Google+ Authentic Parenting: Free Range Food - How Do You Do It and Does It Work?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Free Range Food - How Do You Do It and Does It Work?

Recently, numerous studies have shown that feeding your child when they want and how much they want has many virtues.

A child whose eating is controlled in some way by her parents loses her ability to self-regulate, and her desire for the “forbidden food” increases.
- Teresa Graham Brett, Parenting for social change

When my daughter was 5 months, she got all excited when she saw us eat a papaya. There was no way beyond letting her suckle it for a while. That’s how her free food journey started.
Purees were never her thing, and eating on our timetable either, so we ended up doing something like Baby Led Weaning, without knowing such a thing actually existed. By the time she was one, she was happily munching away at the foods she picked out herself. And this has set her course for the rest of her little life until now.

When she was a little older, I read about free range or unschooled food, and even though we had never been very restrictive, it made me rethink some of my attitudes towards food, especially unhealthy foods. So we gave it a go and had an open fridge (and cupboards) for the little one, and stocked up on the things she would occasionally ask for, like cookies or candy.
Image: Beatrice Killam on Dreamstime
When she’d come to the store with me, she could pick anything she wants, but I must admit, when I go myself, I only take organic candy and cookies, with no preservatives or additives. But we do have a selection of both at home, and they are at her disposal when she wants them.
There are days when she seems to eat a lot of cookies, but then again, there are days where she binges on bananas or tomatoes.

Not only has this free food been liberating and has made us rethink the way we feel about food, it has made for a happy, well nourished child. We never have any food struggles at our house, not about the times she eats, where she eats or what she is eating, because we trust that she knows her body best to make the right decisions.
For family meals we eat paleo, which she most often joins in eagerly, and most of our food is free range, organic or homegrown.
She is known to amaze us when we are in the store, declining grandmother’s offer for a chocolate croissant and choosing mushrooms instead (which indeed have to be eaten as breakfast).

So how do you do it?
  1. The most important thing is to change your knee-jerk reactions to food issues. Define where your problems lie? Is eat eating healthy? Finishing food? Eating together or in a specific room? Try to pin point these objections and release them. Many of the eating problems that affect children and their families have their roots in issues of control. (Rapley, G. Murkell, T. 2010)
  2. If they are little, the best way to start is Baby Led Weaning (or Baby Led Solids), have the child initiate the journey into solid foods, allow them to decide what they eat and how much of it they eat. Prepare your meals with them in mind and have them join in as much as possible.
  3. Take your child to the store and have them choose. If they have been fairly restricted food-wise, you should not be surprised if what they choose is everything you disagree with. Stop disagreeing, when they find out that the world is their oyster, they will moderate bad eating habits and regulate themselves to what their bodies need.
  4. Do not place emotion into foods. Don’t speak of food as bad, or use it as reward or as an emotional fix. This does not mean that you can’t discuss the quality and nutritious benefits of some foods over others. Just don’t demonize certain foods.
  5. Leave your cupboards and fridge open to your children, place food at their level, make it known that they are to eat whatever and whenever they like.
  6. Have a variety of snacks at home, both salty, sweet and healthy ones.
  7. Involve them in your cooking and grocery shopping (growing) process.
  8. Don’t be afraid of bingeing, these happen. When you introduce free foods, this may simply be a reaction of disbelief (get it while we can), and later on, they may binge on foods because they get to know them, because they haven’t had them for a while, or because they contain a nutrient their body is in search of at that specific moment. These flares of interest pass.
Adapting a free range food strategy is yet another way of minimizing conflict and will bring your family one step closer to a peaceful life.

Parenting for Social Change, Teresa Graham Brett (2011)
Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods - and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater, Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett (2010)



  1. I very much liked reading this view on food! We use a similar approach, but we do exclude cookies, candy, .. things that contain a lot of sugar or a lot of salt..

    I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the highly addictive nature of certain ingredients like sugar, cafeïne, .. ?

  2. Hi Griet
    We are full free range, so everything that's in the house is readily available, and when we go out, she is free to choose whatever she wishes (I guess there might be some exceptions, like we won't get her a cup of coffee ;) )
    The thing that is most important though when you do free range and you want to maintain a healthy balance is to model healthy eating patterns yourself. We eat paleo, so my husband and I don't consume sugary or salty snacks or anything processed (except the occasional bite of dark chocolate, or around the holidays).
    My daughter does like cookies a lot. Whenever possible, I will bake paleo desserts, they don't include refined sugars or wheat, but that's not always possible, so we do have cookies in the house. And candy and lollipops, everything she asks for really, even if it's not paleo.
    We try to pick the healthiest options within her choice when we go to the store without her, when she comes, she gets to pick too.
    Even though we have this policy, my daughter eats very healthy. She will often go for a fruit or vegetable instead of a cookie, depending on what's available. That doesn't mean there aren't days when she downs an entire bag of cookies... but then again there are weeks that she doesn't look at them at all, so there is a balance to the positive.
    Moreover, she is very healthy and plays outside actively most of the time, so I am not concerned.
    I think most of the addiction to certain foods originates from the fact that there is this culture of forbidden and desire around them. If you make healthy choices, and don't put too much weight on those kinds of foods, your child won't either. If you keep them behind lock and key, then they'll know it's a coveted, special item, something to binge on when available.
    My daughter also gets the occasional sip of coffee, when I would b drinking one (which is very rarely, since, like alcohol, we don't have that at home), but after one sip that would be more than enough for her, it's more about tasting what I have then anything.
    And yes, I do agree that the very nature of refined sugar can be addictive, but that's why we try to go for stuff with natural sugars, or agave syrup and no additives or colorings. I hope this cleared things up, let me know if you have additional questions

  3. I definitely did the free range thing with my kids. And now that they are 13, 11 and 7 they are still free range. Except now they make their own lunches. Earlier today I overheard my two youngest playing a game similar to restaurant with drive up cars. I overheard words like the special, salmon, and pesto. It made me smile.


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