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Fighting Cultural Food Wars

Fighting Cultural Food Wars

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

I have been reading your blog and advice column since I found it while I was pregnant. Based on your recommendation we have been using the Satter method with my now 22 month old son. Although we are starting to go down the toddler pickiness road, I don’t short order cook and my son eats fairly balanced meals.

Except there is one major issue. I am American living aboard on an island in the Pacific where my husband is from. This country has one of the highest rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCD) in the world. It’s so bad that the governor has declared a state of emergency and formed a NCD task force. In addition most of the kids I know baby teeth rot before they get their adult teeth due to the amount of sugar they consume. While I believe in some cake at a birthday party and some ice cream as a special treat, I don’t believe gum, soda, candy and other junk food should be an everyday thing especially not for children under 2 and it should not be the only thing they eat for the day.

Family is huge here and we have family gatherings multiple times a week. I always bring healthy snacks for my son, but when every kid is running around with a cup of koolaid it’s hard. Twice a week my son spends the day with his grandfather and when I drop him off there is donuts and sweet buns with condensed milk for breakfast every day. Mostly my son is happy in the morning with his yogurt and fruit. I have made it very clear to my husband’s family that I don’t want my son eating sugar and fatty salty foods all the time and my husband is totally on board. Why my in-laws are also supportive my husbands extended family (includes his aunt who babysits at our house 3 days a week) and others think I’m being cruel to my son and should just let him have whatever he wants all the time. Also they don’t understand why I don’t want my son only eating rice and ramen or canned meat for a meal. Yet all of them have either heart disease, high cholesterol or diabetes and are sick all of the time and they know those foods are not good for them. My husband has changed his diet a lot, but he struggles and says he doesn’t feel full unless he has a huge plate of plain white rice because that is what he ate his whole life. I had to travel recently for work (and my husband was away too) and when I came back all my son wanted to eat was white rice with soy sauce. He now cries for rice at every meal. I don’t mind a little rice, but if I offer it that is all he will eat. If there is veggies and meat and no rice he with eat the veggies and meat no problem.

So what do we do when there is sugar and bad food options everywhere? How do I start teaching my son to make good food choices now? Can you even teach a toddler to make good food choices? My son is very independent and when he wants something that’s it. I know 2 years old is going to be hard and based on your column I hear 3 can be rough too but I don’t want every family event to become epic tantrums as I try to limit my son’s sugar intake.

-fighting the sugar war on daily basis

Yikes. Just reading this gave me sympathy hives.

This is a very tricky situation (DUH, AMY), because 1) you don’t want to demonize specific foods like sugar and rice as “bad”, 2) you don’t want to make those food super-duper “forbidden” and thus have your son go bonkers/overboard when he gets access to them, and 3) you don’t want him doing that wonderful thing toddlers do when they repeat your words in the most awkward/inelegant manner later. (“My mom said eating that will make you fat! That is probably why you’re fat! Are you going to get sick and die now?”)

Here’s what I’ve learned, as a mother who cares very deeply about my children’s diets and nutrition: Your “control” over what your child eats doesn’t really go very far or last very long. “Control” is an illusion. I do my very best to have good, healthy options in our home and prepare balanced, diverse meals to keep balance in check and pickiness at bay. But I simply cannot “control” what they eat when they are out of my care and offered things I would never serve at home. You, sadly, cannot achieve that kind of control either. It’s sort of good to accept that. It’s a pipe dream that will drive you insane…and probably drive a wedge between you and your in-laws, and create food battles with your son as he gets older and spends even more time around other kids/families.

But after relinquishing “control,” you embrace “influence.” Your influence over your child’s food choices CAN go very far, and last his whole life. You keep doing what you’re doing now: You provide healthy, balanced, diverse food choices at home. You and your husband model good eating habits. You introduce him to a wide variety of foods, textures and flavors. Food is love and joy and family and even rice/sugar/processed crap are not enemies in and of themselves. They are “sometimes” foods, and as your son gets older you choose your words very carefully and start educating him slowly on why a healthy diet matters.

