When my son was two he was fussy.
Here is a complete list of the foods he would eat: milk, pasta, rice, bread, chicken nuggets and fish fingers, chips, watermelon, tiny teddies and wheat-bix.
We used to tell friends he was a milk-drinking vegan. But that was generous because he didn't eat plants, except the refined white variety.
We had done everything right. I handmade all his baby food, we ate meals together at the table, I always put a variety of things on his plate, and I didn't make special meals for him.
Although over time I started adding fish fingers on the side of our plates so that at least he would eat something.
Then in 2016 everything changed. We made a decision. We decided to stop shopping at the supermarket.
We were going to try eating only outdoor food. Food sold outside, grown outside, that had spent most of its life outside.
I would supplement the market hauls by shopping at a little bulk shop for grains, dried lentils, nuts and tea. But I stopped buying processed food altogether. And I honestly didn't know what my son would eat.
But something amazing happened. And it started with an apple.
‘Try this young chap,’ said Rob, leaning over his stand, handing Ezra a piece of apple. And to my surprise he did.
Then he tried carrot and cucumber from Pete’s organic stand. And he loved them. We started calling them ‘market snacks’. he would remind me in the car on the way, ‘Don’t forget to get me a carrot, Mum’ he would say.
The first time he tasted ham was after a farmer showed him pictures of his grandchildren riding on the back of his fat pigs.
And the first time he tried sausages was when I ordered a side of beef online. The farmers dropped it off at our place on a Friday night. Ezra was waiting up in his pyjamas for him, and the arrival of the white truck was more exciting than Santa Clause.
We stopped buying things in packets. I started cooking snacks from scratch. And because pikelets, crepes and flatbreads tasted so good hot from the pan, he decided fried potatoes and eggs would be nice too.
There was a world of difference between the market food we were eating and what had previously been available to us at the supermarket.
Many local farmers have a deep connection to nature and grow food in a way that regenerates rather than depletes the environment.
Some showed us patches of remnant bushland on their property they looked after, removing invasive species, and protecting new trees and plants from pests. We found dairy farmers who use returnable glass milk bottles, taking responsibility for the whole life cycle of their product.
We learnt about how small-scale farmers use compost and manure to cycle nutrients and fertilise their plants and paddocks. What we hadn't realised was that industrial agriculture has discarded this ancient zero-waste practice in favour of artificial fertilisers.
Artificial fertilisers that are made of petroleum, and are a non-renewable. Chemicals that the destroy the soil’s structure and contributes to erosion and land degradation. We learnt that runoff from these fertilisers, and the pesticides that often join them, pollute rivers and streams, eventually flowing out into the ocean.
The farmers we met used antibiotics sparingly, and many not at all. They didn't need too. They explained that animals who live outdoors and have plenty of space, clean water and natural food rarely get sick. Unlike intensively farmed chicken and pigs who spend their lives indoors and are fed antibiotics daily, to protect them from the diseases which otherwise would be rife in an environment where up to 60,000 hens are housed in a single shed.
Shopping at the farmers' markets changed the way we eat. We now eat less imported food and more of what’s in season, less chicken and more chickpeas. And we love it.
And I now have a five-year-old who eats feta, leek and spinach. Who loves real food and gets excited about a new stand at the markets or a favourite vegetable that has come back into season.
But his fussiness isn't gone completely. The other day in a shop a cashier offered him a jelly lolly. It was lime green.
‘I don’t think I want to try that.’ he said to me quietly.
‘That’s fine’ I said. ‘You don’t have to.’
It’s funny, I thought. How often do we blame our children for their fear of food. ‘It’s developmental’ we say, or ‘they are stubborn.’
But what if the problem is ours? As a society we have turned food into something unreal. We eat food that comes in boxes, is grown using poisonous chemicals, travels great distances and we source it from cold corridors, devoid of life.
In a supermarket, we have thousands of options and even adults don't understand the ingredients in much of what we eat. No wonder our children find it scary.
What I've learnt is if you want to change the way your toddler eats, there is really only one thing you need to do.
Shop for real food.
Food you can't find in the deep freezer of a giant chain store. Or in a packet at the back of a shelf.
Real food is out in the sunshine. Hanging over your neighbour’s fence, growing in a garden, in the back of a farmer's ute or on a trellis table at a market.
There are no self-service checkouts where you buy real food. You’ll have to talk to someone to get it. But it will come with a conversation. With a smile and a story, and sometimes even an invitation to play at the farm where it all began.
And that might be the best part of all.
Hannah and Tim both grew up in Sydney. They are both lawyers and neither of them went camping when they were kids. Then in 2017, they moved to Darwin as a family.
