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How do unschoolers learn what to eat?

A segment aired on Good Morning America last week raised a buzz over "unschooling," the practice of keeping your kids out of school and allowing them to live an unstructured life without offering any formal academics -- or really much guidance at all.

The idea is that kids freed from the fetters of formal schooling (or even traditional home schooling) can explore the world on their own terms, learning what they need, when they need it.

That philosophy applies to all aspects of the unschooled life -- including what kids eat.
Of course, parents buy the groceries. But according to the unschooled way, kids are allowed to make their own food choices about what and when to eat.

Proponents argue that kids left to follow their own compasses are likely to make (mostly) sound food choices and, better yet, they won't be saddled with the weight of the food- and diet-related anxiety that plagues so many of us.

Sandra Dodd, a New Mexico mom who runs a Web site and blog devoted to unschooling, maintains a page on her site featuring anecdotes from unschooling parents about their kids' eating habits. Not surprisingly, most of the tales are of kids' making good choices.

I'm not eager to leap into the fray over the merits of unschooling in general. But it has me thinking about whether following our natural instincts would lead us all, kids and grownups alike, toward a more healthful diet. Or do we really need to be told what to eat?

It's a compelling question, especially as we await delivery of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That document, the product of myriad meetings, discussions and hearings, will be full of information about how we should manage our diets, and Americans will be urged to follow its advice. Of course, the guidelines are one of the weapons in the battle against the food industry's incessant advertising and other efforts to convince people to eat their products, whether they're good for us or not.

But before 1980, when the first Dietary Guidelines were issued, we somehow muddled through without them. And, as I blogged last week, it's increasingly confusing to sort through all the food-related advice that's floating around the world these days. I find myself wondering whether there exists a purely instinctive, natural approach to eating that I've completely lost touch with? If so, it sure would be great to connect with it.

Maybe those unschoolers are onto something, after all.

What do you think? Please take today's poll and leave a comment below, too!

Let's tweet about what to eat! Find me and the other Local Living writers at @wposthome/local-living. And keep track of my "Me Minus 10" effort to lose 10 pounds before I turn 50 at

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 26, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Nutrition and Fitness , Teens  
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It may be possible, but I think it would very, very difficult. We're predisposed to crave fat, salt, and sugar. Worked great out on the savannah. Now my kids would go hunt-and-gather chicken nuggets, chocolate milk, fries, and a Sponge-Bob ice cream cone.

The problem is that it's not a level playing field. You can do your best. But on the other side is a legion of highly-paid Ivy-league MBAs, employed by every food and drink company in existence. Their sole job is to find more effective ways to persuade you to buy stuff. And they know two things: (1) the most profitable, most compelling stuff is high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat; and (2) your kids are your weak spot. So everywhere you go, you will be surrounded by people trying to convince your kids to buy the stuff you want them to learn not to eat -- at any restaurant, in the grocery store, on TV, at the movie theater (and during the pre-movie commercials, added bonus), at school, with their friends, at soccer practice -- you name it, the crap will be calling.

Can you do it? Absolutely. If you set up your house with only healthy choices, don't eat out much at all (anywhere), send their lunches instead of giving them lunch money, turn off the TV so they aren't bombarded by ads for crap, spend a lot of time out in nature, etc. But that is a huge, ongoing effort. I wonder how many parents who are drawn to the unstructured nature of unschooling will be interested in imposing the kind of structured environment they will need to succeed. And even if they are, well, any kid worth his salt will figure out how to trade the orange for the Cheetos in a heartbeat.

Posted by: laura33 | April 26, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I should say, believe it or not, I do actually believe in the more "intuitive" eating concept, as I had it happen myself: in college, I studied abroad, on an extremely limited budget. I had never been a healthy eater, so I spent the first month eating total cheap crap (think gyros, fries, and beer). And then, one day, I felt completely sick and craved vegetables. The rest of the semester, I ate fruit for lunch and veggies for dinner every night, with meat maybe once or twice a week (and the occasional cookie) -- because that was what my body wanted. But: I was in a foreign country that didn't have the huge fast-food infrastructure we do; I had no TV and couldn't read or understand the ads anyway; and we were running around visiting sites for our program all day, so I didn't have the opportunity to eat except at mealtimes. With almost all temptation removed, the world was quiet enough to hear my body speak. Took me all of two weeks back home to lose it again (sigh).

But I doubt that many people can really "hear" their body without that kind of built-in structure. And I certainly don't buy the notion that kids will do so without parents teaching them. I guess I remember "Lord of the Flies" a little too clearly. :-) Seriously, though, their brains aren't even developed yet -- they have such limited knowledge of the world, and they don't even have the ability to use that knowledge in the right way consistently. It's my job to keep them within reasonable bounds while they are learning both the facts (what is a good choice) and the self-discipline to apply those facts appropriately (i.e., you can't always eat the cookie).