Right now, for example, you can definitely start talking about the effects certain foods have on his teeth. Even toddlers can understand the concept of cavities and ugly germs and why it’s so important to brush their teeth. There’s also the vague idea that while certain foods are yummy, they alone are NOT enough to help him grow up “big and strong,” or give him enough energy to play or do [specific activity he loves].  I always try (though of course am by no means perfect) to choose POSITIVE words rather than negative ideas like “bad” or “fat.”

(From Satter: You can’t control how his body will turn out. My kids are all skinny rails with great metabolisms right now but I am not going to frame “fat” as some terrible scary boogeyman who is the Worst Thing Ever and is always a result of eating “bad” foods. That’s just not always true, and I’d like to raise empathetic non-jerk human beings.)

As my boys get older, I expand the discussion to why I don’t buy certain foods they want, like sugary cereals and a lot of the big name-brand snacks. My oldest really, REALLY should not have artificial food coloring due to ASD and ADHD. Again, I can’t control 100% that he doesn’t ever ingest some Red 40 at a birthday party or Halloween or because his social skills lunch bunch group always gives out Skittles. But I’ve talked to him about it, shown him how I check ingredient labels for it, and gently pointed out the effects it has on his body and behavior. Sometimes he still chooses the bright red candy, like just yesterday at an end-of-year party. He ate a lollipop, Doritos and a questionable juice pouch right in front me, then suffered all night from insomnia because he was so freaking amped up and anxious. We talked about what he’d eaten this morning and whether it might have been the reason for his sleep issues. It was a bit of a light bulb moment for him, like OH. OKAY. I GET IT NOW.

He’s a few months from 10 years old. So believe me when I say this whole ” teaching kids smart food decisions” thing is a really long process.

I can only imagine how frustrating it is knowing that your son’s caretakers are probably not following your diet requests, especially since he’s SO YOUNG and you’re TRYING SO HARD and the foods you’re describing go against EVERY EXPERT RECOMMENDATION EVER. When you get pushback, you can say that you’re not being cruel, you are literally just trying to follow the advice of your son’s pediatrician and dentist. It’s tough since I’m sure your in-laws see your choices as a judgement of theirs — the way they fed/feed their children — and likely judgement of their culture by an “outsider.” Would it help to have him eat something a little filling before you head to the family gatherings? So maybe he won’t be that interested in the junk food (and you can tell people who are trying to offer him stuff that oh, he woke up starving so he already ate)? Also! Does Sesame Street air where you live? They do a GREAT job of talking to toddlers/preschoolers about healthy foods and nutrition.

You sound like you already know this, but just for the sake of completeness, it’s probably best that you not go TOTAL rice/sugar control freak at home. He’s going to grow up surrounded by this stuff and you don’t want to make it all gloriously “special” and “forbidden”, and thus set yourself up for a food battle with him. (Because spoiler alert, you will lose.) Watch portion sizes on the rice and provide a very small one every now and then. Maybe experiment with other whole grains that kinda look “rice-y” to a kid, like brown rice, barley, millet, quinoa, etc. Splurge on the organic, low-sodium soy sauce. (If you can find them, of course. I’m guessing grocery shopping is a pretty different experience where you live.) Make homemade desserts to satisfy the sweet tooth while not going overboard on the sugar, or scour the stores until you can find brands/packaged foods that while maybe aren’t perfect, are at least somewhat better than the sea of even worse choices. My kids get commercially-made granola bars and other snacks in their lunches all the time, because dear God there are three of them. But I will only buy the options without the artificial dyes/flavors, HFCS, questionable preservatives, and strike a decent balance on the sugar/sweeteners. Yes, they cost more — thus my compulsion to make as much as I can from scratch with what little time I have — but to us it’s just a non-negotiable expense.

Good luck…while I’m usually opposed to any sort of food-related battles, in your case you really are fighting a good fight, and I wish you nothing but non-sugary success.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Myriam

    June 15, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    I don’t know what the situation is, but it might be an option to look into formal care for your son, one that would provide a more balanced diet than the one provided by well-meaning family members? You can’t control your babysitters’ choices, but you can control you babysitter choice…

  • Liz

    June 15, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    Re: rice–as the kid of someone from a pretty healthy Pacific nation that consumes a metric ton of rice (Japan), I feel pretty good about regularly incorporating it into a balanced diet for myself and my kids. Rice is not the devil, I promise!

