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Junk Food Wars

Junk Food Wars

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

You always give such clear, thoughtful advice, I am wondering if you can be the “voice of reason” for us women on my husband’s side of the family. See, I need an impartial 3rd party to tell me if we need to back off or keep intervening when we can. We have sort of the opposite problem of the peanut allergy non-believing grandma…Here’s our dilemma…

Advice Smackdown ArchivesMy mother-in-law has a sister who is the proud grandma of 2 children, one is 2.5 and one 5 months. She loves these children unconditionally, no question about it and is a very sweet person. But she is CONSTANTLY feeding the 2.5 year old junk. Marshmallows, cookies, pretzels, etc and then when we all sit down for dinner, surprise! 2.5 year old doesn’t want to eat. DUH. Grandma seems pretty oblivious about the cause and will then turn to offering 6 different substitutions. “Would you like potatoes instead? How about a hot dog? How about some more pretzels? What about x, y or z?” Gah!

Now, you might be wondering where this child’s parents are. Well, they are right there, but have fallen into a pattern of needing to not upset their mother/mother-in-law (the grandma). At this point, it seems that they’ve given up and just decided to let it go when their daughter is handed junk food from grandma. This past Christmas and Thanksgiving, we were all together and my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and I all kind of joked with the Grandma about it, but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in. When the 2.5 year old asked any of us for a 900th cookie, we all said, “nope, enough cookies for today. How about some apple. Or we could go play/color/some other activity.”

We noticed that the requests for junk are significantly less if the child doesn’t see any of the junk options. And had we figured that out before Christmas, we simply would have removed all treats from sight. We’ll all be getting together on Sunday the 9th for another family celebration and some direction would be super helpful!

My question to you is this: clearly this is a conversation better suited to the child’s actual mother and grandmother, but we all love this child (and the baby who will eventually be in this same situation) dearly too and are finding it very hard to not advocate for them. Do we keep trying to lead by example or do we back off and let the child’s actual parent stand up to her mother? And if we back off, how do we not bite our tongues bloody watching this happen!?

My husband and I are planning to start a family soon, as will his sister and her husband. So while our future kids’ grandmother is on board with healthy eating habits, her sister will still be around and I’d love to have this all worked out prior to having to speak with her myself about it when it would become an “our family vs your family” kind of debate. Oh, and from what I gather, she was like this when my husband and his sister/cousins were all little too. My mother-in-law tried to speak with her about it when all the “kids” were little and had no effect.

The Vegetable Pusher

My own mother-in-law is a health food nut. No, more than that. We could take the healthiest eater you know and put them in a cage match with my MIL and your healthy eater would come out crying and reeking of McDonald’s, because she outdoes EVERYBODY. Everything in her house is organic and whole and raw and completely unprocessed. There is no sugar of any kind, absolutely no meat and not even much dairy to speak of, save for a dozen eggs purchased directly from a local free-range organic farm. She does not eat soy or mushrooms or anything with yeast (Candida toxification, you know) and has very strong opinions about cooking oils and raw-food enzymes and why you should dehydrate instead of cook and juice everything and thus, she has some very interesting definitions about what she considers a “snack” or a “treat.”

And yet every time we visit, I end up having to tell her to please, for the love of God, stop feeding my kids snacks in between meals and short-order cooking for them when they then reject the main course at dinner time. Because healthy snacks or not, a small child can absolutely fill completely up on dried goji berries and organic apple slices and then refuse to eat a meal that contains vital nutrients like…protein. And good fats.

But here’s the thing. I tell her. Because they are my children. If her other grandchild was present and she was pumping her full of the antioxidant super-food-du-jour at 4:30 pm and my sister-in-law was not saying about it, well. I wouldn’t say anything. If my own children started whining about why their cousin gets to eat snacks and they don’t, I would say (loudly and clearly): The snacks are her mommy’s decision, and if her mommy says it’s okay, then it’s okay. YOUR mommy says it’s not okay. I’m sorry it doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it is. YOU may have snacks after dinner.

Grandma might be the source of the sugar, but the fact is, it’s Mommy’s Decision. And in your case, it sounds like Mommy has made her decision. Which is to put up and shut up. That’s not the decision YOU would make, or WILL make with your own children (or one that I could ever imagine making with mine), but still. This just isn’t your place to make a big stink.

The things you HAVE been doing — like putting treats and junk up and out of sight, refusing the child’s requests — are all fine and good and I would absolutely continue to do that. (Though it’s probably only a matter of time before the kid wises up and figures out that the snacks are always there SOMEWHERE and she just needs to go directly to Grandma with her requests.) I would also maybe try to befriend and talk to the mother directly and find out WHY she’s chosen to let this issue slide so spectacularly — in hopes that if she knows the rest of the family has her back, so to speak, she’ll feel braver about confronting her mother or joining in with your chorus of “No, no more cookies today, sweetie.”

But you may just find out that she simply doesn’t view a day of unlimited junk food every now and then to be that big of deal. “It’s the holidays.” “It’s what grandmas are for.” “It’s not like we feed her that way at home.” And etc. Again, you may strenuously disagree, but…it’s not your kid.

When it IS your kid, well. That’ll be different. You will have every right in the world to flex your parental muscle in front of this woman and lay down the law. No, he’s not allowed to have that right now. Please check with us before offering her any snacks, thank you. No, pretzels are not an acceptable dinner food, now eat your turkey.

I would probably give up the dream of having this issue “settled” before you and your sister-in-law have babies. If your MIL’s sister behaved the same way with her own children, well…yeah. She’s probably not going to change, because this goes beyond getting to spoil her grandkids. This is just how she thinks you feed children. The good news is that it sounds like you’ll have a more than united front on your behalf — your mother-in-law and sister-in-law can be enlisted to help keep an eye on her and your child to make sure the junk food stays put away. Yes, it’s a hassle, especially with “other kids” getting the stuff you’re “denying” your own, but oh my God, hassles over big group food situations are just par for the course when you have kids. You are absolutely DOOMED to run into them eventually. (Hello, processed, artificial junk-food spread at the average child’s birthday party!)

As for the question of whether or not to “advocate” for the Vending Machine’s grandchildren…trust me, I know. Watching children get fed crap food is a huge pet peeve of mine. When I read the bit about the short-order cooking at the dinner table AFTER stuffing the kid full of garbage I all but did a full-on head slam on my laptop and said a prayer of penance to St. Ellyn of Satter. But…I don’t lecture other mothers at the supermarket about the contents of their carts (“But don’t you KNOW that type of cereal bar has HFCS and Red 40 in it???”) or comment on the snack offerings at playdates (“Oreos? REALLY?”). Because I get that not every parent shares my food values and opinions. I make choices for my own children, I am happy to share what we’ve learned about, say, artificial food dyes and sensory problems when asked…but then I shut up, because other parents get to make THEIR choices for THEIR children, even if I disagree.

The children are not being abused. Provided there are no allergies or choking hazards being offered, or the children are not diabetic or already overweight, nothing earth-shatteringly bad is likely to happen from a day here and there of Grandma’s Unlimited Snack Buffet. Sure: limiting the snacks has a myriad of benefits for them, both for right now and for later in life, but again, it’s just not your job or place to be the Food Police on their behalf. Keep doing what you’ve been doing, maybe work on reaching out to Mom in an attempt at Sensible Child Feeding Solidarity…but drop the thoughts of escalating this into a confrontation or full-on inter-family food war.

If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected]

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 [email protected].

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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