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The Overfeeding MIL...and the Overweight Child

The Overfeeding MIL…and the Overweight Child

By Amalah

Hi, Amy!

I have read and re-read your advice about an overfeeding Mother-in-Law, but I am hoping you might answer a similar question.

In my case, it IS my child and my child IS overweight. Unfortunately, my husband and I have completely different ideas on food. I grew up very poor and, despite what many people say, eating healthy is actually much, MUCH cheaper than eating junk if you have the space to garden. My family never had dessert because we couldn’t afford to waste money on something that didn’t have nutritional value. We didn’t choose what we ate at dinner because it was often the only thing in the house to eat. We NEVER had fast food. To me, food is just a tool to survive. Sure, some tastes better than others, but I just don’t eat out of pleasure. I eat until I am no longer hungry and save the rest for when I am.

My husband, on the other hand, grew up in a wealthy family. His mother always had cookies, candy, and junk on hand. He was overweight as a child, but when he moved out, he immediately dropped the weight, which leads me to believe it wasn’t genetics but the manner in which he was fed. He never learned to self-regulate because it is a constant snack-fest at their house! For him, food is recreation.

Fast forward until we had our children. My eldest is overweight. When she was a toddler, she was obese. Despite preparing healthy meals, I was consistently undermined by my husband sneaking her second helpings and sugary snacks. He used to bring home junk from the store after I had already gone grocery shopping. He’d say it was just for him, but then give it to the kids whenever they “caught” him eating it.

I have finally (FINALLY!) gotten my husband on board with healthy eating, and my child’s weight is dropping significantly. He has begun to not only make healthier choices for her, but himself, too. This has taken several long conversations between him and the pediatrician, and he still struggles with it at times, but we are finally on the same page. My daughter is now just slightly overweight, which is awesome progress!

However, my mother-in-law still overfeeds my children when she watches them. I have talked to her so many times about it and, admittedly, I have totally lost my cool once or twice. She has cut back on some of the junk she feeds my kids, but she still feeds them portions that are WAY too big for even an adult.

Here’s the problem: I have NO other babysitter. Not one. My kids love their grandmother and honestly, she is a great role model in every area but food. She is kind, she loves them dearly, and she spends every second she’s with them playing and talking to them. I really don’t think that I could find a better babysitter other than on the issue of food. (I have tried.) I want her to continue to have a good relationship with my kids.

However, our pediatrician has made it clear that it will need to be a joint effort to get my daughter down to a healthy weight and that it is critical at this point.

My kids only stay with my mother-in-law two to three times a week with occasional overnight trips. (Those overnight trips are sugar laden, junk food and carb filled days, too.) I am not sure if these 2-3 days will be a huge set back for my daughter. I don’t know how much to dig my heels in because, honestly, I have never had to deal with a weight problem before. I truly had no idea how hard it is to lose weight. (I know, skinny girl problems, right?)

I don’t want to be a total spaz over food, yet I also don’t want my child to struggle with obesity and health problems. I feel like it’s me against the world on this weight battle for my sweet kid, and I don’t even know how much control is too much.

I don’t even know what my question is, I guess. Just, help??? Please?

For you, food is fuel. For your husband, you say recreation, but I’m going to go a step further and say that in his family, food is “love.” And that’s why your requests to curb the junk and reign in the portion sizes are being treated as a near-unreasonable request. The food = love mindset is a really hard one for some families to overcome, even in the face of weight or health problems. (There can also be a big cultural component to this attitude too; not just a symptom of wealth.) Recreation means food is simply fun; love means food is an essential, natural extension of your MIL’s relationship with her children and grandchildren.

I’m sure there’s nothing groundbreaking or surprising to you in that paragraph–you clearly understand your MIL’s compulsion is not coming from a place of malice or a pointed commentary at you or your parenting. She spoils and shows love with food of the sugary, comfort variety and always has.  She didn’t make the causation/correlation connection with her own overweight child, so asking her to make a major change for her grandchildren (who most grandparents feel automatically “entitled” to spoil…that’s the fun of grandparenting, right?) is an understandably tall order.

Is it possible to get her to talk with your pediatrician, like you did with your husband? Since harming her beloved grandchildren is probably the last thing she wants (or for you to revoke babysitting privileges), she might really need a come-to-Jesus moment with an Actual Doctor In A White Coat detailing the various health problems she’s setting the stage for with every batch of cookies and giant portion of pasta while your daughter struggles to reach a healthy weight.