    Soy sauce on plain rice, no (it is Not Done in Japan and oof, the sodium!). But fried rice with lots of veggies or onigiri (rice balls wrapped in dried seaweed) with a tasty filling like salmon or a pickled vegetable are great ways to balance rice love with other foods. 

    Good luck!

  • Jessi

    June 16, 2015 at 9:58 am

    I get really sad about my in laws who are not at all healthy and have really serious diet issues.  My son loves them, but I can’t see them being around for so long with the diet they eat. They’re German and it’s all meat, all starch, all the time.  MIL once told me that Ovaltine did not contain sugar.  First ingredient?  Cane sugar.  Do I let it slide when we’re visiting?  Yes.  Would I be comfortable with it all the time?  No.

    My Korean friend taught me how to add in some fun stuff to rice, cooking 1 c of plain/brown rice with 1/4 cup quinoa, millet, polenta, barley (maybe add up to 1/2 cup of other stuff with your rice, depending on how tolerant others are)…so at least you’re getting a bit more fibre and protein in there?  Not growing up with all rice all the time it’s not so natural for me, but now I live in Asia, and I promise you, it’s eaten at almost every meal, and people are not huge.  It’s what you put on it that creates issues.

    Also, true story, if you cook it, let it cool, and reheat it, rice (and pasta) changes from a high GI food to a low GI food (this has been scientifically tested, I really do swear!).  Maybe try that on your husband and see if he notices.  

    Great advice about influencing food behaviours long term.  It really does work to talk positively about what you should eat, rather than what you need to not eat.  

  • MR

    June 16, 2015 at 10:50 am

    Personally, I wouldn’t fight the rice. I’d just not make very much. Everyone gets a reasonable portion size, and “Sorry, there’s no more. Here’s some more vegetables.” That just simply doesn’t seem worth the fight to me. But, the cool aid! Constant cool aid is almost certainly the main cause of teeth rot. I would absolutely fight that battle to limit the cool aid. And that might be a compromise you can make with your family. Yes, they can offer some rice (assuming protein and vegetables are also provided), but no cool aid. But, yeah, this is difficult. I’m sorry.

  • Stephanie

    June 16, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Maybe you could cut the Kool Aid with water?  I used to do that with fruit juice, back in the dark ages, when we still gave kids juice 🙂  If he’s given a cup of Kool Aid, dump about half out and fill up to the top with water.  Not a fan of Kool Aid myself, but it may be a way to compromise at big family gatherings where all of the other kids are drinking Kool Aid.  It would at least cut some of the sugar out.  

  • K

    June 16, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    I have always been very picky about our son’s diet, specifically as it relates to sugary drinks, snacks, prepackaged “kids” foods and whatnot. My husband’s family isn’t. Not quite as extreme as what the OP described, but we definitely have different opinions on what toddlers should eat, and even different ideas of what a balanced meal and serving sizes look like. Since I have a niece almost exactly the same age, it’s actually been great to show the difference. At 3, he is a great eater, is content to drink water or milk instead of juice and never asks for/expects sweets. He will eat them when offered, but he prefers the healthier options. All this to say – keep at it. Do what Amy says and prepare healthy balanced meals in your home. Keep bringing snacks for your kiddo, send them with him when he’s in other people’s care (he may not get them but at least you tried) and definitely have him fill up at home before visiting relatives. Eventually your good example will pay off – my niece craves sugar and carbs, I’ve never seen her put a vegetable in her mouth and if you offer her anything but ground beef she’ll refuse and pout (and play my SIL like a fiddle). Eventually they’ll be asking you how you get your kid to eat like a champ, and you’ll almost always have an easier time wrangling your kid because he isn’t amped up on sugary junk. Keep at it, do your best to be a good example, and this will get easier!

