In my article about food, I mention that my daughter Faith is my best food story. So here it is:
From the beginning, Faith has had issues around food. She always seemed worried that there wouldn’t be enough.
I know it sounds crazy, but I swear this is because she’s an identical twin, and never did have enough right from the get-go. She didn’t have enough space (she was squished way down under her sister, whilst Katy literally performed somersaults above her with all the room she had). Nor did she have enough nourishment (while the girls weren’t really considered underweight for twins, they were a full two pounds lighter than their singleton brother and sister, so obviously the sharing in utero had an effect).
By the time Faith was a toddler, it was clear that food was on her mind way too much of the time, especially sweets. She was a hoarder, loading her plate just in case anything ran out before she was ready for seconds. Although I didn’t forbid sugar or sweets, Faith always wanted more than anybody else, and never seemed satisfied with her portion. She asked for snacks when she clearly wasn’t hungry, but was bored or upset. And she equated having a good time with having a treat to eat. When we had an outing planned, Faith eagerly anticipated not what she’d get to do, but what she’d get to eat.
Now I’ve had my share of struggles with food. And I married into a family that did, too. So I could see the writing on the wall. By the time Faith was four, I was pretty sure she was headed down a dietary path that would bring her all kinds of misery. Thankfully, I found unschooling, and learned that Faith’s food fate did not have to be sealed. That it was possible to help her to establish a healthy relationship with food; one based on abundance and pleasure instead of scarcity and fear.
There was only one catch. The advice I was getting from the unschooling world was the polar opposite of everything I’d ever learned or experienced.
I was used to the food pyramid approach: plenty of the basic food groups and a very sparing amount of the “junk”. Juice was labeled “empty calories”, so we had no more than 6 ounces per day. We ate sweets only occasionally, and only after meals. I took pride in toting along snacks that would put the less conscientious moms at the playground to shame. And I watched food intake like an anxious hawk. While I never actually made my kids clean their plates, I often coaxed them to take just a few more bites, especially of the veggies that were usually left behind.
When I started reading about the unschooling approach, I was shocked, fearful, and more than a bit skeptical. Sure, trusting kids to read their bodies and make their own food choices sounded good in theory. Maybe it even worked for kids who already had fairly healthy attitudes about food. But for my Faith? No way! If left to her own devices, I was sure she’d eat me out of house and home. Her only food groups were likely to be salt and chocolate. She’d probably gain about five pounds just in the first week. I wasn’t sure I could risk it.
But I kept reading and thinking. Other people’s stories of kids successfully moving from food limits to food freedom reassurred me . Maybe it could work for Faith. I decided it was at least worth a shot, so I screwed up my courage and jumped in to the unschooling style of eating.
I started out slowly. I didn’t rush right out, buy a bunch of “junk” and yell, “Party at the table!!” or anything. But one step at a time, I released a bit of the control. Monkey platters were a great way to ease in. With each new step, I found I had to breathe my way through it, and deliberately examine and move through my uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. I realized that my own thinking was more in need of change than anything else.
But back to Faith.
She could hardly believe her good luck when I stopped limiting her portions, or broke out the cookies at the same time that I served the grapes. The first time I said she could have some ice cream for breakfast – not with breakfast, mind you, but for breakfast – I think she secretly wondered if I’d been stolen and (as the great comedian Steven Wright would say) replaced with an exact replica…one who was a heck of a lot more fun than the original. She was in heaven!
Kids who start unschooling after years of attending school often go through a process known as “deschooling”. I think the same happens to kids who have lived with food limits when they are first introduced to food freedom. Call it “de-fooding’, maybe. Whatever you call it, Faith definitely experienced a period of over-compensation. Every meal began with “dessert” foods. Some meals consisted entirely of “dessert foods”. We went through popsicles and cookies like there was no tomorrow. I spent a lot of time rereading success stories, just to keep my spirits up.
Slowly but surely, Faith’s food choices began to even out. I couldn’t believe it the first time she picked the grapes over the brownies in the monkey platter. I thought it had to be a fluke. But it wasn’t. Once she was able to view all food as equal, “junk”, the value of which had become artificially inflated when it was limited, became just another option, no more or less desirable than carrots or cheese sticks.
Faith discovered the freedom that came from being in touch with her own body. She has learned to listen to it, and to trust its inner wisdom to guide her. She eats when she’s hungry. She stops when she’s full – even if that’s only a couple of bites into a yummy confection. She enjoys food to the fullest. She’s healthier than ever. There’s no more hoarding or obsessing about food. She’s truly free.
As for me, my journey has taken longer than hers. I’ve still got unlearning to do – attitudes and beliefs to debunk in my own head. But I’m getting there. Today, if the menu includes cookies for breakfast, I’m learning to embrace it.
Someday, I hope I can be just like Faith.