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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

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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  • Kim

    January 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Dude. Not to be harsh, but stay out of it. Amy was too nice to say it, but all those ideals that you think you have before you have kids. Yeah, gone when you have your own. You find you just have to make choices as it comes and goes. And “advice” even well meaning advice can really push you over the edge. Believe me the mom knows what’s right here and she may not want to have a big confrontation with her mother (MIL?) at big family gatherings. Please for the love of family relations stay out of it. And as Amy said – you’re already doing what you can -offering healthy options, putting away the junk, not giving in, etc. It might be slightly different if it was your mother or MIL, but it’s your MIL’s sister – stay out of it.

  • Stephanie

    January 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    I agree with Amy. I shudder when I see what some kids are eating, but they’re not MY kids, so it’s not my place to say anything. Just stay out of it. If your MIL wants to talk to her sister about it, that’s one thing. But you shouldn’t be the one to have this conversation.

  • MS

    January 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for the advice Amy! Resolution decided…say nothing and cross that bridge if and when its an issue with my own kids. In the meantime, I will try to only cringe internally!

  • rc

    January 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Eggs aren’t “dairy”…they come from chickens and are part of the meat food group.

  • Olivia

    January 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Oh yeah, stay out of it. I can imagine how angry I would be if family member, kind of distantly related by marriage no less, questioned my parenting choices. I can totally see why the mother wouldn’t think this is a big deal if it only happens at the occasional family gathering.

  • b

    January 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    In the permissive mom’s defense, I wonder how often she sees these people.  I’m reasonably strict at regular visits to my mom’s, but the annual visit to my grandmom?  I let the kid free-range on the junk food that is always out – if he has pretzels, m&ms and cheeze-its for one meal a year, it will probably not affect his lifelong relationship with food, and it isn’t a battle I want to pick.  Who knows which battles you’ll pick once you are a parent – this may be one of them, but don’t pick it for other people.

  • JanM

    January 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    I don’t know how this mom acts outside Grandma’s house, but we allowed free-range this Christmas. While we were at Grandma’s house to visit, our 2.5 year old was allowed to eat whatever she wanted and watch tons of TV. But now that we’re back home it’s back to regular healthy eating (it’s not like we have cookies in the house anyway) and no TV watching. It’s just not worth the fight if you only see them once a year. 

  • E's Mommy

    January 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    We’re relatively careful about what our boys eat at home. We give them healthy options, we only allow dessert on Friday and Saturday nights, we eat organic fruits and vegetables and dairy. But on the holidays when we’re at Grandma’s? My kids can eat whatever they want. I just can’t get worked up about my kids eating junk and skipping meals because they’re full of junk or appetizers when it happens maybe 6 times a year at most. Because I’m providing healthy food for them 359 days a year. I wouldn’t confront my mother about something like that because I just don’t care. If we visited and stayed for weeks at a time or if she brought them junk to eat every time she comes to our house (which is every couple weeks) then I’d have something to say about it. So I wouldn’t assume that the kids are allowed to eat like this because their mom doesn’t want to stand up to Grandma. She just may not care and if it’s just a few days a year it probably isn’t impacting their health in any meaningful way if they’re eating healthy food at home.

  • Mimi

    January 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    I can’t help but think that even if you DID try to confront the mother, she’d get upset.  Is there a nice way to say; “Wow, you’re letting her feed your kid that? Why? Just say no!” That just sounds like a really good way to get someone’s dander up, and then they’re not very likely to listen to anything you have to say, no matter how correct you really are.
    What it really boils do to; not only is this not your kid, it isn’t your relationship with your mother law. It’s her relationship with her mother in law, and her child. She has to be the one to decide what to say, if she says anything about it, and when to bring it up.
    But I think it’s awesome that you offer distractions to the kid and tell her no. 

  • Lisa M

    January 13, 2011 at 8:22 am

    FWIW, I think that kids are really good about distinguishing between “grandma’s rules” and “mom’s/home rules”. My kids are allowed free range on holidays, but not necessarily at other family gatherings. And Grandmas sometimes have stricter rules because they’re outside of the other parenting power struggles. They (MIL and my mom) are both really good about enforcing their rule to tryi all foods offered at dinner, which is something I gave up on ilight of other struggles. So for my family, it all balances out and we’ve created our own path; obviously YMMV.

