Food, Freedom, and Why I Stopped Using the Phrase, “Clean Eating”

cupcakesI love food.  And when I say, “I love food,” I mean I really love food.  I love food so much I spent 500 hours officially studying it so I could earn a nutritional consulting certificate.  And I completely loved, like geeked-out-loved, the nutrition portion of yoga teacher training (talking about food while we ate delicious, fresh, catered vegan meals every day??? I would take the training all over again just for the food.)  I love planning food, love making food, love eating food.  I love learning about it, reading about it and watching documentaries about it.

And even with all that love, society’s current obsession with food – with eating a certain way, with its tightly held controls and its attempts to shame everyone who doesn’t eat the “right” way –  is freaking me the heck out.

And I get it.  I was vegan for around 7 years.  I’ve eaten Paleo.  I’ve done the Zone diet.  The South Beach diet.  I’ve eating 90% raw.  I’ve done juice fasts, and cleanses, and drank nothing but lemon water with cayenne pepper for 10 days.  I could tell you all the science behind all of them, and I was proud, and I was self-righteous, and it makes me exhausted just thinking about it.

And now?  This is the food philosophy that I want to pass on to my kids:

I want them to see me eat food that nourishes me… in body, mind, and spirit.  I want them to see me eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full.  I want them to recognize that food is a fuel, yes, but that it’s also fun and interesting and to be enjoyed.  I want them to understand that the way an individual eats should be a fluid, changing thing, and that sometimes needs are best met with a yummy salad, and sometimes with a warm and gooey chocolate chip cookie.

I want them to know that the act and art of eating is also highly personal, and not something that should be controlled or micromanaged by another person, even if that person is a well-meaning parent.  I watch again and again as parents create food struggles, force their kids to clean their plate, make rules like “no dessert unless they eat x number of bites of broccoli first”, or refuse to buy certain foods because they’re not “healthy” enough.  I can’t imagine it’s a super good thing for your relationship with your child, but it’s also a pretty surefire way to guarantee they’ll have an unhealthy relationship with food in the future.

Food isn’t supposed to be a battle!  It’s not supposed to be about control, or stress, or pressure, or categorizing things into “good foods” and “bad foods.”

In our house, if someone wants ice cream, we’ll go get some.  If someone wants cookies, I’ll bake them.  If someone wants chips, we’ll pick up a bag.  If someone wants Milk Duds (cough::me::cough) or Hot Tamales or Red Vines or Dr Pepper, we’ll walk to the dollar store. None of those things are regular, everyday staples in our pantry though.  They don’t need to be. The stores are there if someone has a craving.  Every time we go to the grocery store, everyone is always welcome to add whatever request they’d like.  Tegan, who loves her sweets, will often be the one to request ice cream, although it’s just as often berries or watermelon or some other sort of sweet fruit. Everett’s pick – every week – was dill pickles, so it finally became a standing order.  Other than those few things? Their response when asked is “The normal stuff is fine” 99% of the time.  For us, “normal” generally consists of whole foods, meals cooked from scratch, fresh fruits and veggies, and very little packaged stuff.

I used to say we ate “clean,” but that’s a phrase I just can’t get behind anymore.  That one silly word, when used to describe food, has become so rife with judgment it makes me cringe.  What does “clean” eating even mean? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.  I asked it not too long ago on a Facebook group and someone responded:  No processed food, no sugar, no white flour, no preservatives, no artificial colors or flavors.  And sure, those are all things you probably don’t want to eat a ton of – for various reasons – but is it helpful to think of them, and/or the people who them, as dirty?   I know many people who work hard to put food on the table for their kids, and their budgets (or taste buds) dictate that they round out the meal with inexpensive things like packaged ramen noodles.   Do we sit, and point fingers, and say, “Ooooh, that’s… unclean!”?

It kind of makes me feel like we’re living in the Old Testament.

And unfortunately, sitting and pointing fingers is exactly what some people are doing.  I had to hide someone on my Facebook feed because her version of advocating for “clean eating” included chastising parents for poisoning their kids by letting them have candy.

Yes, candy has sugar.  And depending on what kind it is, it also likely has chemicals and coloring and preservatives.  I’m pretty sure we all know that.   Shaming parents and pointing fingers and using strong words like “poison” isn’t going to change it.  The way we talk about food matters.