Posted by: laura33 | April 26, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Knowing how nutritionally poor school lunches tend to be, I'm not sure the "schooled" kids are necessarily learning good food habits either.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 26, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

When it comes to nutritional advice, the only certain fact is that nothing is certain. Sound, well-reserached, serious advice may be totally contradictory (example: saturated fats can be argued both ways). Among the myriad of nutritional fads (Stay away from dairy! Have lots of dairy, and full-fat! Eat eggs very sparingly! Two eggs per day is ideal! Vegetable oils are good! Vegetable oils are bad!) one truth remains the only certainty: the diet that has kept our species alive and well for millennia is one based on unprocessed, natural, seasonal foods cooked the traditional way. This is the only piece of advice that is actually proven to work. Everything else... well, take it with a pinch of salt (literally).

Posted by: IzaO | April 26, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I don't want a total stranger telling me or my kids what to eat. Does anyone know who makes up those tables? Frankly, we have never had enough money to let the kids just eat whatever they want. But, we don't have restrictions either.
The whole nutrition debate is just too precious and faddy for me.

Posted by: leslieswearingen | April 26, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

If the parents are buying healthy, unprepped raw fruits and vegetables, and unprepped raw meat that they prepare themselves, then let the kids choose what they want to eat (most of the time). If all they're buying are good foods, then obviously the kids will only have good choices, and the parents will have an easier time making sure their diets are balanced because the kids won't be trying to eat cookies instead of fruit. They'll be trying to eat apples instead of broccoli instead.

As for the other stuff. Dietary guidelines, nutrition labels, and so on, were developed because processed, pre-cooked "fast" foods were becoming a mainstay in American diets, but nobody really knew what was in them or how healthy they were. Yes, humanity lived for generations without dietary guidelines--but most of those generations were before you could drive through McDonald's and get a large fries and Coke to go.

Posted by: dkp01 | April 26, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

How do unschoolers learn to eat?
Their parents can use this fine menu as a reference on the fridge, then let the kids pick from the healthy selections like my kid does:

Posted by: NoVaMusicMom | April 26, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

For some reason my previous comments on "unschooling" were "held for review".

Unschooling doesn't mean lack of guidance by an adult, if fact quite the opposite. It means using everyday experience to educate--not using a classroom setting. So in effect going to the supermarket is a field trip--you can teach nutrition, math, pricing schemes, calorie and calorie intake, biology, pharmacology, baking (depends on the store), even the cycle of how food gets to market--fruit, vegetable and meat and packaged goods.

Unschooling uses the world as a classroom. It expects the child to be curious and interested in discovery. Parents actually use this methodology every day...they just don't recognize that they are doing it.

Posted by: mil1 | April 26, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

mil1 -- FYI, "held for review" usually means too long; if you break it up into multiple posts, it will usually get through.

And thanks for the info about "unschooling"; turns out, I do it all the time. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | April 26, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Thanks laura33. I sorta thought it might be that.

I think "unschoolers" are actually the most disciplined of parents as they view everything they and their children do as a total learning experience and work in what others expect schools to do--they are, if they are any good, the ultimate educators. I do homeschool and use the technique (as all parents do) but it's actually very hard work LOL (for the parent, not the child :-)

Posted by: mil1 | April 26, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Instinctive, natural eating works great for our little girl . . . as long as the cupboards don't contain junk food. If they do, that's about all she eats. And I can't say that her parents do much better.

Despite our unschooling tendencies and our initial attempts to let our daughter choose all of her own food, my husband and I ended up implementing a one "treat" a day policy when our daughter was four. She can choose the treat and when to eat it. She mostly seems happy with that. Except for with the junk food, she has a great deal of freedom in choosing what she eats, and the sum of her choices seems to be a well-balanced diet.

Posted by: _wm_ | April 27, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

"I find myself wondering whether there exists a purely instinctive, natural approach to eating that I've completely lost touch with?"

While I find your question compelling, I am rather confused about why you chose to inject Unschoolers as your example of people who are choosing "instinctive" eating. Unschooling is not about eating instinctively. Parents who are successfully Unschooling are creating an environment built on love, trust, and respect. Food is not used for rewards or withheld as punishment. Children are not required to eat all their vegetables before having a cookie, which is an example of a relationship of control and serves only to send a message that cookies are more important than vegetables--there must be something more special about the cookie, if one must suffer through foods they are not fond of to get it. This kind of power struggle goes on in homes every day, and it's not surprising to see children choosing sweets over nutritious foods when the sweets are limited and controlled at home. Unschooling kids generally have no reason to choose the "junk" foods over the "nutritious" foods because the sweets are available whenever and are not controlled.

Regarding "instinctive" eating, I think that many adults could actually learn a lot by really watching how young children eat. My 4-year old, for example, will only eat until she is full. She'll proudly tell me, "I'm done!" when she is finished. I've learned to fix her tiny portions so that we don't have a lot of wasted food. How many of us continue to eat from our plates even though our tummies are likely full, and we've most likely consumed enough calories? Why? Because we were told to thousands of times?

Posted by: foehnjye | April 30, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

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