
SYLVIA: He is like a super taster.
PAM: Yeah, so it is just honestly putting just four or five things out and knowing that there were one or two things that everybody was going probably have and that meant that got away from, “I made this for dinner, eat this or you go hungry, or you have to make something for yourself.” There was usually something to pick from and then the odd time if we had to find something else, that was fine too.
SYLVIA: One of the things that has sort of evolved in what we are doing is, right now, my kids are not on the same schedule as me. When they were younger and they stayed up late, I stayed up with them, but now they do not need me as much late at night so a lot of times they are up in the middle of the night when I am asleep.
My focus right now is making sure there are things that are prepared that they can fix for themselves with minimal stove cooking. Eventually they will get to the point where they will want to do stove cooking, but right now I would just prefer them not have to, when both Jim and I are sleeping, so I try to make sure that we always have things they can always make themselves. Sandwiches. We always have cereal. Lately, Gabriella has been on this vegetable soup craze where I have been making the soup and as it finishes, she is letting me know so I can make another pot and she is eating it a cup at a time or a bowl at a time. So, there are things available.
Even if I do cook something fancy for dinner, if they are not feeling it, they do not feel obligated to eat it and my feelings are not hurt if they do not want to eat it. That was a big thing I had to get over too. “I cooked this, and I worked at it, and what do you mean you would rather have Cheerios?” I had to get over that, I had to let that go. Because I am cooking, I can always choose what we are making, I can always choose food that I like, and so that was a big shift for me to understand that like, ‘Oh, why shouldn’t they be able to eat what they want? Just like I want to be able to eat what I want.’ So, my job is to make sure that there is stuff that they like there, available.
MEREDITH: That was something we ended up doing a lot of when Ray was deschooling because until then we really could say, “Look, just eat it,” and he would because he had this huge metabolism and you could fill up a plate and hand it to him and he would go and get two more because he was always hungry.
Then, when we were deschooling, we found out that we had created all of this baggage in the relationship by directing his food that much and then we started dividing things up and even making things and setting them aside, so he could microwave later. Even getting a microwave, because we lived the backwoods hippy life, we didn’t “do” microwaves. And we had this teenager that wanted to be up all night and take care of himself and make food that comes in bags that your pour water in it and stick it in the microwave. He loved it, he thought it was the best thing ever and it turned out to be great deschooling thing for all of us, because it was like “Look! We got you the instant microwave food in the bag and a microwave to cook it in.” Wow!
And now that Morgan is eating food that actually has to be cooked first, she is loving the microwave too, because she can do the same thing. Nachos is one of the foods this year, she can make herself a plate of nachos and it’s great. She has this power that lets her live her life and be who she is without me being right there. She can still come and say, “Make me oatmeal,” but she can also go through the stuff and go, “Oh look, I can make something.” She can claim this independence for herself rather than have it either shoved at her or held back and going, “No, I made it, you are going to eat it.”
SYLVIA: And I know that Harry and Gabriella, as some have said too, are in this sort of stage where they want to do it themselves but they also kind of like it when I do it for them too and I get that.
PAM: Yeah, we have had those kinds of conversations. And we talk about, sometimes it just tastes better when somebody else makes it, or sometimes it tastes better when you make it. Those conversations are so fun. Some mornings Mike will be like, ” Can you…” And I will ask him if he wants something and he will say, “I would just love if you could make some French toast.” But then other mornings he will get up and he will make himself his breakfast.
Between the kids, we will share recipes, sometimes we will get into wanting to try something and I will say, just write it down. We keep paper on the fridge for the grocery list. If you come across something you want to make, make sure you write down any ingredients we don’t have and I will grab them next time we are out shopping. Stuff like that. And Lissy, I mean, she was just turned 18 when she moved out and she had been cooking and baking at home some, but it is so fun now just to get the text, “Hey, your cinnamon bun recipe. Can you send that to me?” It doesn’t stop—food is just something fun that we connect over sometimes and sometimes somebody is making it and sometimes somebody else is and it has been really fun to see how that has evolved over the years.
Anybody have anything else to add before I move on?