I saw a recipe the other day for a “sinless brownie”.  Sinless.  As opposed to the other brownies that go around stealing from people and cheating on their wives?

Even the word “healthy” is loaded.  What does healthy mean?  (Again, rhetorical)  Ask a vegetarian, a Paleo advocate, and a person with celiac disease that question, and you’ll get three very different answers.  Different people respond to food in different ways.  Some people have allergies.  Some people have sensitivities.  Some people feel sick if they eat dairy.  Some people can practically live on dairy.  Information is a great thing!  I love to learn about, and share about, nutrition.  But the information is constantly changing.   There are many many schools of thought.  If one thing is true about nutrition it’s that you can’t approach it as if there were hard and fast rules.   There’s not.  There are no better teachers than our own bodies.

So I eat food that makes me feel good, whatever that may mean for that day, or that moment. Yes, I do buy simple foods, and many organic foods.  Yes, I cook from scratch.  Yes, I eat lots of whole foods, and fruits, and veggies, and nuts, and seeds.

And I say YES to cookies.  And YES to baking.  And YES to ice cream.  And YES to chips.

Sometimes I miss the mark, and don’t feel so great physically (she says as she sips her peppermint tea to help settle a stomach that’s a little cranky about some Superbowl choices) but I absolutely refuse to give food the power to make me feel bad mentally or emotionally.  It’s not “bad” to indulge in some heavy Mexican food or a cupcake or a margarita or three.  Hate is bad. Prejudice is bad.  This is just food.  And if you listen to your body, and trust your body, it tells you everything you need to know, every time.

We’re missing the mark if we wrap food up with shame.  Food should be enjoyed!  And I whole-heartedly believe (as a person, as a nutritional consultant, and as a mother) that the stress, the fear, and the guilt you assign to certain foods is going to be far far more harmful to your bodies than whatever’s in the treat you deem so horrible.

I look at my kids, who have much healthier relationships with food than I ever had as a child (particularly as a teenager) and I see people who understand what food’s supposed to be.  I see people who trust their bodies to tell them when they’re hungry, when they’re full, and what makes them feel nourished.  I see people who enjoy a wide variety of food….. both in its simplest form, and its most complicated.  I see people who love to try new foods, and aren’t afraid of something just because it’s different.  I see people who accept food for what it is, and don’t feel the need to drench it in negative sounding labels.

Mostly I see people I can learn from.  People who are strong and healthy…. people without any weird food hangups, without any weird body issues or any weird guilt issues.  People who own and embrace their own food choices.

Even when they’re not “clean.”


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Filed under food, unschooling

27 Responses to Food, Freedom, and Why I Stopped Using the Phrase, “Clean Eating”

  1. Amy

    All I have to say is big fat A.M.E.N.

  2. Lisa from Iroquois

    I have to second Amy’s response. Hubby and I have a fondness for potoato chips, and I drink a coke a day, but otherwise our food is pretty much from scratch. And I grow most of the veg we eat and about half the fruit in our diet comes from our own yard. Your words are the most balanced approach I’ve ever seen anyone stand up in public and share. Hats off! 🙂

    • jen

      Thanks Lisa! I love that you grow so much of your own food! It is something that I always say we’ll do, but we still haven’t gotten started.

  3. hi Jen – I’ve been following your blog with great appetite since you and your family brought the ponies and I a picnic by a reservoir south of Phoenix while we were riding across the country. Your words and shared heart in this blog nourish my soul like that picnic nourished my spirit (as well as my body!)
    A deep thank you for writing this particular piece of sanity. After two years on the road, eating what was put in front of me, shopping in “convenience” stores with no fresh vegetables, crouching over my wee camp stove – i have found myself more conscious than ever before about my “food choices” and attitudes around eating. Your stance, so beautifully expressed, is a strong and healthy touchstone for that evolving relationship.
    Blessings and Adventures! Sea

    • jen

      Oh Sea, thank you for this kind and encouraging message! I think of you and your ponies often, and am so glad that we got to meet that way.

  4. “It is not what goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean. It is what comes out of the mouth that makes a person unclean.” Matthew 15:11. I always remember that verse when I start worrying about food! Great article and great perspective.

  5. Chris

    Agreed, wholeheartedly.

  6. Chantelle

    Thank you! I love this. This is awesome.