  • EM

    June 17, 2015 at 5:23 am

    Thanks Amy and everyone for the advice. I think one of  the biggest lessons you learn as a first time mom is you cant control everything and it’s good to be reminded of it again. To just take a deep breath and say I will do the best I can. I’m going to try some of your suggestions, My son is already a pretty good eater. Tonight he was eating pieces of burger wrapped in lettuce. His idea.  The problem is when he sees people eating he wants whatever they having that minute. Even if he just ate. I also started referring to quinoa as rice and he was all about it.. Just to clarify I’m ok with small amounts of rice, like how the Japanese eat it as part of a balanced meal, not huge heaping plates with fatty/salty meats. We also have great local food here like taro and 100 banana varieties (yes, it’s crazy) so I’m really trying to get my son into that stuff.  Thanks again everyone!

  • amy

    June 17, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Maybe its some consolation to know you are not alone – my mom is a nurse – taught nutrition to kids and for whatever reason ignores her “knowledge” and pushes sugar cereals, chocolate milk and multiple 100% sugar desserts at mealtime or in between – and its especially tough when my daughter is the 2 year old eating with 3-4-6-9 year old cousins who are all allowed to eat that and I want my daughter to eat healthy – especially when I do think I should have some control at least at this age! It is frustrating when you have healthy positive goals for your children that seem very grounded and basic related to feeding and your own family just doesn’t get it and sees your choices as implicating theirs. I am pushing back on them when I can and asking them to support my choices – but its not easy because they clearly don’t get it. So we do the best we can and it sounds like you are already well down that path:) good for you for all of your efforts – again – maybe its nice to know we aren’t alone in our struggles…

  • S

    June 26, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    So been here. My in laws associate food with love. Against my polite protests to my husband and her, mil fed my son until threw up. I do feed him prior to going to family events so he gets a nutrious meal beforehand. I also bring healthier alternatives for my son and guests. Instead of horrible deserts my son and daughter chose on their own their favorite yogurt sticks, they are yogurt frozen in a stick form like a Popsicle. I bring veggies and dip or fruit salad to share with others and take home. We also decrease the portion size of say the sticky bun, sharing it with dad. You have to get your husband on board.

     One of the many reasons we do not leave my kids with my in laws besides safety issues is food. They simply cannot follow simple instructions with any of the grandkids with food. They have also let my niece and nephew eat junk food until they were ill from it. 

    Maybe you also could contact your local health authority maybe they have culturally sensitive nutrion programs. Some places offer classes or recipes to cook local foods in a more healthy way. Some have kids classes too. There may be online resources such as from hawaii of cooking similar dishes that could tweaked to local tastes. Maybe a favorite dish or food could be brought to a gathering and your son could eat the healthier one. Our area has a coupons at our local market that doubles when you buy local veggies. We also grow veggies, the kids love their own plants. 

    The cool aide thing would drive me nuts. Maybe cut it with water or find a juice or milk he likes. My kids bring special vanilla flavored organic milk boxes. They are expensive but are only used at parties when the cool aide comes out and everyone else is drinking out of juice boxes. My son also has come to the point that he realizes how dyes and sugar affects him like Amys example, he will feel the effects for hours. He no longer wants to feel that way. 

    It is hard because you feel like you are fighting the tide, but in the end it is a learning experience. My in laws have dug into our healthy food too and the chips have decreased on their own substituted by fruit before a family gathering meal. 

    Another thing to consider also is this. My in laws are also motivated by fear that their cultural tradition is not going to be passed on since my husband and brother did not marry someone from that culture. Food pushing in their house becomes that avenue. However, we have brought books to read, made pictures, said prayers in traditional language to honor the traditions with kids without it being totally food based. Again, local resources or online resources can help. Giving mil a special holiday picture made by a child goes a long way. Maybe bringing a project from school that talked about traditions and have family add information may take the pressure off food. We just went an exhibit of pacific island boats etc and my son thought the boats were so cool. 

    You are not alone, no matter what hemisphere we live in. Stay strong.

  • Helen

    June 30, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    So I’m totally talking out of my backside here because this is a cultural situation I’m completely unfamiliar with but… I wonder if it’s worth developing an interest in local cuisine, getting your in laws to teach you how to cook it (pick the healthier recipes and ask them to teach you them), and being really enthusiastic about the healthier stuff? So when a dish appears on the table that is half way healthy, you can say “Oh, I love x! And [my son] loves it too!