SYLVIA: I just wanted to say the thing that gets into the whole thing about “Good food, junk food,” and why it is not so great to separate.
PAM: Yeah, that is the next question, way to go Sylvia!
I wanted to talk about food fears. The one that comes up most often I think is the question of food and health. So, you know, sugar and when we eat “junk food”—good for you, bad for you. When we first contemplate releasing that control over their choices, so often we envision—I know I did at the very beginning and we see that in a lot of questions—that if I do not control what they eat, they are just going to eat sugary foods. They are just going to have chocolate for breakfast (laughter). The challenge, especially for people deschooling, I think, is because those choices have been so tightly controlled for the child they will often be drawn to those, right. And it can look like a self-fulfilling prophesy, that all of our fears are coming true. So, I just thought I wanted to see what you guys thought about what you would share with someone who is smack in the middle of that deschooling phase and is starting to get a little worried.
So why don’t you start, Jo?
JO: Okay, well the fact that I was not limited and I ate chocolate for breakfast, probably not the best thing to start with, but I think that people naturally are either drawn to it. Like Sylvia said that Gabriella she liked savory foods more and then some people are drawn to sweet foods more and, you know, sweet foods are good.
I think that the thing when people are deschooling and they hear this, “They will learn to self-regulate,” like this magical thing. That what their child is going to eat is going to look exactly like what the mom wanted it to look like, but the child will come to that realization on their own. And that just is not going to happen.
Well, maybe in rare cases there might be a few kids out there but in Kai’s memory, as I said, he has never been limited in foods but he still eats a fair bit of sugar. I mean, he has ice cream every night and he has a chocolate bar a day, which is quite funny because my husband was strictly regulated as a child and as a young adult, so Kai has to hide his chocolate away from Brett so Brett does not eat all his chocolate. Kai has a little stash and he takes one a day. It is kind of like he has come up with his own tea break; he usually has his chocolate bar at 11 o’clock in the morning. But yeah, they are hidden away from Brett, or else we get peanut chocolate bars because Brett is allergic to peanuts. That is how that works pretty well.
But I think the one thing I would say to people who are deschooling and they think all they are going to eat is chocolate, is to just think what that would look like. I mean, even me, I had chocolate for breakfast; I did not just eat chocolate all day long though. And what if a child did eat nothing but chocolate for two weeks, what would happen? Nothing really would happen. A child would eat chocolate for two weeks and then really get fed up with it, I would imagine, or feel maybe a bit sick.
And look at the food they are eating over a longer period, so you know, you get people who are really freaking out and they go, “We started deschooling two days ago and all they have eaten is Fruit Loops! They aren’t self-regulating.” So, look at it over a longer period of time and get rid of the idea of self-regulation at all because I think it is where people really trip up and it is not just food, it is lots of things. They are expecting self-regulation to look like the kid is going to be getting up and eat, I don’t know. I am trying to think of something really super healthy that all moms would agree on but all moms are never going to agree on what is super healthy anyway.
SYLVIA: No matter what you feed your child, someone, somewhere on the internet is going to tell you that it is poison. Like, I remember when the Paleo diet came out and everybody was talking about how terrible beans were and rice, and I am like, “Rice and beans are poison??” Wait a minute! You know? So, I am figuring it is only a matter of time before someone is going to have a diet that talks about the evils of kale.
But it gets to the point where there is not diet that is optimal for every person and the optimal diet for you during every different stage of your life is going to be different. Like an optimal diet for someone who is pregnant or someone who is in menopause or someone who is eight years old, it is not going to be the same. And I am starting to see this in my own life; that things that I loved when I was a kid and now I am like, ‘Mmm … I do not love that anymore, I want to eat different things now.’
