Radical Unschooling and Food

I was thinking, tonight, while preparing green quiche and salad for dinner, about how the principles of unschooling actually apply to food, in the simplest of terms. I mean, I get that they do, and it’s how we live, but I think many people don’t necessarily understand why food gets included in the radical unschooling checklist. Radical unschoolers often say, “Oh, we don’t put restrictions on food”, or “They can eat what and when they like” and sometimes I wonder if people are making those choices simply because they have heard that radical unschooling means extending the philosophy into all areas of life, which means “no limits on food, bedtimes, media etc”, so if they do those things, they will be “qualified” to use the term. I’ve been wondering how many people have paused to consider *why* radical unschooling means not arbitrarily limiting food.

Then there are others who are trying to embrace radical unschooling but really struggle with “letting go of limits on food”. They often  say, “But I just can’t let go of my beliefs about food!” or “Surely you wouldn’t just let your kids eat whatever they want! All they would eat is lollies and chips and chocolate!”

Many people seem to think that they will be automatically considered a “radical unschooler” if they jump through certain hoops and tick all the necessary boxes (There are others who like to use the name and NOT jump through the hoops, but we’ll save that for another day!). This is the typical checklist that many people believe will qualify them as bearer of the grand title: radical unschooler.

  • No curriculum
  • No limits on food
  • No limits on media
  • No forced bedtimes
  • No forced chores

Do all those things and hey presto! You’re a radical unschooling parent!!

But I think it is much more than this. It isn’t just about doing the things a radical unschooler does. It requires thought, contemplation and mindfulness. It requires some mental shifts, and possibly some discomfort as we unpack our baggage, conduct critical analysis and undertake courageous self-examination as to why we tend to want to control certain areas of our children’s lives, why we find some areas harder to let go of than others, and whether we can still be considered a radical unschooler if we, for instance, still make our kids eat their broccoli! Radical unschooling involves re-thinking the status quo, and delving deep within ourselves to find that place where we truly can trust our children’s natural learning process in every area of life.

My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.
My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.

I think it also really helps to contemplate *why* the things on that list up there are actually on the list! Why is it that radical unschooling involves removing arbitrary limits from things like food?

So I spent some time thinking it through and this is what I came up with.  I think, like with unschooling academics, it is a multi pronged approach:

* With unschooling, we honour what our children love and we support their passions. We don’t elevate one activity as being more “educational” than another. Even if it is something we don’t personally value, we still respect the fact that they see very real value in it. We hold fast to the truth that they are learning all the time, whether they are choosing to watch a television program, or read a book, or draw in the dirt, or research medical eugenics.

So also, with food, we honour our children’s freedom of choice regarding food. We provide the foods they love. We say yes to them when we are out somewhere and they ask for a particular food. We trust in their ability to learn which foods feel good in their body and which foods don’t. We trust in their ability to know when they are hungry, to know what foods they do and don’t like, and to know when they are full.

* With unschooling, we provide an enriching, interesting environment with a wide variety of resources and opportunities for the nourishment of their minds. The resources and opportunities are always available for them to choose to use, or not.

So also, with food….. If we restrict their exposure to only ever include “all natural, all organic”, or we restrict their access to foods they want to try, or we rarely ever provide fresh, foods, relying instead on a diet of processed food, it’s a bit like how unschooling might look if we only provided TV, or only provided outside play, or only let them read books. That really wouldn’t be a great unschooling environment, and their opportunities for learning, and discovering/enjoying what they love, would be seriously limited. And when they do one day discover the big wide world of “other foods”, they may potentially gorge themselves to the point of being ill, or develop an unhealthy obsession with “junk food” or find it very difficult to have a pure, unadulterated relationship to food. So instead, we stock our kitchen with nourishing, tasty, fun and interesting foods. We provide a wide variety of foods to nourish their bodies. We prepare “monkey platters“. We cook and prepare foods that our family will enjoy eating, and make all sorts of foods easily accessible and attractive to look at, readily available for anyone to choose to eat them. Or not.