  7. Melissa

    Thank you so much. This is everything I have come to believe and wholeheartedly spread about food. Eloquent and kindly written.

  8. Stephanie

    As a Registered Dietitian…THANK YOU! I absolutely love this! So so so true! I am always trying to get my patients to have a healthy relationship with food! And I know what you mean about hiding people from your Facebook – I’ve had to do that in the past.
    Thank you again for this well-written blog! Totally sharing this! 🙂

  9. BP

    I love your healthy attitude and point of view. I am a “foodie” and am always trying to find a balance for myself and my two kiddies. Thanks for sharing.

  10. This is the BEST post/article about food I have read, thank you for putting it so succinctly and beautifully

  11. Southern NM

    Yes, indeed. BUT. Conversely, let us please not demonize those who completely cut something from their diet. Here is my case. I have an addictive relationship with refined sugar. Brain wiring or predisposition or whatever you want to call it, I feel it the same way a junkie craves the next fix. I got cranky and yelled at beloved family members when I wasn’t “high” on sugar. I hid candy wrappers deep in the trash, like alcoholics with their empty bottles. I made my kids late to school because they were strapped in the car and ready to go, while I was hidden behind the trunk inhaling a king-size package of Kit-Kat. I woke up at night to sneak my next “fix”, and when we were all out of candy, gum, and even baking chocolate, I started in on granulated sugar by the spoonful, and stevia packets. The next fix was everything.

    Am I an exception? More than likely. Mainly an off-kilter system with a crazy insulin situation, which will develop me a host of metabolic issues in a couple of years… But I know this: COMPLETE elimination of refined sugars, (in a harrowing chill-and-trembling four-day period in HELL) got me to cut the habit. It’s been three months now and everything improved (craving oranges now, yay!). However, a mindless slice of birthday cake at a 4yo’s party put me back in the habit. I am now contemplating another four days of hell, from a place of addiction. Not looking forward to it.

    Thus, I reserve the right to call refined sugar any kinds of names in my mind (and “dirt” or “poison” is a mild one). Anything to help me prevent another mindless sugar-intake that will screw me up again. I won’t say it out loud, won’t mention it to friends and parents or even my kids, but my recoil from some innocent offer of gooey chocolate chip cookies will probably make it clear to anyone what I think of it. And I won’t explain myself like I (did the favor of doing) now, and I won’t be apologetic or even give a damn about others’ opinion. My health is that important. Please give people like me the benefit of the doubt. When I act like it’s poison, it IS, to ME, and it’s not a reflection on anyone else’s eating habits.

    • jen

      I’m not at all demonizing someone who has chosen not to eat something because it’s a specific problem for THEM. What I’m demonizing is the demonizing of everyone ELSE who’s not eating the way you’re personally eating (which of course is not what you’re doing) 🙂

  12. I just messaged my Bible study leader, telling her I was going to yell UNCLEAN, UNCLEAN! in class next time she brings cupcakes 😉

  13. Dania Ratiba

    i’m glad i came across your article, i really am. i think even calling it ‘clean’ eating just creates negative triggers if you even dare indulge in a non-vegan cookie or such for me it certainly does. it becomes the cycle of becoming more negative or harsh on yourself. i went through a bout of not really picking up any chocolate or sweets ever when i first came across ‘clean’ eating as such and i was fairly excited/happy but the more obsessive i became, especially with research the more miserable and restricted i felt and the more likely i was to binge. to be honest the less i thought about the whole, the less likely i was to pick up a bar of galaxy than vice versa oddly enough haha!

    as you said there is nothing wrong with knowing what your body needs and what is good for you personally and whole foods, veg and fruit is a basic standpoint for any diet over processed foods for everyone really but after that balance and personal knowledge rather than ‘perfectionism’ is the best way to go really. i definitely want to stick to this view because it’s become a bit of a silly emotional rollercoaster and whilst i adore all food and particularly nourishing my body much like yourself. i don’t want to be punishing myself for years to come because life is short and all food is good in some way!

    so major thanks for that article, i feel finding it was a sign to calm the fuck down hahaha!