JO: I eat vegetables for breakfast now, not chocolate. (laughter)
PAM: I just wanted to say, I think that is such a great point there against what you were talking about Jo, with self-regulation. Because self-regulation gives the impression that the child is going to externally control what they are doing. But no, it is about listening to the messages from your body and following those and, like you were saying Sylvia, those can change over time. They can change monthly, weekly, seasonally. And if you are looking for self-regulation and you are looking for your child to take external control, you are looking for their eating patterns to look the same all the time, which is different when they may get the message or be feeling like they need more protein for a while or they need more vegetables, whatever, maybe it is minerals, or something that they are lacking and they may not even know why particularly they are drawn to certain foods. Once you relax that control and you start to watch for those patterns, like you were saying, over the longer term. You look over weeks, over months, and you start to recognize those patterns and they start to hear those messages and it is just so cool.
JO: Even over years, you know, like, as they grow and they go through big growth spurts I have noticed that Kai just before he grows he really wants carbs and then he really wants proteins and then yesterday he said, “I want spaghetti and meatballs.” I have never made spaghetti and meatballs, but I went, “Ok” and then Kai eats kangaroo meat—so, everybody thinks that’s terrible but we eat kangaroo. So, I made kangaroo meat balls and I made the spaghetti and Kai was standing next to me in the kitchen last night and just talking about having fun with food and I said, “Hey, I want to show you how you know your spaghetti is done,” so we threw it at the wall and it sticks to it, and I said “This is really important if you are ever a backpacker or a student.” And he is just looking at me going, “Mom, do people really do that?” and I am like, “Yeah.” So yeah, I think we are in a protein phase at the moment.
PAM: Do you have anything to add Meredith?
MERIDITH: Something I have been thinking a lot lately is I think one of the things that is happening is as we end up having more global families and having more varied roots to our families, so we can predict what our kids are going to eat even less. There probably has been a time when kids could be expected to mostly grow up eating the things their parents eat and liking the things their parents eat because everyone around them ate the same way and your local genetic group had evolved to deal with certain kinds of foods. We can’t count on that anymore.
Even those of us who are mostly European are often from all the corners of Europe and some of us are from much farther flung roots than that. Just looking at the various food sensitivities in my own family, like, my partner is sensitive to certain kinds of legumes and I am sensitive to certain kinds of fruits and Ray is sensitive to certain kinds of eggs and he is one of these people who tends to get candida kinds of things. That ends up being a genetic thing through his biological mother’s side of the family. So, if we tried to feed Ray the way Morgan eats, he would be breaking out in horrible oozing rashes all the time and that would be bad. To feed Morgan the way Ray eats, she just would not eat. You know, because now that he has done the deschooling thing he eats rice and beans; he eats like a hippy. He loves it. It works for him and it works with his body.
I know some people who say, “Oh but isn’t it more natural if we…” Oh wait, do you even know what is in your genetics? I do not know what is in my genetics, I have no clue and you know, we do not know how that plays out through our history of food and the history of epi-genetics and all of that other stuff. We are all stuck fumbling along trying to figure out what works for us and I think a lot of adults go through this process where something did not quite work right in their home with the way their parents were eating or their control issues because that always gets tangled up with food. So, you get to young adulthood and you experiment with food and you find something that works great and then you want to share it with your kids but your kids are not you. And that is just the thing!
PAM: So NOT you…
SYLVIA: One of the things that I like to defer to Jo all the time, because she is a scientist. I think our bodies do not care about the food, you know what I mean? The body is relentlessly trying to break everything down to sugar, pretty much and they do not care whether it came from a home baked lovingly kneaded loaf of whole wheat bread or a Twinkie. The body does not care, it is just going to relentlessly digest it until it becomes the glucose that is fueling our brain. There was a weird little exchange on one of the Facebook pages today where we were discussing about whether local honey was different than any other kind of sugar and I was like, I just do not think that it matters. Yes, there is good reasons to support local farmers and to eat seasonally and whatever, but as far as your blood sugar is concerned, I think sugar is sugar. I do not think it matters how processed it is. Does that sound right? I mean, that is what I think.
JO: And especially kids, because kids need so much more glucose in their brain than adults; they just eat it up. I think the simpler the sugar for kids to use up in their brain the better.
SYLVIA: It is less hard to digest it.