* With unschooling, we strew new and interesting opportunities and resources before our children, for them to explore. Or not.

With food, we experiment with new cuisines and recipes, explore new tastes, take them to interesting eating places, buy the weird fruit….. We stimulate the senses with interesting new smells and tastes and colours and textures. We visit the local farmer’s market, talk to the growers, try the samples, laugh together at the funny dog who balances an orange on his nose, throws it up in the air and catches it (click the link and scroll to the bottom of that post for an awesome photo of one very cool dog)…..

* With unschooling, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation.

With food, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation! And for many of us, when it comes to food, we have to do a lot of that self-examination I talked about above to enable us to provide information without it becoming a mini-lecture, or, even worse, a long lecture! In the early days of radical unschooling, it can be quite difficult to do this without the child feeling pressure and manipulation, even if we think we aren’t pressuring or manipulating them! In an attempt to “teach their children about nutrition”, many parents cause their children’s eyes to glaze over, and their minds to wander, and their heels to dig in.

* With unschooling, we are not only interested in what they’re doing, we are interesting people ourselves! We pursue our own interests.

With food, we follow our own bliss, eating what we love, and learning about nutrition if that’s what we want to do. We eat mindfully and authentically. We don’t do this to try to subtly convince them that they should do the same, but because we are living an authentic life, and eating the foods that we want to eat. When a child is in an environment of trust and respect, without pressure to eat a certain way, they are far more likely to be positively influenced by the way we are living and the choices we are making. If that is a scary thought, and you really wish they wouldn’t copy your eating patterns, then reconsider the choices you are making, rather than getting stressed about the choices your child is making!

So there you have it! When we apply the principles of unschooling to the way we interact with food, we are moving towards what is often termed radical unschooling, or whole life unschooling. And trust me, it’s an AWESOME way to live!

Published by

Karen Lee

FAMILY: Married since 1989 (does that make me old?), a full-time Mum since 1993, and unschooling my kids since 2005. On a journey of learning to live free and fully loved as God intended, following Jesus rather than an institution or "religion". Caring for the world and its people as best as I can.

12 thoughts on “Radical Unschooling and Food”

  1. I think this was a wonderful explanation – it’s not just the box-checking, it’s having a mindset and philosophy based in choice, freedom, grace, and yes, being willing to reconsider your own preconceptions!

    In our case, “food control” wasn’t an issue the rest of us struggled with, so it wasn’t something that became an issue for living a radically unshackled lifestyle, but the exact same reasonings DID apply to us in a dozen other areas, and our approach has been exactly what you say: to unpack, to discuss, and to be willing to change. It’s not easy, but it’s borne fruit in ways I can’t even believe! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment, Joan, and you’re right of course. The unschooling principles can be applied to so many parts of life and yes, without the mindset and re-thinking, it is just going through the motions.

  2. Even after following a Radical Unschooling path for over ten years, I find myself relearning to trust my children. With my daughter it was easy. She hungered for information, ask questions, craved new experiences.. It was blissful.
    With my sons, who are seven and ten years younger, it seems a completely new world all over again. They don’t like the same stories, play the same games, eat the same foods.. Boy was I ever lucky with my first child!
    But their choices are no less valid, completely different from each other, yet the right choices for each of them.
    I am so grateful for introspective parents reminding me to think and reflect on my reactions!

    1. My experience has been similar Cate. All four of my children are incredibly different in terms of personality, interests etc. It sure does keep us on our toes, hey! In fact, I think when our children are really different from each other, it is often a sign that we have allowed them to be true to themselves, rather than expecting them to be carbon copies of us.

  3. This interests me…we don’t restrict food at all except for the purchasing part- we have what’s in the house and if you want something else you put it on the shopping list or it doesn’t get bought. But no chores? How do you manage with not requiring chores? I really want to know.