And it changed their lives.
I loved interviewing Hannah for this post and you will love it too. Hannah's boys are three and one, and also happen to be my nephews. Their wild outdoor adventures are sure to inspire you. Enjoy!
On life in Darwin
Darwin is a pretty extreme place. It’s the top end of Australia. The weather is full on. It’s roughly 33 degrees celsius all year, except when it’s storming, and then it drops to about 28 degrees.
Most of the time it feels hotter because of the extreme humidity. The storms are huge and dramatic. And cyclones are a real threat (we just experienced one). Darwin is a wild place.
It’s also very beautiful. There are heaps of birds and every night the sky fills with amazing colours at sunset.
On surviving the heat
At first, Darwin felt like a very difficult place to raise two small kids…so hot and sweaty all the time! And mid-morning visits to the park were just not a good option. But we are getting much better at picking the right moment and the right space for the weather. The play space has to be shaded or wet, preferably both! And mostly our outside play needs to be early morning or late afternoon.
But within those limits, we’ve still found some great things to do. Walking through rainforests, sliding down shady sand dunes, climbing over rocks to find little rock pools along the coast, riding bikes and scooters along the excellent coastal paths, swimming at the pool, and when we need to be close to home: running under the sprinkler, digging in the mud, playing with the hose, hooning around with trucks and buckets during a storm.
On outdoor food
Our standards are: chopped cucumber and carrot, wraps with peanut butter, and a bit of tropical fruit to sweeten the deal.
And always water-bottles!
We also have a backyard garden that mainly consists of native and tropical plants and shrubs, but we try our hand at a few herbs. The boys love to pick the basil and add it to dinner.
We knew when we moved to Darwin that we wanted to get out and explore the NT. We bought a tent, swag and a blow-up mattress at the start of the dry season, from there we have added bits and pieces as we saw the need, and as friends have shown us their tricks.
It’s season dependent. During the dry season last year (May-August), we got out quite a bit, about every second or third weekend. Last year we mainly explored Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks as weekend trips. Hoping to do more of that this year, together with some longer trips to the Red Centre and through the Kimberleys.
When we’re camping, we explore, play in the bush, watch the wildlife, find waterfalls, cook meals around the campfire, and swim if it’s safe (the croc-threat is real.) They boys love camping. To them, it’s a big adventure in which they get lots of Mum and Dad time, and lots of space to run and play.
Tim and I weren't campers before we moved to the Northern Territory. We hadn't camped as children or adults. It’s been a big learning experience. We’ve learnt that most difficult part is getting out the door. From there it’s great. Camping has been an awesome reminder of how refreshing it is to be in nature. We come back tired and dirty, but calm.
It’s also an exercise in living simply. We don’t take any toys with us, but so far we’ve not had any issues keeping the boys entertained. Some sticks for drawing and building, an amazing landscape, and adults to help them explore is all they need. Once we get out the door, it almost becomes an easier weekend experience than if we were at home.
On surviving the wet season
The rain during the wet season actually makes it a lot easier to be outside. It’s not like being down south where the rain makes you feel cold. Here, the rain is no colder than your bath! It’s actually a great time to be outside, run around, ride a bike etc. Obviously we get indoors if there’s thunder and lightning, or it’s torrential. But otherwise, we enjoy the rain.
Yes, sometimes it does feel like there are lots of things in Darwin out to get you. Stingers, crocodiles, cyclones, melioidosis (a soil-borne disease that comes to the surface after the rain), snakes… the list goes on! We try to be aware of the risks and make appropriate choices about where and when we play. For example, we do play a lot in puddles after the rain, but I make the kids wear gumboots (because of meliodosis). We do swim in natural water spots, but we choose spots that crocodiles cannot get to (e.g. up high and surrounded by rocks) and we get outside and run like crazy before the cyclone strikes!
On the benefits of outdoor play
Playing outside wears them out so they go to sleep easier. They are calmer when we do come inside. They don’t fight with each other so much (especially when we are camping and there are no toys to fight over). They are more creative. And they (and we) are more relaxed.
On new persectives
We’ve learnt respect for “country”, in all its beauty and harshness. Places like Kakadu, that are so un-touched, are a striking reminder of how beautiful and awe-inspiring the Australian country is – and what gifted custodians of the land Australia’s First People are.
And we’ve come to value wild, open, natural space a lot more than we did when we lived in the city.
In September 2016 our family turned off our screens.