MERIDITH: There were definitely things that Ray could eat when he was a kid, you know, high energy, high metabolism. As we were talking about, now that he is in his mid-twenties, he does better with brown rice and red rice, he has done the whole elimination diet and checked things out because if he gets foods that are too refined, it does show up in this weird skin condition. So those theories are not nothing, but they do not apply in the same way to everybody you know.
JO: No, and definitely through age, as they change. There is no way that I could eat as much chocolate as I did when I was like, 12. It would be good though, for an hour…
One thing that I do want to talk quickly about food fears, because it pops up sometimes and we do have experience in our house, is allergies. People use that as a thing; “But we have good reason to be scared of food, because we have allergies.” And we have allergies, my husband, as I said, is allergic to peanuts, Kai became allergic to shellfish at the age of six, just like “this” (snaps fingers) but we still have not found that it is a reason to be scared of food. They do not see it as a limit because they do not want to eat food that is going to make them sick.
Kai has got an epi-pen; he really does not want to have to use that, but I know people with allergies who go, “I could never go to a Thai restaurant.” Well, we went to a Thai restaurant with a shellfish allergy and peanut allergies, you know. And we all had a really good time and everybody got something they could eat. Obviously, they are not super anaphylactic. I know there are people who cannot even sniff a peanut without having a reaction and we are not that bad.
Just for general allergies, I just do not think that we have to fear the food or you know. Restaurants these days are more than well-aware of cross-contamination and they do not want you to have a reaction in their restaurant; that is bad for them. So I think we just have not found that there are times when Kai says, “Mom you are so lucky you are not allergic to anything,” and I go, “Yeah, true,” but again, there are genetics on Brett’s side of the family that we have not found that it has limited us in any way, we just work around, it, it is pretty easy.
PAM: Yeah, along those lines too, Michael has got type one diabetes but that was not a reason to need to control his food. That is something I would see in a lot of the groups and stuff, where all of a sudden, the parents feel like they need to hyper control their child’s food, but it does not need to be. He can still listen to his body, it was just amazing how he can feel his highs and lows in his body. He knows what the clues are from the messages from his body, not just from literally taking his blood sugar as well and being able to still eat what he wants because you still just live your life.
So being able to know what he eats and to be able to take the insulin that he needs for it and to know and feel how his body reacts to it, that was all great learning for him in how to manage his body, versus if we came from the outside with lots of controls, he would not have had any of that experience while we were here, while we were here to chat about it, to play around with it, to bounce ideas back and forth, etc. before he was controlling it on his own. I mean, it is still just a conversation that we have, whenever.
Did you have something you wanted to add Meredith?
MEREDITH: Yeah, this is so much like the way unschooling handles all kind of limits. Rather than seeing them as like, dead ends and basically having limits make your decisions for you, it is like, “Lets problem solve this; what can we do about it? Is there a way around this? Is there a way to substitute for it, what are the options?”
And you know it works with food just like with anything else. Use your imagination. Limits are this portal to the world you can problem solve. They are like the playground equipment of life; we can climb over them, or through them or decide not to climb today.
PAM: You know, when you get down to it, it is the same with any question right? Whether it is food or any issue that you feel the pull to control. No matter what it is, it comes back to giving them the space to learn about it and the imagination and the creativity and all the different things you can do instead of control it. That opens up your world so much more than closing it down.
SYLVIA: I think there is also an aspect of this, and I did not plan to say this, I am just thinking about this as I am talking, which could be dangerous, but sometimes we live in a time of incredible food abundance. Like, 100 years ago, it was not possible to get asparagus in February. It was not possible to get fruits all year round. Like, what you had in the winter time was really limited—or in the summer time, if you were in the southern hemisphere. But you know what I mean, now everything is available all the time.
So, I think sometimes people seek out consciously or unconsciously ways to sort of limit things just because the overall choice is so overwhelming. To walk into some of these big grocery stores or warehouse stores, and there is just food up to the ceiling and how do you make sense of this? How do you know what to buy?
Sometimes I think people make artificial limits and again, I think sometimes it is just unconscious because it is just too much to cope with. Especially when you are a mom of little kids and you are sleep deprived and you want to do right by these people. It is hard to know it is ok, and then they say we are just going to eliminate this whole aisle and we are not even going to walk down this aisle, just because it is just too much.
