The Overfeeding MIL…and the Overweight Child
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.
Some things you can try:
Have her speak with your daughter’s pediatrician: 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.
Purchase portion -guidance plates: 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.
Prepare food to send with the kids when they stay with her: 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.)