  14. Christine

    A really refreshing and realistic perspective you’ve shared, to address the massive pendulum swings in our relationship to food in our society. Balance, freedom and wisdom are so necessary – thank you

  15. Linda

    It was so refreshing to read your post. Thank you. As someone who loves food, for whatever reason, it was great to read your post and see a balanced perspective. It’s so easy to place our own upbringing and food issues upon our children. The clean plate club and cringing when there is waste and some days there’s a lot of waste!
    I’m working on ‘If they eat it, they eat it, if they don’t, well I won’t have a fit’. It’s so easy to fall into power struggles over food or rewards for a clean plate.
    I always think that as adults we have an unhealthy view of food, particularly those that have some weight on. I personally gave up dieting a few years ago as I saw that I was setting myself up for a fall. I hear people say, ‘ I’ve been good or I’ve been bad. It’s interesting that we associate good with deprivation and bad with indulgence. Having said that, I see that food struggles at mealtimes set us up fort his mindset.
    I hope to conquer this mountain and thank you again!

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    I’m curious as to how you would react if your child refused all food except sweets? That is what my son does. Many days all he eats is cereal for breakfast and fruit for the rest of the day because I refuse to give him ice cream instead. He is served home cooked meals that he refuses to eat. He is 4 now and has been doing this since age 2. He literally does not eat meals. Unless it’s pizza or fast food. Maybe. And that’s a big maybe. He tries to steal my sugar jars and honey pots so that he can hide with them and gorge himself. If I bake cookies and let him eat them whenever he wants, he will ONLY eat cookies whenever he gets hungry THE ENTIRE DAY. I have even LET him eat sugar to see if he would get it out of his system. He ate a full 2 cups that day of sugar and wanted more. I read things like this and it sort of makes me feel like I should allow him sweets whenever, but I am thinking too that most kids do not do this. I just don’t know what to do with him. What would you think?

  19. Grace

    I agree mostly, though I do not buy certain things ever. That doesn’t mean my kids never get sweets. We have two issues that complicate it for us, vegan ethics and tooth decay. Both of my kids had weak enamel and tooth decay starting from very young on their baby teeth, despite excellent oral hygiene and an already low sugar diet. Other 2-year-olds were chugging soda and eating any sweet they came near and they were fine. My 2-year-old literally had one source of artificial sugar, her organic oatmeal, and the rest was from fruit, but she had giant caries in her baby teeth. Very similar things happened with my second child, though by then I knew of laser dentistry and was able to combat it. So, when we say no to sweets when other kids (particularly my nieces) are having them, it’s not a judgement that the other people are having them, but knowledge that my kids’ teeth are sensitive to sugar. There are no issues with my eldest’s adult teeth, knock on wood, so I hope it was just something caused by pregnancy and not something that affects them now (I have had blood work for deficiencies done on both of them and they are both good). I, of course, have other friends who place limits on their kids to be gluten free for health, kids who have celiac disease or suspected celiac/carry the gene and want to avoid gluten to be safe, or allergies to certain foods. My friend’s child ended up with a pretty long list of allergies including gluten, dairy, eggs, garlic, bananas, grapes, celery, and a bunch of other things that aren’t really common allergens. That kind of precludes her from being able to just pick anything off the shelf or allow them to eat anything at parties and I’ve heard the “no” answers and the disappointment from her kids (to echo and mirror those in my family about excess sugar). Of course we could say that is different because it’s not saying there is one good way to eat, but when you talk about passing on issues with food to kids, I wonder what sort of issues you feel these families (including mine) are passing onto their children. I guess this becomes a little more complicated with vegan ethics too. We have been fully vegan at times, but we are vegetarians who eat plant based at home. We don’t buy dairy or eggs, but, in keeping with the kind of philosophy you have here, I always let my kids have cake at birthday parties or pizza with grandma, that kind of thing. It becomes complicated though because my oldest is educated about why we eat this way and she has started, on her own, to feel conflicted about “cow cheese.” Am I setting her up for guilt or setting her up to have compassion for other beings? I’ve told her it’s up to her, but when she wants to know something, I explain it to her.

  20. Ashley

    Can I ask, what your suggestion would be for a Preschooler asking for sweets/treats/popcorn/chips for a snack in the morning would be. As I type this I kinda think I already know the answer but curious in your household how that would go. We try SO HARD to not make meals a battle, but I do find myself doing that more often than I would like. I am going to share this with my husband as a great refresher for us all…
    Thank you