UnWasted Food

I recently received a question about Radical Unschooling that I wanted to share.


“My daughter will constantly ask for food but not finish it or will ask for something, take a bite or two and then say she wants something else”

My response:

The overall reason why I wouldn’t make a big issue out of this is because I choose connection over a power struggle. I choose the make our relationship the first priority over worrying about “wasted” food. The cultural idea of wasted food is a very conditioned way to look at a situation like you shared. Our parents and their parents lived in a very different mindset about these things. It was very much “parent-led eating” back in their day. There were many reasons for this back then, but times were harder, money and food were scarcer and the authoritarian paradigm was prevalent.

Today I choose to meet my children where they are and get creative with the food that they do not eat.

I’ve used foods that they haven’t eaten in soups, or salads, for the next meal, if I don’t feel like eating their leftovers that day. Or I have placed what they didn’t eat in the fridge, or gave it to our pets.  We also compost. It’s all part of the many ways in which we can recycle food. Unschooling is a time of rethinking so much! You can choose to rethink your beliefs surrounding food, meals and waste as well.

For dinner Tiff always takes more food than the other kids. She usually puts everything on her plate that she can fit. She never eats it all, but she loves the look and feel of abundance on her plate. She arranges it beautifully and enjoys the process of creation on her plate. I don’t try to change her, but support her in her needs. She enjoys feeling that she has more than enough. It  is a very secure feeling to her. There are times when one of us will kindly ask her to leave enough of this or that for everyone else, which she does. Also, I will just wait and let everyone else take what they want because I know I can just eat the potatoes on her plate when she is finished.

I also think it is great that my kids DO leave food on their plates and only eat to fullness! Isn’t this something we strive to do as adults and often times fail because we were so conditioned as children to clean our plates to meet the needs of the adults around us? When my children tap into their true needs and instincts food is often left over. I really appreciate this as a sign they are being true to their body’s needs.

Our children are aware that as a culture we are very fortunate regards to food. We discuss poverty and starvation in the world and their gratitude for their life is apparent. They are very aware and compassionate children. I do not try to make my children feel bad for their abundance, nor do I guilt them into finishing what is on their plates to meet my needs which may be associated with my own cultural conditioning. I am always rethinking deeply held beliefs to connect more with my children.

Children often have a unique way of experiencing foods and eating. I embrace this about who my children are. I am the one who can choose to connect with them and find ways to get creative, or I can choose to force and coerce them to eat like I think they should. In turn this would cause negativity and power struggles over mealtimes and snacks which would damage our relationship and create lifelong issues with food for my children. Instead, I choose to observe their choices without judgement, help them get what they want and respect how they choose to interact with their food.

In my opinion no food is never “wasted”. If the money is already spent, what difference does it make whether or not you child eats it, or the raccoons and rats at the dump do? Seriously! I love the fact that we are feeding the wildlife and insects with whatever we do not eat. I never see anything my kids don’t finish as “waste”. I feel connected to every living thing and know we are feeding an extension of ourselves in whatever creature consumes what we don’t eat.

You’ll never hear me tell my Unschooled kids to “clean their plates”, or that there are “starving kids in China”, like many of us were told as children. I will always honor how much they choose to consume and then be joyful in giving our food back to the Earth in a respectful, loving way. The idea of waste does not need to exist if you can see that we are all One on this planet. My children know this, and I am grateful that they remind me of it everyday.



  1. Hi Dayna!
    I totally agree with not forcing children to eat, empty their plate, etc. Our always unschooled son eats when he’s hungry, and eats what he likes. If he doesn’t want what we’re having for dinner, i’ll make something else for him, or a monkey platter…

    But i have to say i still struggle with him not finishing things he’s *specifically* asked for. Yes, I compost. I never put food in the trash – b/c food in landfill converts to methane, and i’m not too keen on the idea of feeding populations of introduced rats, cats and mice at the dump that have a negative impact on Australia’s native species!

    But it’s more than that, it really is a financial thing at times (and I know we have unschooling friends in a tighter financial boat than we are in)…for example….my son asks, specifically, for a plate of seaweed crackers, chopped apple, and cherry tomato’s – awesome…i ask if he’s sure he wants all that and thinks he’ll eat it. Yes. Definitely, he replies. I make it and put it out. He eats half the apple and one tomato. I remind him it’s there if he’s playing and forgets.

    An hour later, the apple is brown and he doesn’t want it (fair enough – no one likes a brown apple!), the crackers are soggy and stale (again – fair enough, soggy crackers suck!), but i can put the tomato’s back in the fridge. So, i’ve had to compost around $1.50 worth of food (1/2 pack crackers and 1/2 apple)….not much – no. But that can happen in our house around 3-4 times each day….so (quick totalling) that could easily add up to $4-5/day, or over $1000 a year (almost enough for a flight to see our friends in the US!)!!

    So, i guess in essense, it’s not wasted food i’m worried about – sure, i can compost it, it’s more wasted money. Like most unschooling families, we live on one wage – and my husband is a biologist, so that wage is not massive!!

    What is your advice, if you are giving your children all the choices (in the supermarket and at home) but you really can’t afford to waste that money?

