When Family Feeds Your Child
In response to my recent post, “Yes, My Son Ate a Donut,” I had a very thoughtful question from a Honest Mom reader, asking how to manage the food messages that family members may be giving children, especially when they are the people serving as childcare or spending large amounts of time with our kids. This is clearly a very difficult and delicate topic. For many of us who rely on the kindness and generosity of grandparents, aunts/uncles or other family to care for our little ones when we are out of the house, it can be awkward to impart too many “demands” or “rules” the way we would naturally with someone in our employ. Depending on who is watching your kids AND what your relationship is like with this person, talking to them about your values when it comes to nutrition and healthy eating can be tricky. In my mind, there are a few things to consider:
Types of Foods: As the parent, it should be your right to decide which foods your child is offered. If your caregiver comes to your home, first provide an orientation to your kitchen/pantry and explain which foods you offer to your child and when. Making lists of acceptable foods and/or meal and snack ideas is also a great plan. If your child is cared for outside the home (or in your caregiver’s home), be just as specific about your desires and make sure to provide the foods you’d like served to your little one. If your child has food allergies, you will need to be completely CLEAR about which foods are to be avoided. If you are simply against your child having a certain type of food (i.e., potato chips or ice cream or ANYTHING) state this and say, “I am trying to expose Johnny to xyz foods first, before getting him/her hooked on less nutritious options.” If you sense opposition or judgment, it’s up to you how you handle the situation. It’s likely not the end of the world if Grandpa offers your toddler some potato chips once in a while – however if it’s a daily thing and you think your child is eating nothing else, then you may need to address it. It may be easier to say, “I’d prefer Johnnie didn’t have potato chips more than X times per week.”
Food Messages: It’s important to remember that depending on the generation or age group your caregiver belongs to, or the way in which they were raised, the messages they received about eating as a child may be very different from the message you hope to impart to your little one. If they were raised as members of the “clean plate club”, then relating to the concept that kids should be allowed to eat as little or as much of the foods placed on their plate, may be a hard one. Explaining your reasoning (“I am trying to teach Johnnie good eating habits”) and offering a little reassurance (“Sally may not eat much at breakfast but she tends to make up for it at lunch…”) may help. Asking that your child never be forced to finish a meal may have to be explicitly discussed since this goes against the way that many people were raised. If it’s an issue of wasted food (perhaps well-meaning Grammy is worried about throwing away good food), you can suggest very small portions be offered first.
Food Is Love: Whether we agree with it or not, the concept that “food is love” is very real to many people. And certain foods are more “loving” than others. The Auntie that is able to offer her niece ice cream at the end of the meal feels so much satisfaction at being able to provide a delicious treat. I think it’s important to remember this because although it may be in direct defiance of your wishes, offering treats to your little ones gives your caregiver an opportunity to give and receive love in the form of food. There is also the feeling of “spoiling” kids. Again, providing love (a.k.a food) in a way that is more “fun” with Nana/Papa/Auntie or whomever. Your requests to stop giving xyz food may be seen as a request to stop being fun. And clearly, no Nana/Papa/Auntie is going to take that lying down. Discuss other ways to show love to your child like going on a special outing, playing a game or making a craft. Stress the idea that these activities will be more memorable and meaningful to your child. If sweets/desserts are being offered and it’s something you can’t avoid, have that sweet be the designated dessert night for the family’s week. Talk about that before going to the house and notify children ahead of time (“Since we are having dessert at Grandma’s, this will be our family dessert night and we’ll have fruit on our ‘designated’ dessert night.”)
Pick Your Battles: Unlike with a paid babysitter, saying, “please don’t do xyz” may seem difficult and/or like you are being overbearing. Reassure yourself that most caregivers WANT to respect your wishes. If it’s important to you, then say something. However, pick your battles and ask yourself if it’s really worth addressing. Please don’t bombard your caregiver with an endless list of food rules. Remember, your child will venture forth in the world at one point and be surrounded by an endless supply of food choices. They will not always be able to exist in a food bubble. Ok, I’m being sarcastic and I’m not trying to belittle the importance of the topic however, I think it’s important to have some perspective. Decide on your priorities and emphasize these, and be prepared to relax a little on other things. You make yourself more legit by doing this. No longer are you “crazy food police mom,” but rather “reasonable mom who has a few rules.”
Weird Power Struggles: If you find yourself (like the reader who posed this question) dealing with a caregiver who goes out of his/her way to defy your wishes and make you seem like a crazy person, you may need to consider a change of plans. Clearly this is the exception to the rule however all families have their problems and if your family’s struggles are impacting your child’s wellbeing, then it may be time to reconsider your childcare options. Sure, food and nutrition may seem trivial to some, but it doesn’t change the fact that as the parent you have the right to express your opinions (and have them enforced). No one, even family, should think it ok to undermine your wishes in front of your children and badmouth you while doing so. Yuck.
Family = Love: At the end of the day, the fact that you have a family member caring for your little one is priceless. Yes, it may be slightly more anxiety-provoking to communicate what you want and how you want it done HOWEVER, no one can love your children and want what is best for them like family. Sure it may get complicated at times but don’t forget all the wonderful things that come from spending time with Gram/Gramps/Auntie/Uncle/or whomever.
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