I feel like that is important to acknowledge and sometimes the limits are coming from us. Like, it is just our own way that we are trying to cope with the world and I think just recognizing that is the first step towards thinking, ‘Ok. Maybe it is ok to add some things back in.’ Like, especially if you have been limiting in the past. Just like with bedtimes, do not just say, “Whoa, we are unschooling now, you never have to go to bed again.” I think again, this is an idea from La Leche League, which was the weaning advice, which was “Do not offer, but do not refuse.” I think that was sort of how more foods worked their way into our house. I was not going out and saying “Hey, let’s get these Twinkies,” it was sort of like, if the kid was with me in the store and they said, “Oh, I would like to try this,” I would not say no, but I was not running to fill up the cabinets from floor to ceiling with food that the kids might not even want. It was more like, I tried to let their curiosity drive.
PAM: Yeah, I love that because we do have our natural … constraints is not the right word, but our own filters, maybe naturally we just don’t walk down that aisle. But that is exactly it—it’s not interfering with life. If somebody discovers it and they say, “Hey, I would like to try that,” and you’re like, “Huh, I never even thought of that, let’s try it.” In anything, whether it is food or an experience, anything like that, we cannot do everything, so there are natural filters that we ourselves personally bring to our family. But it is not like we are locking them in a closet. They are going to find different things that they are going to want to explore. You don’t refuse, you don’t need to say no. You can say, “Oh, look, lets widen our world a little bit,” because we are a family. We are going to widen it however the people in our family are interested in pursuing things.
Yeah, I think that is such a great point.
SYLVIA: And what I have noticed with my kids is that things like, because on the one hand I had this thought about Harry that he has got this really limited palette and I have tried to avoid calling him a picky eater, and that kind of thing, but it was very much how I saw him. Recently, I have really had to reevaluate that because he is exploring more of the world. He is watching things on YouTube, he is watching things on Netflix, he is seeing commercials for things.
Recently, Japanese anime has gotten huge with the kids and so they are seeing all kinds of Japanese food and that is probably where the interest in bubble tea came from. One night it was like 11:30 at night and I was probably half asleep on the couch and Harry comes up to me and is like, “Mom, we should try to make Katsudon” and I am like, “What is Katsudon??” Thanks to Google, I looked it up and found out what it was and I am like, “You want to eat a fried pork chop on rice in broth,” and I am thinking, ‘You do not eat any of those things,’ but I kept that to myself. To my credit, I did not say, “No way, you do not eat any of that stuff.”
And so we went to the grocery store and we bought those things and we went to the Asian grocery and I found instant Dashi powder to make the broth and there was seaweed in it and Japanese wine and so we got all those things and we made it and he ate it, and he liked it. Part of it because it was his idea, it was not my agenda, “Oh hey, I made this thing, I think you should taste it.”
I feel like we are banking positive experiences with new foods. I was like, “Oh, my kid never tries anything new.” Well, would he try a new chocolate bar? Would he try a new kind of cookie? Some kids will not, but we did a lot of building on what we knew. I knew he liked pancakes, that was something we were feeding them since they were toddlers. Well, pretty much every culture has a pancake. So, we tried a tortilla, which led to quesadillas, and we tried crepes and blitzes and some things were “yay” and some things were “nay,” but he was willing to build on things that he already was eating, so that was exciting.
PAM: That is really interesting, I love that.
Ok, let’s move on to a situation where some people have strong principles around food. Some people are vegetarian, or vegan or whatever food that they have found works for them. Or what they feel comfortable with their eating patterns, etc. So, I would love to chat about ways that parents can live those principles without controlling their child’s food choices and talk a little bit about why that is important. I think that has shone through this conversation; it is important for them to discover their own needs, but sometimes it is really hard because we have done all this research and we believe this is how a person should eat, it is the way we are comfortable eating and it can be really hard not to think that is the best thing for their child, too.
How about Meredith; why don’t you get us started.