    • what i do with mossy is just give him a little and he knows where to get more. i just wouldnt put so much out. another great tip are ceramic knives, steel oxidises food and ceramics wont so there is no brown, also a thin coatiing of lemon or lime works a treat too. xxxxxx

  2. Oh – and i look foward to discussing this and much more at Airlie Beach in a few weeks! Whoot!

  3. I agree with this. I get the money issues above – in our house it isn’t one – not because we have tons of money, just because we have two parents who like the same foods as our son does, and will usually eat what he doesn’t. And when we can compost it after ward because we haven’t eaten it, we do – I figure it’s still feeding us because it feeds the worms that make the rich soil to grow our veggies. To me that’s does make financial sense – because if I didn’t compost it would cost me a pretty penny to build up my soil nutritionally. That’s just my take.

    I was also fortunate enough to never be a member of the clean plate club – my Mom s nearby and I just asked her if she had ever done that, as I had no memory of her doing so – she said it never occurred to her to do it, because she figured we’d eat when we were hungry and eat as much as we needed. Other issues caused me to overeat, but not that one at least. No power struggles about food.

  4. Chasym – yes – if we grew our own veggies, that would probably make financial sense. Also, if we had pets and I could consider it pet food… But we have neither – we rent, have little garden, and are not allowed pets where we rent (we also spend a lot of time away, so having a pet isn’t an option right now – sadly!)….I do eat his leftovers when it’s feasible, but i’m not really keen on brown apple and soggy crackers either!

    Of course, i believe that our relationship is the most important thing, and of course more important than money….but you can’t ignore money – especially when you don’t have much, and i guess the question was also partly for friends who i know have even less money coming in than us……

  5. Jo, have you tried putting less out? Maybe just a few crackers and put the rest in an airtight container? The leftover apple could be used in baking (muffins spring to mind) or in porridge (which is what I usually do with ours), or apple crumble.

  6. While I almost never force my kids to eat everything they put on their plate, I do encourage them to be mindful of portions and try very hard not to waste food. This IS a financial issue and also one of mindfulness. Food waste in our country is one of the largest waste sources, particularly in schools and restaurants. This is a great teaching tool to begin to explain to your children their part in the food system. Additionally if it is possible, you can feed your food waste to a compost pile or worm bin. You can even have one indoors under your kitchen sink.

    I want my children to be creative and value abundance, but I do not want them to ever take for granted how fortunate we are to live in a country where food can be so easily found at the corner store and having more food than one needs is certainly a rarity on this planet.

    http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/compost.cfm Indoor Worm Bin ideas

  7. We neither make our children eat what they don’t want, nor do they waste food. Waste is something I find morally wrong. It isn’t about money, it’s about greed and gluttony. It’s about taking more than what is needed at the expense of someone else, or, in the case of the environment, everyone else.

    My children are encouraged to serve themselves small helpings and go back for seconds, thirds and fourths as needed. I’ve never nagged, and I’ve never had to scrape food off their plates. Ever. I guess part of that is that my husband likes to eat their leftovers, but that is something that happens very rarely, and usually only if one of the kids is not feeling well. If I cook too much (esp. if trying a new recipe), we just pack it up and use it for lunches the next day.

    The one exception I can think of is birthday cake. If they are given some, the icing tends to disappear and the cake (esp. store-bought cake) sits. That is one item that does get wasted.

    We also include the kids in our food decisions–such as bringing them to the CSA and encouraging them to help plan meals they will enjoy. And that doesn’t mean frozen pizza or mac and cheese every night either. If we eat out, which is a rare thing, we try and choose buffet-style restaurants so we can choose what and how much we want, and know we can go back for seconds just like at home if needed.

    My children also prepare their own food when we eat something they don’t like, and have done so from preschool age. They know where their food comes from and the names of the farmers who grow about half of what we eat. I think when they see the work that goes into producing their food, they learn to value (and enjoy) it more.

  8. I have the opposite thing going on with my older daughter, who is 6. She wants to eat constantly, and often she wants the foods that I believe are worst for her. We have mostly organic, gluten-free food in our house, but she still is drawn towards the least nutritious of that. She is a little on the heavy side for her age, and isn’t as active as many of her friends. I’m really struggling with giving her completely free choices over her food and having “rules” set up around food (like only vegis if she wants a snack before dinner, having to put in some greens or green powder if she wants a smoothie, having to eat the dinner I make instead of eating something different, etc.).
    Thank you so much for your posts, I absolutely love them and get so much from them!

    • Kelly,

      Thank you for posting. It sounds like you are going through some personal growth and challenges in regards to your daughter’s choices. If you ever need personalized one on one support please let me know. I am always happy to help!

      Thank you for your honesty and sharing your struggle.


  9. Thanks everyone for your comments to my question, also. After writing that first post, it did make me think more about portion size, and i have started putting less out……yesterday Kai asked for 3 pieces of bread with mayo. I gave him 1, and said if he wanted more i was happy to make it once he was done with the first piece….seems to be working so far! Sometimes just writing things down helps you figure them out in your head!

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