We went cold turkey. No television, no tablets, and no smartphones, during daylight hours. My husband and I were allowed our computers and phones for work, and we could contact friends and family at night when the kids were in bed. At the time our children were one and three and were watching an hour of children’s television in the afternoon of most days. Plus the news in the morning with Dad and a little bit of iPad time to calm them down before their nap. We thought a screen-free month would we hard, but we had no idea how it would change our lives. Here’s what we learnt.
When our children had plenty of time to play outside, they didn’t need screen-time. The month fell within a year-long family project—Our Year Outdoors. So our kids were spending three hours or more outside each day. And that made all the difference. All that running, climbing, swimming and jumping made them physically very tired. In the afternoon, after their bath, they played cars or blocks or sat in the lounge room reading library books in their pyjamas. And I could count on a couple of quiet hours to cook dinner in peace.
The afternoons were calmer that month and so were the mornings. In fact, about halfway through the month, we noticed a kind of quiet peacefulness descend on our household. The kids played more creatively and argued less. In general, they seemed happier. I was surprised that I noticed a difference when my kids had only been using screens for an hour a day. But I found research that supported what I saw—that even a small amount of screen time can have a negative impact on young children. In fact, a University of Virginia study found that four-year-olds experienced a drop in executive functioning skills after watching as little as 9 minutes of fast-paced cartoons.
I noticed other things that month too. I started to see how our collective dependence on screens is changing the landscape of childhood.
When I was a child my mum read The Little House in the Big Woods to my brothers and me. I remember being shocked by what took place at the dinner table in the little house. In the chapter about their Christmas celebrations, the protagonist Laura explained that she and her sister Mary did not say a word during the meal, because ‘they knew that children should be seen and not heard.’
The concept was utterly foreign to me. At that time I had lived most of my life in a university flat, on the bottom floor of a residential college. My Dad worked at the college and as part of his job he often invited homesick international students to our place for my Mum’s beef casserole and butterscotch pudding. The constant stream of interesting, young dinner guests helped my brother, who was six, develope a budding interest in politics. I was only three, but I was fascinated by their stories and loved it when they told us about what their own mothers cooked at home. Once after a meal at our place, I was invited to a dark-haired student’s tiny dorm room. She gave me lollies and let me sit on her beds and flick through her fat university textbooks. Another day an American student made a cassette tape of stories for my brothers and me. We treasured that tape and his Yankee version of Old MacDonald's Farm, long after he had returned to his homeland.
When I was a child I was included in all the conversations held at the dinner table. Now, I saw that I often used technology to push my own children aside. And it wasn’t only me. I noticed it a lot that September. At a dinner party where the kid's table was set up in front of a Disney movie, a child glued to an iPad in the doctor’s waiting room, and that most familiar gesture—a blinking iPhone passed across a cafe table. I had seen these scenes many times before, I had done them myself. But now I started to wonder. Were we on the road to recreating a culture where our children’s voices were not welcome? Where they would be allowed to be seen, but not heard?
I read a lot that month, and I learnt there were many reasons why limiting my children's screen time was a good idea.
In 2006 a study found that the time children spent on screens tended to take away from the time they spent engaged in creative play or interacting with parents and siblings—two things that are essential for learning and development.
Another study, published in 2015, found that as little as one hour of regular television viewing in kindergarten was associated with an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese in childhood—even when you adjusted for parental education levels and household income.
According to a University of Bristol study, children who spend more than two hours a day on screens also have an increased risk of psychological difficulties.
More recently, in a poll by the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, two-thirds of Australian parents admitted they fought with their children about turning off devices on a daily basis.
In September 2016 our family gave up the battle. And the truth is, we have never really had it again. In our house screens are now the exception rather than the rule. And to our surprise, nobody really misses them.
It’s more than a year since our screen-free month, and our children are now three and five. These days we use screens sparingly. My five year old sometimes uses my laptop to type up a story he is writing. My daughter likes using my iPhone to take photos or create text messages full of emojis for her Grandma who lives interstate. But they don't have screen time daily. My husband and I also try to stay off our computers, until the kids have gone to bed. And although we sometimes watch a family movie together on a Friday night, weeks go by without us ever turning the TV on for the kids.
For me, the best change is that I no longer rely on screens to get through the day. I now know if my children are tired, I can put music on and we can dance on the kitchen tiles together. If they are grumpy, I can tell them stories or read them poems or sing them songs. And if, after dinner, my daughter has trouble calming down before bed, then I can carry her out to the balcony so we can say goodnight to the moon. And if need be, I can rock her to sleep—under an ancient sky.
My amazing, beautiful, creative friend Bonnie lives in a Sydney with her husband Dan and their two little girls. She runs a photography business from home, her husband works long hours, and she is pregnant their third baby, yet, somehow she still has the cleanest kitchen of anyone I know. And her kids get plenty of time to play outside.
