What is free-grazing, you ask? It means that you don’t have any artificial restrictions on food in your house.
Examples of restrictions include a set schedule of eating times, or only allowing certain foods at certain times. Or only allowing X to be eaten after Y was eaten first.
We mostly follow a free-grazing lifestyle because I have an extremely picky and sensitive eater on my hands. And having to eat just because other people are eating is way too much pressure for him.
DOES FREE-GRAZING MEAN THE KID CAN JUST EAT “JUNK” FOOD ALL DAY?
Nope. If you don’t want your child to eat a certain type of food all day, don’t buy it. Read this article by Linda Clement of Raising Parents for more details. The article highlights the point that our society calls low-nutrition foods “treats” and that we need to stop labeling the food that is least healthy as a prize to be won. Healthy foods should be the treat. A big plate of freshly picked strawberries should be the treat. It’s not easy to get there. At our house, the “junk” is still considered the treat. My kid would live on cookies and donuts if he could. But we don’t label them as a treat. Just as a food choice. We try to avoid buying them frequently, or we make our own.
Why shouldn’t this be considered a treat?
ALLOWING FREE-GRAZING TEACHES A CHILD TO SELF-REGULATE HIS CONSUMPTION.
Self-regulation. By allowing our kids to eat when they are hungry, and have total control of their intake, we are teaching them to self-regulate their eating. When someone else is in control of the food, that will result in power struggles. Most people that feel controlled resist.
If you are just starting this way of food life, you might notice your child eating everything in sight. They have no self-regulation skills. They just see freedom and are indulging in that freedom to eat what they want.
So you’ll have to give it a bit of time. If you feel it isn’t working for your kids, consider whether one of these factors is responsible:
- Not giving it long enough.
- The foods available in the house. Are there appealing, nutritious options?
- Modeling. Do you eat when your bored? Or having a bad day? I’ve had many a day swinging on the refrigerator door because I’m bored.
- Growth spurts or plateaus. Sometimes kids eat a lot; sometimes they eat next to nothing.
WAYS TO ENCOURAGE SELF-REGULATION WITH FOOD
Do allow the child to eat when they feel hungry.
Don’t push them to eat if they aren’t. (This could lead to overeating.)
Do give the child a gigantic hug and lots of empathy when they are feeling emotional.
Don’t give them sweets or food to “make them feel better.” This will lead to emotional eating.
Do allow the child to eat dessert (if it’s a part of the meal) first, if they want.
Don’t say, “eat your dinner first and then you can have your treat.” Dessert shouldn’t be the reward for eating the gross vegetables. The vegetables might actually seem appetizing if all the food served is in the same category of awesome. You could even start serving dessert as the main dish and the vegetables are the treat at the end.
Do provide nourishing snacks and foods in easy-to-get-to containers in the cupboard and fridge. This will give the child some power and independence. And you will have the comfort of knowing whatever she chooses is something that you are ok with her having whenever.
Don’t call certain foods “bad” or some other negative word. Yes, there are a lot of not-good-for-your-body foods out there, but labeling a package of M&Ms as bad food could set the child up for guilt. What if they like M&Ms? What if they grow up and buy a pack and still feel guilty knowing they are eating “bad” food? Instead, educate them on food, ingredients, and business practices of companies that care about the health of their customers. That way they can make informed choices as they grow instead of just making choices out of guilt or trying to please others. Knowledge is power!
Do trust your child to know when they are full. It can be difficult to break the “just one more bite” habit. But it’s worth it.
Don’t compare your kid to others. They are unique in their needs and growth. Some days they will love something. Some days they will hate that very same something.
PROS TO FREE-GRAZING.
- Fewer power struggles.
- Greater independence.
- Happy tummies, happy kids.
- Opportunity for kids to try new foods without any outside pressure to eat it. If you have a picky eater, read this article.
CONS TO FREE-GRAZING.
- More prep work. Creating little kid-sized portions can be a pain. We try to only do a couple of days at a time so it’s less overwhelming.
- A feeling of less control. It’s a good thing to not control other people and situations, but it can add a bit of chaos and stress to your mindset. Or, at least, to mine.
So what do you think about free-grazing? What works best for your kids?
If you have questions about tactics or situations that you are experiencing with your kiddos, and want some advice, please submit your question to our Dear Attachment Parent column here!
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I’m very interested in this method. Can you point me to more resources? How to practically apply this? Thanks so much!