    Oh, and my SIL and I have observed each other’s preferences and hold the other’s kids to their parents standards; i.e., my kids can’t go to their aunt and expect to get a different reply than what I would say. I think that’s just being respectful and NOT judgemental.

  • Ren

    January 13, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Hey Amy! Speaking of the choices you make for your own children, can you do a simple sample day of snacks and meals for each of your boys. I need new ideas for my 21 mo who prefers bread with cheese, and noodles with cheese, and cheese quesedilla for variety. And fruit. She would live on fruit alone if I let her. Peas, zuccini and avacado are also consumed. But non-messy snacks leave me at a loss. I learn best from other’s example. Teach me.

  • G.G.R

    January 13, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Maybe a good way to see sort of where the baby mama’s thoughts are on the whole thing you can ask her what you should do when the kid asks you for cookies/pretzels/a pound of sugar, “I realized I wasn’t actually clear on the rules!”. Perhaps a golden time would be to do it when gramma is in the room so she can ‘overhear’?

  • wallydraigle

    January 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    How frequent are these visits with Grandma? Are they eating with her once a day, once a week, or once a year? Because there are many things that I’m willing to overlook when they happen rarely. One day spent at Grandma’s house eating cookies and french fries isn’t going to hurt my kids. If we were to spend an entire week with her, or if we spent the day with her twice a week, my husband and I would be much firmer in our rules. But as it is, when we see her weekly or monthly, we know it’s not going to hurt anything.

  • JB

    January 13, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Think about this from the other mom’s perspective: My childless not-closely-related relative is telling me how to parent my kids. This will not go over well.

    As the other commenters have said, eating junk food is probably just not the “hill she chooses to die on” with the MIL. As long as it’s not actually abuse (which, eating snacks is….not), you don’t have to “worry” about them.

  • Bethany

    January 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I have a friend who I disagree with almost every aspect of her parenting. We are close friends and have been for 15 years, so almost like family. They have no routine or schedule, she lets them eat whatever they want whenever they want, they can eat wherever they want in the house, they don’t have bedtimes, they sleep on the couch or in bed with their parents, complete disregard for not breaking things, running wild, etc. I babysit a few times a week for them. They must follow my rules at my house and they do. They sit at the table for mealtimes, stay til everyone is finished, one snack in the afternoon before dinner, and bedtimes in a bed. They are able to tell the difference between the rules at the houses and they are 2.5 and 5.5. Bottom line. You do what you can and leave the rest to the parents. It’s ultimately their choices.

  • japl

    January 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    As a non parent, you should know there are few things that will send a mom into a blind rage as quickly as some childless-i-know-better-than-you-pseudo parent. STAY OUT OF IT. It is non of your business, no matter what you may think. And, I say this with all the love in my heart I can muster, because we currently have a house guest who is one of my husband’s dearest friends and staying with us because he just moved to the area. I can’t tell you how many times a day he tells my child no over something that is a non-issue or tries to instruct her. My head nearly explodes every time, because the truth of it is, you don’t know what battles she has chosen to fight or not fight. Even when your child is at an early age, you make concessions in favor of other more important lessons, and letting grandma have her way is sometimes just much easier than the constant struggle to have everything your way all the time. You need to whip out the “I’m the parent” card with the grandparents when it really matters, and occasional junk food is just not it for most people.

  • Jo

    January 18, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Sorry, I just realized that was a slightly snarky comment I made. That’s the problem with the internet, you can get your feathers all ruffled and spout off some angry vitriol and press a button and it’s all out there.

    I don’t doubt you care deeply about the child and what may happen to your future child[ren]. I guess I just feel that if it isn’t you who holds her every night if she wakes up, or you who’s chest twists up into knots if she bumps her head or skins her knees, or you who has the job of cleaning up her poo and vomit since the moment she took her first breath, or you who has the extra wrinkles, stretch marks and scars from birthing her, or you who worries about her every single second she’s out of sight (I think you get my point); basically, if it isn’t your heart living outside your body stuffing her face with Grandma’s cookies, then I’m afraid you don’t get to have a say about what goes into her mouth. To say something to the mother would imply that she plainly isn’t caring enough about her own child, at least not as much as you do. It would be more than insulting, it would be the worst thing someone could imply. I wish you well though and yes, absolutely you get to decide when it comes to your offspring. But I wouldn’t worry too much about conditions that don’t yet exist.