Bonnie’s apartment is an oasis. She has a lovely leafy fig tree in her lounge room, potted succulents on her windowsills and dried plants on display around the house. And she’s always happy to put the kettle on and sit down for a chat. So that's exactly what I did this week (although this time via Skype) and I asked her for a bit of insight into how she does it all. I hope you’re ready to be inspired.
On living in Sydney
I live on the north shore of Sydney, quite close to a main highway, in an apartment of about nine units that was built in the 1940s. I live with my husband Daniel, Poppy who is three, Georgie who is one and we have another baby on the way.
We love living in Sydney. It’s exciting, daunting, busy and very diverse.
On getting outside to play
Our rule of thumb is that we go out every day. If I go out once a day, I’m happy. If we don't get outside, we do have a little bit of grass near the clothesline, I can take the girls down there in the afternoon. Or when Daniel gets home I send them down there with him. They can have dessert outside or have dinner outside and that gives them a chance to run around.
On apartment living
It’s such a tight space. We also live on the top floor so if we don’t get out I notice the girls are soon thumping around. Georgie still naps so if we get outside in the morning it means that Poppy will have some quiet time and I can have a rest. If we stay inside, it isn't like that at all. We are all on top of each other and no one gets a break. So the strategy is to get outside and tucker them out, as well as make the most of the sunshine.
On Sydney weather
We are pretty lucky. The summers aren't super hot. And the winters are mild. So you can get around year round without having to wear a heavy coat. Sydney’s weather means you can get out most days without too much worry.
On things that make it hard
Our biggest challenges are stairs and parking. I buy our groceries online so I don't have to go to all that effort to get down the stairs and to the car and end up only inside in the supermarket. It’s harder work now that I’m pregnant, but I know we just need to plan and be strategic. We have a pram in each of our cars so we don't need to unpack them each time or carry it up the stairs.
Our favourite places to play
We love the Incinerator Park in Willoughby, Woorongah Park, Clifton Gardens, and Sydney beaches. Balmoral is the particularly great beach for kids.
One of the other places we go to often is Taronga Zoo. We bought a pass this year and there was a deal when we did, so we got some bonus children’s passes which we gave to the girls’ cousins. We go there and just hang out. They have a lovely playground, water play, a petting zoo, animals and the most amazing view of the harbour.
A rule of thumb for me, as a mum, is that wherever we go, there has to be a cafe. A park for the kids and a good coffee for me.
What’s do we pack to eat outside?
Cheese and Vegemite sandwiches, strawberries, blueberries, bananas and grapes. And I’m eating a BAE role and a flat white, of course.
On growing up wild
I actually grew up in Seattle with two older sisters. I feel like my parents were pretty lenient. We had a group of neighbourhood kids, we called ourselves 'the neighbourhood gang'. There were no phones and no parents telling us that we couldn't go anywhere we wanted. There were woods and ravines and so we would trek for hours. We had a dog that roamed free with us as well. These days what our parents let us do would be called negligence. But for us it was wonderful. I think naturally a child wants to explore and it's just that we were allowed to, so we did. We used to go blackberry picking. There was a lot of rain is Seattle but it didn't really stop us. We had to play outside, even in the wet so we just jumped in puddles and played in the mud. My sisters and I still call those years our golden years. We had our woods, we had our ravine and we had our freedom. On some days, I think we even ended up in a different suburb.
The best piece of advice for apartment living…
One big tip I have is stock your boot. If you’re not well prepared living in an apartment, you’ll stay inside. I keep a towel, nappies, wipes, a bucket and spade, their scooters and a blanket in the car. Even if you can’t do that, having it all in a basket by the door makes it easier.
On indoor nature
I love to have living plants around. It’s a way to bring the outdoors in. Something about having life growing around you is really enriching. I talk to my plants as I water them, and so the girls do to. They carry their little teacups around and water the plants like mummy.
I never stop the girls from bringing sticks, leaves or seedpods inside. I even have a little mat and I let them put their treasures there.
We also have lots of books about nature at our place. And because of what we read Poppy will say, ‘Mummy what’s the name of that bird?, Whats the name of that insect?’
I find that having that inspiration for nature when you’re inside fosters the love of it when you’re outside.
Your favourite books?
We like Gecko press, the Big Book of Animals of the World. We also like ‘I spy’ books. We read books to Poppy and now when we are outside, I ask her, ‘What can you see?’ ‘What can you collect?’ And she is happy to go and explore.
Thanks for having us, Bonnie!
All photos by Bonnie Maher, except family photo by Sam Riles Photography.
Check out this amazing nature playground in Sydney.
