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The Perils of "Free-Range" Parenting

When it comes to eating kids need a bit of a coop.

Are we in an era of “free-range” parenting? Neil Grimmer thinks we are. But then, Mr. Grimmer is the chief executive of Plum Organics, a pioneer of food pouches, a product toddlers can consume while roaming around.

“Parents,” Mr. Grimmer told the New York Times, “want to be as flexible as modern life demands. And when it comes to eating, that means doing away with structured mealtimes in favor of a less structured alternative that happens not at set times, but whenever a child is hungry.”1

I can’t think of a better strategy to produce a nation of picky eaters. Fat ones too.

Although pouches aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be—you can read the review of puree pouches that I posted on my website It's Not About Nutrition back in March—pouches themselves are relatively benign. I can't say the same thing about the feeding environment that pouches promote (or, perhaps, reflect). That's particularly toxic.

The idea that parents should feed children whenever they are hungry is ludicrous, and it spells trouble. Let me count the ways.

First, constant snacking promotes pickiness. After all, when there’s always a snack waiting in the wings, why should your kids eat what you serve—ever?

Second, snacking promotes overeating. Research2 shows that, on average, children now consume 168 more calories from snacks than they did in 1977. Sure, fruit and vegetables purees are better than the kinds of snacks most kids consume (desserts, candy, salty snacks, and sweetened beverages), but does anyone really believe that kids will stay passionate about purees over time? Don’t count on it. A well-formed snacking habit, though, is sure to stick around.

Finally, and the thing I find most troubling about “free-range” parenting, is the idea that children should be in charge of when (and therefore, by extension of what) they eat. Should we also put kids in charge of when they go to sleep? Whether they ride in a car seat? They’re kids. Since when did the inmates start running the asylum?

Forget "free-range." Kids need a bit of the coop.

Every feeding and parenting expert I know advocates providing some structure around meals and snacks. I’m not saying that every meal has to be eaten at the table in some 1950s version of family life. But children need guidance to learn when, what and, yes, even how much to eat.

And, children (at least American children) need to learn that temporary hunger isn’t the end of the world. I wrote about this in my last post.

“The pouch is about recognizing the moment we live in,” Mr. Grimmer told the New York Times. “My kids are more scheduled than I am as CEO: soccer, ballet, theater.”

It’s not surprising that Mr. Grimmer sees the pouch as the answer to the overscheduled life. The pouch is his baby. But have we really gotten to the point where we protect time for extracurricular activities but not for proper eating?

I’m not against puree pouches. Indeed, I think they’re fine when mixed into the snack rotation. What I object to is the attitude behind the pouches: That we must always be ready to supply food when our kids are hungry; that any food that seems remotely healthy is acceptable; that eating on the go is good; that toddlers can’t be expected to eat the real deal.

This kind of thinking drives me nuts.

The last time I checked, grabbing grapes out of the refrigerator took about as much effort as picking up a pouch. True, pouches aren’t perishable like fresh fruit, but a long shelf life shouldn’t be an item’s strongest selling point.

Ironically, puree pouches have the power to move kids away from real fruits and vegetables. How?

  1. Kids get used to eating puree pouches.
  2. Parents are happy. Puree pouches seem relatively healthy and they nominally fit into the fruits and vegetable category.
  3. Kids start to reject actual vegetables; they don't taste as sweet, they're not as much fun...
  4. Parents panic that their kids aren't eating right and resort to puree pouches more frequently.
  5. Kids get used to eating puree pouches.
  6. Many kids start to demand them.

No matter what manufacturers try to sell you, different forms of food are not equivalents. In at least one study, apples have been shown to increase satiation more than applesauce and more than apple juice.3

Think of puree pouches as a crappy-snack alternative, not as a substitute for real food. You'll be teaching your kids the truth about the world, and shaping their habits for a lifetime of healthy eating.



2 Piernas, C. and B. M. Popkin. 2010. "Trends in Snacking Among U.S. Children." Health Affairs 29(3): 398-404.

3 Flood-Obbagy, J. E., and B. J. Rolls. 2009. "The Effect of Fruit in Different Forms on Energy Intake and Satiety At a Meal." Appetite 52:416-22.

© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.

About the Author
Dina Rose Ph.D.

Dina Rose, Ph.D., is a sociologist and the author of the book It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating and the blog It's Not About Nutrition.