MERIDITH: Ok, we talked a bit about how we know kids are going to try things and I think it is important to recognize that your kids are going to want to try things and deal with whatever issues you have, in such a way that you can facilitate your kid’s exploration, even if it doesn’t mean you are doing it yourself.
Like, I am a vegetarian and my partner was a vegetarian for years and years and Ray got to this point where he wanted to eat meat and my partner had not grown up cooking meat, so I was the one who was like, “Ok, I know how to cook meat, I can do this.” And so, I did, but at the same time I also found friends and other people with whom he could eat meat with. Because he is a social guy, I did not want to just cook him something, go, “Here, I am not going to tell you what I think about it, but here it is. Eat it because I love you, I am leaving the room.” Because sharing food is a social thing. It is a way we connect with other people, and I know that, as a vegetarian, it is important for me to have vegetarian friends so that we can eat together and I am not, you know, “yuck” because that is no fun at dinner.
And it’s true, anytime your kid wants to eat something that is outside your comfort zone, it’s not just a matter of, “Ok, I can facilitate this so my kid can explore the world” (in an unenthusiastic voice). Have a joyful, positive, social experience with food because it is so much of what food is—this social experience. And maybe it means finding a friend and maybe it just means giving your neighbor money to pay for all the hot dogs your kid eats.
I actually have a childhood story; there is this kind of bread called Italian bread, which is just this plain bakery bread, usually has sesame seeds on it. For some reason my parents refused to buy it, and they said the things that parents say, “We do not eat THAT.” I have no idea why; they were in a pumpernickel phase, I think, but I was in love with this stuff and I would go over to this friend’s house after school and eat an entire loaf of Italian bread because I loved it so much. Ultimately it kind of copped the friendship because I was the weird kid who came over and ate a loaf of bread. Because my parents would not buy a dollar-fifty loaf of Italian bread because, “We do not eat that.”
And I have even been at unschooling conferences where it is like, “Oh, if this kid comes to your cabin, be aware he is going to eat all of your dairy products, just so you know.” And the word goes out and on the one hand, okay, you are putting kids in situations where they can explore but, also be willing to help your kid explore. Be willing to help the other families so that you are supporting the relationships your kid is building and not just say, “Okay, somebody else deal with this problem for me.”
That is my thought.
PAM: Yeah, that is great, Meredith. Jo?
JO: Yes, so I guess I want to go back to the parent having principles around food and Meredith said she is a vegetarian and I want to go back to something Meredith said before, s that our kids are not us, and they will come to their own conclusions. I was a vegetarian for 20 years, I was a vegan for two years and now I eat kangaroo. But that is all me; those are things that are going on in my head about animal welfare and ethics and sustainability and all those kinds of things. But they are for me, not for anybody else.
Brett eats any kind of meat; Brett pretty much eats everything, except legumes. He cannot eat legumes and he cannot eat peanuts. So, Kai, over the years has eaten lots of meat and then he kind of went off of it, and now he will eat chicken and kangaroo, so those are his things to come to whether he is just going to go straight back onto all meat or become a vegetarian, I do not know. But I just think by forcing a child be a vegetarian or a vegan, you are pretty much guaranteeing that they are going to go straight out to McDonalds as soon as they are 14 and they are off at the mall on their own.
I just think that if you do not like cooking meat, then that can be a problem. As Meredith said, there are ways around that as well, to get them to experience the things that they want to experience. I can say this now, so tonight, we are taking Kai out for Korean BBQ because he has wanted to go for Korean BBQ for ages, and so we are taking him. It is a surprise, he has got his earphones on now, so he cannot hear me.
It was really hard because Korean BBQ is all meat, and it is mostly pork and beef and Kai does not eat pork and beef; he only eats chicken. And so, I had to call like ten Korean BBQ’s because he really wants to cook it on the table and lots of them did not have chicken that you could cook on the table. So, I ended up calling like ten places going, “Do you have chicken that we can cook on the table?” So anyway, we found one, yay, but yeah, it was hard. And there are ways around things and they even do vegetarian. They even have a tofu that I can do on the table so I am pretty excited about that.