You might also like these articles: 10 tips to help you get outdoors with your kids more often and Six ways to get outside when you live in the city
In May 2016 our family set three goals to help us get outside more often. You can read about Our Year
When our project was over in 2017 we still went outside to play most days and spent many more hours outdoors than we would have before. But I did miss having goals, having something to work towards.
In the last few weeks, a few of you have shared your ideas of how you are going to get out more in 2018. And you have inspired me. So here are my New Year's resolutions…
1. Play outside every day. This year I am not going to make my kids go out for three hours each day, but I do want to make sure we still head out daily.
2. Spend one day in the mountains or at the beach each month.
3. Spend one week, sleeping under the stars.
4. Become self-sufficient in green things. I want to learn how to grow a consistent source of spinach and salad greens for my little family. I would also love to give growing sprouts a go with the kids. Have you ever tried it?
5. Shop the seasons. You loved this post about how we shop outside. So, this year I am going to keep working on eating seasonally and hopefully share some of my favourite easy kid-friendly and affordable farmers market recipes.
Ok, there are my five goals for 2018. Now it’s your turn. Some of you have already shared your plans, which I have loved reading. If you haven't yet, let me know what your goals are. I will be sharing some of your ideas in the next few weeks. Here’s to a bright and green 2018.
Want more stories of getting outside with kids? Have a look HERE.
In 2007 the Oxford English dictionary removed 50 nature related words from their junior publication. The list of deleted words included dandelion, conker, clover, heron, nectar, fern and willow. In their place, new words were added, words like blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and voicemail.
The change was controversial. In the UK, a group of authors penned a joint letter urging the publishers to reconsider. But the publishers defended the purge. The decision, they argued, was based on comprehensive surveys of the words children use most in daily life. And they were not wrong.
All over the world children are spending less time outside. Surveys by Planet Ark report that only 35% of Australian children play outside every day. As a result, Australian children are some of the least active in the world. One-third of preschoolers have their own tablet or smartphone and infants are spending—on average—two hours a day in front of screens. Which leaves little time for digging in the mud or climbing a tree.
And yet, many of us feel uneasy about the disappearance of nature from our children’s lives. My husband and I certainly did. In 2016, we began to wonder if there was a way to change things. We wanted to know if it was still possible to give our children a nature-rich childhood. On the 1st May 2016, we came up with a plan that we hoped would do just that. We decided to take our children outside for three hours every day for a year.
Almost immediately we were surprised at how happy our kids were outside. They loved going out. They played together, they climbed trees with low branches, they rode their trikes in the street. When it was raining, they splashed and jumped in puddles.
Outside they moved their bodies constantly. We noticed them get stronger, more competent and confident. In the afternoons, after being outside all day, they were tired and calm. They would sit still at the table and eat their dinner, without complaining. Then they would go to bed happily—sometimes falling asleep on my lap during the last story.
I started to notice they didn't argue outside. One day we met some friends at a playground built in a patch of remnant bushland. In the group, there were at least nine children—ranging in ages from six months to six years. The weather was perfect, so we stayed all day. The parents sat on a wooden picnic table chatting while the kids raced up and down, underneath the giant Blackbutt trees. When we got in the car to drive home I realised there hadn't been a single argument all day. I tried to remember the last argument my children had had, with any other child—I couldn’t.
By Christmas, our lives had completely changed. When the toy-catalogues arrived in the mail, I tossed them straight in the bin. I knew that outside, my children played more creatively and collaboratively. I knew that sand, sticks and pebbles were better than any plastic toy. We gave the kids a new bike and some books and I avoided the shopping centres. We decorated the house with pine cones and silver-grey eucalyptus branches. The holiday season seemed calmer. We all felt less stressed, more connected and grounded.
Our goal was to spend three hours outside every day. And—apart from a handful of days of sickness or interstate travel—we did it. In total, between May 2016 and April 2017, we spent close to 2000 hours outside.
The problem with a childhood light on conkers, ferns and herons is that it is a childhood of disconnection. Many of the activities that now fill a child’s days are solitary and sedentary. And the move indoors is associated with a decline in health and well-being. Today 1 in 4 children is overweight. Depression and anxiety are increasingly diagnosed in childhood. And it is thought that today’s generation of children will be the first who don’t outlive their parents.
At the beginning of Our Year Outdoors, our children didn’t know the names of the birds on their roof or the flowers that grew through the cracks of their pavement. They also didn’t know the names of the other children who lived across the street. But things have changed.
Our Year Outdoors has taught us that, a nature-rich life is still possible. And that the simple act of stepping outside—can change everything.
Want more stories of getting outside with kids? Have a look HERE.