On a practical note, I’d suggest buying a full serving set of portion-control/portion-guidance plates for your children and ask her to always use those plates when she serves them meals and snacks. (Amazon sells a wide variety of these for toddlers, kids, teens and adults.) Prepare for her to be completely shocked at how “little” food these plates allow, but stay patient and explain that yeah, for real, that’s a healthy portion size for their age and development.

If she continues to break the rules and sneak in junk food and gigantic second helpings, you’re probably going to need to start sending your children over to her house with all their meals and snacks in tow, pre-portioned and pre-approved. You can fake apologize for being a “spaz”, but you’ve already made it blindingly clear to her that this is important and she needs to knock it off.  If she can’t prove capable of exercising good judgement around your children, some of the freedoms she currently enjoys with them will simply have to be revoked.  Her own complicated relationship with food makes this hard, yes. But it’s still not impossible. Swap junk food for any other thing a reasonable babysitter must avoid giving to her charges at the request of the parents: allergens, choking hazards, sharp objects, keys to the car, etc. She’s just not taking it seriously. (Imagine if your doctor prescribed your daughter medicine that your MIL refused to give her! Her diet, at this point, IS that medicine.)

You say you’re unsure of how much to dig your heels in over this, and while I’ve typically defaulted to a non-micromanaging/anti-control freak approach that doesn’t stress TOO much about an occasional treat or spoiling at Grandma’s house, your situation is…not that. She’s around your kids enough to undermine your daughter’s progress. And I’d say as long as your daughter is under a doctor’s care and orders for weight-related issues, you can (and probably should) dig your heels in as deep as possible. If Grandma could just tone down the junk food buffet to one special treat a visit, that’d be a fair compromise. But until she shows you she’s capable of that kind of restraint, keep pushing back. (And since you’ve successfully gotten your husband on board, he is MORE THAN WELCOME to speak up and help you out here as well, considering it’s HIS MOTHER.)

Once the weight is off (and it sounds like it will be soon, go everybody!!), you can relax a bit, and focus more on helping your daughter form her own lasting relationship with food. Which will likely never match your own, by the way, and that’s okay too. Food CAN be love, and pleasurable, and fun, provided there’s a proper balance the healthy stuff and exercise and the occasional treat. (Says the advice columnist who ate two bowls of cheese puffs while writing this answer.)

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

    Normally, I agree with Amy on food stuff, but not now. Division of responsibility/Ellyn Satter… According to Ellyn, and I tend to agree, a kid should not be on a diet. Long term, restricting food intake can be as damaging to the kid’s relationship with food/her body than the weight is/would be. A gignantic second helping is nothing catastrophic if you “simply” teach your child to respect her appetite. She will stop eating seconds, UNLESS SHE IS STILL HUNGRY. She will learn to stop eating cake mid-way, because she knows she’ll be able to have more next meal it’s available. Read, and get your MIL to read, “how to get your kids to eat but not too much” and get on that plan together with her and your husband. I guess if you have 4 kids and this issue is with your oldest, that she’s probably around 7-8? That means that she will soon be old enough to start making her own food choices (school cafeteria, convenience store with her allowance, etc). You want her ready to make those good choices by herself, not going back to “disordered eating” because she suddenly has access to all that forbidden food…I am not judging you or your approach, but I see a few red flags that make me think Satter would be a good read for you. Good luck!

    • Rose

      I disagree with you based in the fact that this particular child already has disordered eating. Toddlers are not naturally obese, and this is something that this family has worked on for years. This child does not read hunger signals appropriately and needs the guidance of her parents and doctors to eat healthily. Most children learn healthy eating habits from this method, but this child will not because of her history. She may in the future, but this is a medical issue.