SYLVIA: Well, I was thinking more about people who have deeply held beliefs about food; like ethical beliefs, religious beliefs. I am thinking about friends I know who keep Kosher, so that would mean pork is out, shellfish is out, mixing milk and meat is out, a lot of different cuts of meat are out, and it is very challenging if you are trying to keep Kosher and unschool and your kid now wants to know what all the hype about pepperoni pizza is, you know you know what I mean?
I want to think that if that was me and that was my kid, that maybe we would not go anyplace locally, where we are likely to run into the Rabbi, but it is possible we could be in another city and that would be a good time to try things. I feel like, I don’t want my kid to feel like they have to lie or they have to sneak around. I want my kid to feel like they can talk to me about this and because I would also think that if you are keeping kosher or you are an ethical vegan, and your kid is thinking about wanting to explore something against their parents’ views, that can cause a lot of disconnect. And I think the main thing with unschooling is you want to stay nice and connected with your kid and you want to feel like you can be the trusted resource. That you are their friend, you are on their side, you want to help them explore the world safely.
So that is where I am going with that.
PAM: Yeah, I think anytime you choose that over anything…you were talking about comfort zones earlier, Meredith, if you choose to draw a line in the sand over something, you know, you need to understand the consequences to the relationship that are possible there. When you choose to draw the line, you are also putting them in a position where they now need to choose whether or not they are going to go behind your back. Even if that is not something they would want to do, but now something is even more curious, you know what I mean?
Because this is something they have not been able to explore and it is something that other people do, that they see people enjoying, whether it is pepperoni pizza or bubble tea or whatever it is. Maybe that is an acceptable risk to you because it is your life, and it is your family and you are making these choices. And you mentioned before Jo, when they are 14, they can run out to McDonalds. You cannot just draw that line and expect that they are going to forever just follow because that is what you said.
They are a person, they are exploring; they want to find and learn and figure things out for themselves. So that is just why I love the idea of figuring out ways to try and facilitate them exploring for themselves, even if it is not something we would do.
I love your point, Meredith: facilitate and support the other people and the relationships that they are having outside, not just, “Here, you guys take him, because he wants to try meat.” I think that is such a great point. You can facilitate that and set it up and talk to the other family and slip them a few bucks for the extra food that they pick up for him, because then they are going to be, instead of “Why the heck is he coming here and eating lots of that,” they can be so much more supportive of that, it’s like, oh hey, look, I hear you wanted to try this and blah blah blah. So, it can just be such a better relationship, even that exploration, with somebody else when you set the foundation for it.
And I just want to say, it goes the other way too, because Lissy, since I think she was 10 or 11 and she is still a vegetarian.
JO: I was just going to say that; I told my mom when I wanted to be a vegetarian and my mom was like what are you going to eat?? And then she said, “Can you still eat chicken roast on Sundays?” and I was like, “No!”
PAM: That is the running joke for us. We go to family dinners and they would always say, “But she eats chicken, right?” “She eats fish, right?”
SYLVIA: Yeah, my grandmother was like, “But it’s just ham, it’s not like it’s beef. “
PAM: Okay guys, this has been a wonderful conversation!
I am just going to go to each of you and see if there is like one more little food thing that maybe we have not touched on that you wanted to make sure to share. Or just say ‘pass.”
Sylvia, why don’t you go.
SYLVIA: I do not have any closing remarks, I kind of feel like I have said a lot already.
PAM: No, exactly. I just wanted to make sure I did not leave anybody hanging. How about I say, does anybody else have anything else they would like to add?
MERIDITH: I don’t think so…
PAM: Well, that was awesome, I had a lot of fun for our first-round table on a topic. Yay!
SYLVIA: This was SO much fun.
PAM: It was so fun and thank you guys so much. I know we were arranging people in so many different time zones. Good morning, Jo. (Lots of laughter)
JO: I am in my pajamas, by the way. I cannot show you my pajamas, but I am wearing pajamas.
PAM: That’s awesome! Thanks, so much guys! Have a wonderful day, or evening, or all those things.