    1. Chores are a whole different ball game and I will write about it one day. Basically, we have tried everything from required chores attached to pocket money, required chores without payment, right through to no required chores. Basically, it is much the same as it would be if I did not have children to help. I would do it! However, I do have children and in much the same way I would ask a live-in adult guest, I request help when I need it, and respect their freedom of choice as to whether to say yes, or no. I try to be authentic, not arbitrary, in my requests, and to respect their freedom of choice to say yes, or no. The thing I am working on the most? Having a good attitude to housework myself! And I think that is the biggest secret of all.

  4. We have been doing this for a few years now, and while it isn’t hard for me to go with it (I trust my kids), it has been hard for me sometimes to look at other articles about this – they always include a child who is making super healthy food choices – like the fruit salad above, or the strawberry Holly Dodd is eating on Sandra Dodd’s page, etc. My daughter loves fruit, but also often chooses chips, fries, or chocolate. My son almost always chooses cereal or pepperonis. We have lots of healthy foods in the house, but those are the choices they make most often. I guess I wonder – did I do something wrong? Or is this the case with all my radical friends and they just choose the “more healthy” picture or paragraph so that others who are worried about what will happen if they allow food freedom will have hope that sometimes the choices will be these richly healthy foods?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Missy. I think it will be different in different families, but one thing I know is that my children have a better relationship than I do with food. Although to be honest, I think there’s would be even better if my own baggage and food issues hadn’t been an influence in the way they were raised! And if we hadn’t spent years micro-managing their diets. It has been a long recovery process. If you click on the link towards the bottom of the article (http://aradicalpath.com/tag/food-freedom/), you’ll see some of the other articles I’ve written about our experiences with food. You will see pictures of a whole range of food including fairy bread and whipped cream from a can!

  5. I LOVE this! It IS an awesome way to live. My first child guided us down this path from birth — nursing on demand around the clock for the first year at least — and our first mindful decision at about 15 months old with suckers. . . and not controlling them. Three children later, I’m seeing how it’s unfolded with all different personalities. And different food allergies where there were legitimate reasons for not being able to have certain things, but they trusted that these weren’t arbitrary restrictions and even at a young age understood the link between what they ate and their reaction. And I fully believe that it’s *because* of living in this environment in the first place that trust and learning went both ways!

  6. I have a child that has an Autism Spectrum Disorder and loves to eat more than anything. (Even more than his video games and that is saying A LOT!) I want to limit his choices and amount of food he eats because he is severely overweight. How do you let go when you are worried about their health. How do I trust him when he sometimes eats to the point he is so full he is throwing up? I’m so tired of trying to control his diet and get him to see that what and how much he is eating could potentially kill him later in life. I believe in the unschooling philosophy but am really struggling in this aspect. Thank you for a great article..looking forward to trying the monkey platters idea. 🙂

    1. Firstly, I wouldn’t personally suggest trying to get him to see that his food choices “could potentially kill him later in life”. They may not! The fear and judgment and guilt that comes with that line of thinking is quite possibly more detrimental than the food itself. I have no idea how old he is, but children’s bodies are completely different to ours, and they develop at different rates. The often grow “out” before growing “up” and they have much higher energy needs than ours. Whilst there are some rare conditions that interfere with the ability to feel “full” and therefore stop eating, it’s also possible that there are other reasons why he sometimes eats to the point of throwing up. Has he ever felt controlled or limited or shamed about his food choices? If so, he could be reacting to that, and gorging on food while he can, in case it is taken away from him later.

      Perhaps, if he doesn’t seem able to regulate his food intake, you could make a wide variety of tasty (to him), nutritious foods available in his own little pantry cupboard and perhaps even a bar fridge, that he is free to eat from as and when he likes, so he experiences the opportunity to have freedom of choice, but from a limited variety and volume of options. It is usually better to focus on providing and inspiring, than instilling fear and shame, focusing on what he can’t have, etc.

      Also, it isn’t about “letting go”. It is about partnering with them in their learning journey, supporting him and encouraging him; giving him bite size doses of actual, real information, minus any lectures and guilt-trips; modelling a healthy relationship with food yourself. Disclaimer: I do not understand a lot about ASD and if you have genuine health concerns, I recommend seeing a health practitioner. All the best!

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