      • tadpoledrain

        First, the designation of obesity tends to be based on BMI, and BMI is based on… nothing. Also, the categories were shifted at some point (I want to say in the mid-80s?), so a whole bunch of people went to bed “healthy” and woke up “obese” without their weight actually changing at all, and again, I don’t think the categories were shifted based on any actual medically relevant info. And I don’t know that a toddler couldn’t naturally be “obese”. Genetic diversity etc.
        I also believe that Satter addresses the issue of disordered eating in children not by restricting their diets, but by giving them even more unlimited access to food, especially bingey or trigger foods, the basic idea being that they are eating to excess because they feel deprived or worry about being deprived, so you take away any possible deprivation. I’m thinking in particular of a story about a little girl who ate, I think, M&Ms to excess. So the solution was not to limit M&Ms, or teach her about “sometimes” foods or “treats”, but rather to give her a giant pillowcase full of M&Ms that she was entirely in charge of, more candy than she could possibly eat, without commenting at all on how much she ate or didn’t eat. Because she felt safe about how much she had, she didn’t feel the need to eat them to excess. I’m not positive it’s Satter, but if not, it’s someone with similar attitudes.
        I’m just worried that this little girl is going to grow up with disordered eating and/or a full-blown eating disorder. I recently rewatched “Thin” for the millionth time, and while I’m not saying it’s the be-all and end-all on the topic of eating disorders, it’s really interesting to me how a lot of the women in the documentary talk about how young they were when their disordered relationships with food began, and how much that was influenced by their families.
        Also also, and this I definitely may be wrong about, or only partially informed about, but I believe there is some evidence that because of the mother’s food deprivation when she was growing up (if, in fact, she was deprived, and not just limited in choices — pardon me if I’m making ill-founded assumptions), the daughter may be genetically predisposed to holding on to extra weight. I wish I could remember where I read that, and if anyone else knows more, please share.
        Finally, I do wonder a bit about the dynamics between the parents when it comes to food. The OP says that she does the grocery shopping and then her husband buys extra junk food. Would she not buy it if he requested it or put it on the list? Is he never in charge of the grocery shopping? If that’s the division of labor in this family that’s fine, but I’m just getting the sense that the husband is taking on the role of the child, rather than the partner, in the choosing and buying of food in this household, and I wonder if he’s feeling the desire to rebel a bit, because he feels like he can’t just buy/eat what he wants without the OP’s approval/permission.
        Pardon me for going on at such length. I… have opinions on this subject.

      • Myriam

        Does the child have disordered eating, or just put on extra weight? With Satter, you are responsible for the what and when, and the child for the what, if and how much. The child could have done well with her eating, and the what and when be the problem. I’m not saying the grandma couldn’t make better choice, but restricting food does not appear to be to be a long term sustainabable solution. (I also understood 2-3x a week to mean a few hours after school/daycare/camp), not 2-3 full days. I might be wring on this.)

    • IrishCream

      I’ve re-read the letter and I don’t see anything about restricting the child’s food, or putting her on a diet. The LW just mentions healthy eating, and is clearly working with a pediatrician. In the absence of any specifics that raise red flags, maybe we could give the LW the benefit of the doubt, rather than jumping in with advice that she didn’t ask for.

      • Myriam

        You’re right, there are no specifics. I might have misunderstood the OP’s meaning. My comment was also mostly in response to Amy’s response, about sending the kids with pre-approved, pre-portionned stuff. In regards to your last comment, however, the OP is asking for advice, this is an advice column. It does not mean that she has to take it! 🙂

  • Bonnie

    One thing that seems important to note is that 2-3 days a week with Grandma is not insignificant – that’s nearly half the week, and a lot of meals spent at her house. If she’s spending all of those meals offering huge portions and “grandkid-spoiling” treats, that’s not just minor mixed messaging, it’s essentially mixed parenting. Perhaps that’s something that should be pointed out to Grandma, too – an occasional treat or “spoiling day” is one thing, but when the grandkids are spending several days a week with her, those treats and spoils constitute a huge part of their diet. All grandparents need to adjust the spoiling accordingly, however they’re inclined to do it, when they’re also frequent caregivers and therefore in loco parentis some significant part of the time.

  • Ann

    Wow, OP, you’re showing remarkable restraint! I would have gone ballistic several times if I was in your shoes. I agree that your MIL may think you’re overreacting and hearing a strong statement from the pediatrician may sink in better. Good luck!

    It’s true that kids *usually* don’t need to restrict their diet, but they also need a lot of exercise, more than many get these days, so the deck is already stacked against healthy weight right there. They’re also just starting to learn to eat healthy and, like adults, kids are wired to prefer fatty and sugary foods… but don’t have an adult’s understanding why this may not be good for them. The Satter method sounds great when the adults are modeling healthy eating and the food on the table is not all cookies and cake… otherwise, it won’t help a whole lot.