Crowdsource: Healthy Eating and “Grandparent Sabotage”

Several weeks ago a reader wrote to me to describe her frustration with her mother, who seems intent on feeding junk food to the reader’s children over her protests.  Here are some excerpts from the reader’s email (reprinted with her permission):

[My mother] lives 4-5 hrs away and visits almost monthly . . . . When we go see her i expect the junk and it doesn’t bother me as much but when she brings it all here, on my turf as i guess you could say, i would hope she could respect my wishes of not doing so. I have to throw stuff out she sends…ill usually give one treat to the kids and toss the rest.

I have tried asking her not to, offering us to do ice cream or something one day while shes here etc..and requesting specific healthy foods for her to bring instead like fruits and veggies [but] she still brings the junk as well.

. . . . Whatever [my kids] like, she brings…and my concern besides their health is that shes now the treat grandma. Everything with her involves food. Later that day she got them cocoas . . . right before the birthday with cake and of course she brought ice cream….

She usually includes candy bars, chips, flavored milks, sugary juices, packaged snacks and treats like muffins and cookies. And theres always fast food or eating out thrown in as well…

I would really love if she could focus on other things with the kids like activities or bring them a new book or game or even movie we can all watch. I just dont get the food deal with her.

. . . . Now i am forced to play bad guy taking stuff from them when she hands it to them before a meal or when they really dont need it and letting a couple things by during the day.

One of the best discussions of “grandparent sabotage” I’ve come across is found in “Eat Your Vegetables” and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters, an invaluable resource reviewed here back in November, 2012.  In that book, author Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD, devotes an entire chapter to the problem and offers several approaches.

At the most basic level, Muth suggests sitting down with grandparents to discuss why you care about feeding your children well, sharing a few basic guidelines, serving as a role model and keeping the lines of communication open.  However, it was clear from the full text of this reader’s email that she’s done all of the foregoing, to no avail.  In harder cases like this, Muth suggests bringing in outside expert influences, such as having the grandparent come to his/her grandchild’s checkup, where the pediatrician (whom you’ve consulted ahead of time) can lend credibility to the parent’s concerns.  In the hardest cases of grandparent sabotage, Muth notes that a parent may have to play hardball by limiting the grandparent’s time with grandchildren until he/or she agrees to get on board.

All of that said, Muth counsels parents to expect some degree of grandparent “spoiling” and offers strategies for going with the flow without losing your cool, including feeding children a healthy meal before Grandma arrives.  She also provides some healthy recipes specifically designed for grandparents and kids to make together.

There’s much more guidance to be found in Muth’s book and I encourage this reader to check it out.  But I’m sure TLT readers have their own advice to share as well.

So: what do you do when grandparents (or other well-meaning relatives or family friends) habitually sabotage your efforts to avoid feeding your kids lots of junk food?  Share your thoughts in a comment below or on TLT’s Facebook page.

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  1. Nat says

    At first, I had these feelings too and my husband said it is not going to hurt our son in the long run to have some treats/snacks that we don’t provide at our house. He also said that grandparents house is supposed to be a place to let go of the rules for a little while. He will be exposed to the stuff eventually and we don’t want them to become the “forbidden fruit”. Our son’s first point of contact for food is his parents, us … our garden, Farmer’s Markets, healthy eating at home so I don’t worry about the grandparents’ snack drawer anymore. I’m hoping for balance!!!

  2. Andi says

    The last time we visited the grandparents, my kids ate so much sugar that they both got diarrhea. I told my MIL and hopefully she’ll remember that when we visit next month. If she doesn’t, I’m just going to remind her that my kids aren’t used to eating sugar like that and it makes them sick, which ruins the vacation.

  3. K. L. says

    Dear fellow TLT reader,

    Some grandparents are able to listen to our reasoning and respect our authority as parents. Others, like my parents, are not. No amount of rational or compassionate argument or even therapy will change that if they have a certain personality and feel entitled to behave however they want without consequence. I don’t know which kind of grandparent your mother is, but I want you to know there are just some people who won’t ever be able to listen or care what their children need, no matter how well we explain.

    If you have tried asking and explaining, but your mother continues to disrespect your wishes when she comes to your home, maybe you need to consider not having her to your home or inviting her less often. That may sound drastic, but the next best alternative is what you are already doing, which is enforcing your boundary before she comes through the door. You have every right to establish your own household rules, and it is up to you to decide whether people who do not respect that are allowed to come in. Having limits does not make you a “bad guy;” everyone needs limits. I think it is important that you are trying to model for your children that sweets are an occasional treat and that we shouldn’t eat them all day long. I also like that you want your children to form other positive connections with your mother apart from junk food.

    Ultimately, this is your home and your children, and you are the parent now. It is ok to expect that your guests respect your wishes. Personally, I don’t see this as a battle about food at all. I think it is ultimately about who is “in charge” in your home.

    There are some very good books out there about boundaries if you are interested.

    I wish you the best as you decide what is best for you moving forward.


    • Kate says

      This is a great post.

      Another point that may apply to some grandparents is that they may have reached a stage in their lives where they may have increased difficulty being able to learn new concepts. My mom truly struggles with this. It isn’t that she doesn’t desire to, it is just that what she knew at 30 in her mind takes precedence over recently acquired information. I try to recognize that and not get frustrated. I’m not saying this holds true for every set of grandparents though.

      Before I had kids I was at a gathering at my inlaws house. Someone stuck their finger in some frosting and shoved it in the baby’s mouth. I was mortified and said to my husband on the way home, no one ever better do that to my kids. When I actually did have kids I found it more difficult to find my voice on issues like that though.

      There were a couple situations with our in laws though that had to be addressed and even though it involved our children’s comfort/safety it was still very difficult for my husband to address his parents. One involved textures of food and potential choking/gagging/vomiting issues. I was surprised how many people thought they knew better than we did about what textures were appropriate. The other issue involved a food that would cause certain diarrhea for my kid. I always could tell when my mother in law had been sneaking it to her when I wasn’t present.

  4. Amanda says

    Hi all, I am the reader who wrote in about this! Ironically today my mother is coming for another visit. I really appreciate all of the feedback, and thanks Bettina for the book link! KL I definitely think boundaries might have a lot to do with it as well!
    I really love the idea of things my kids could make with her, and wouldn’t mind them doing homemade cookies, or now that its summer we can roll ice cream in a coffee can for a treat while she’s here. I just wish she could show her love for them another way besides processed treats, and when she tries bringing “healthy” things, its usually aspartame filled. I do not see throwing out junk as being wasteful either since I don’t see it as real food. I’m talking about boxes of powdered donuts and Kool-Aid bottles – not actual food.
    My goal while she is here, will be to try and get her outside with us for some fun, and having her leave the snack bag behind!

  5. says

    I’m just your average girl who is finding her way on the nutrition road. I just wrote a blog post about “Food Charmers” and this article goes right along with it! I just found your site and I love it! I will be checking back daily and sharing with friends.

  6. Joanna says

    This is a constant source of frustration for me as well. The problem is that when we visit the grandparents, it’s likely to be for 2-3 weeks at a time, and if I let little things go (there is no recommended daily allowance for crackers, people! And 3 year olds should not get the same sized portions as adults), I spend the next month or two trying to reestablish normal habits. They’re mostly on board with our rules in principle, and i appreciate that, but old habits (and their own food preferences) die hard.

    My husband has helped keep me grounded by pointing out that for his mother, food/treats feels like love. And withholding food in certain situations literally feels like withholding love. So whenever I feel myself being driven to the edge of madness, I remind myself of that.

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