September 14, 2015

Dear Melissa: Grandparents Behaving Badly

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Dear Melissa,

My husband and I just finished a Whole30 and loved it! We lost cravings, bloat, aches, pains, inches, and a few pounds. We still have one huge obstacle that we can’t quite overcome. Our kids (12 and 10) are both obese, but will not get on the program. At our house Whole30 food is all available, but we live next door to my in-laws (their grandparents). They only eat highly processed, fatty, sugary junk food and drinks. They supply my children with this food whenever they want, in unlimited quantities. It’s so frustrating to me! I’ve talked to my in-laws and children about it, but it hasn’t helped. I’m so tempted to ban them from their grandparents’ home. Any advice? –B.F., New Mexico

Dear B.F.,

Every time I get a question like yours, it makes me grateful that all the grandparents in my toddler’s life are fully supportive of our way of feeding him. However, this means I have no firsthand experience with how to deal with this—only my research, my instincts, and the experience I’ve earned helping thousands of Whole30’ers deal with social and family situations. Let the record reflect that my street cred here is solid, but not perfect.

This can be an incredibly divisive situation, and needs to be handled both directly and carefully. Let’s talk about your options, from least to most confrontational.

Note: For reference, I’ve written on this subject once before, directly to the grandparents. Perhaps sending them this article is a good first step, before diving into my recommendations below.

Present a United Front

There are a few things you need to have in place before you approach the situation. Make sure you and your husband are 100% on the same page with respect to how you want your children fed when they are away from your house. Not 99%, not “I’m sure he agrees,” not “he’ll do whatever I want.” Have the conversation. If you as parents don’t agree as to the amount, frequency, and quantity of junk food acceptable in your child’s diet, how do you expect others to follow your wishes?

This is especially important if it’s your partner’s parents feeding your kids junk. While you need to have a unified front, one of you may have to draw a line in the sand. It needs to be the one with the parents. If your husband may cave to his parents’ guilt trip, pressure, or other emotional entreaties, you’re fighting a losing battle. This may harm your relationship with your in-laws and make you feel isolated and unsupported.

Action item: Create a plan for your kids, their grandparents, and junk food that you can both 100% stand behind. You may have to compromise on your ideal situation. However, enacting compromise is a far better solution than failing to instill any change because your parents/in-laws divided and conquered.

Offer Alternatives

It’s possible that your parents or in-laws just need a little more information about what the kids can eat. They may be imagining your diet as bland and boring (grilled chicken and steamed broccoli).The idea of offering your child raw carrot sticks instead of homemade cookies is a tough one for a baking-loving grandmother to accept.

Make a list of snacks or treats your child can eat at their house. Determine with your spouse your stance on ingredients like non-gluten grains and added sugar, and baked goods that are designed to mimic the “real deal.” Offer your parents options for baking or serving your kids snacks that will both feel like a treat while keeping them healthy. Again, you may have to compromise a little here, but if it helps to keep the peace in the family and keeps your kids from being plied with junk food you know is making them less healthy, it’s a net win.

Action item: Create a list of snacks and treats of which you and your kids approve to provide to their grandparents. Choose fun snacks like Sunbutter “ants on a log,” fruit “pizza,” or healthier versions of baked goods. Make a book of treats together with your kids to present to their grandparents the next time you visit.

Click for more help on how to help get other adults on board with how to feed your kids.

Try Using Logic (Good Luck With That)

While I have limited faith that presenting them with logical facts will work here, it’s still worth a shot. First, your kids’ weight (even if they are obese) may still not be enough to convince them to lay off the junk food. They’ll cite upcoming growth spurts or “baby fat” yet to burn off as enough of a reason to “let them just be kids” and eat whatever they like. But there are things your parents aren’t seeing when it comes to your kids’ health, behaviors, and emotional state, and perhaps sharing them will help.

Make it personal. Your parents love their grandkids! Sharing the very personal ways their current diet is negatively affecting their health and happiness may have an impact. “Josh is getting teased at school; he tells us he really wants to look more like the other kids. Will you help him by having healthier snacks on hand at your house?” or “The last time they visited you, they had so much sugar that both kids were irritable and had diarrhea. I don’t want to ruin their weekend, so please give them fruit and meat sticks for snacks today.”

In addition, grandparents tend to listen to authority more than younger generations, so bring in the big guns: your pediatrician. Ask your doctor if sugar, wheat, or dairy may be behind some of your kids’ symptoms (skin breakouts, digestive issues, asthma, allergies, mood or attention span issues, etc.), or if their weight could signify potential health issues later in life. If they’re willing to agree that it could, you can bring that straight back to your parents.

Action item: Share your personal observations and/or your doctor’s recommendations that your children avoid these specific foods for these specific reasons. Some experts even recommend inviting your parents to the kids’ next doctor’s appointment. This way they can hear it firsthand. Only do this if you know for certain your doctor will back up your dietary strategy.

Find the Emotional Root

The above could be your first attempt, but chances are you’ve done this before, and it hasn’t worked. This is because it’s impossible to win an emotional argument using logic—and your parents allowing your kids to eat junk food against your wishes (and against your kids’ best health interest) is highly emotional.

It’s time to have a serious talk with your parents or in-laws—but not the logical appeals you’ve previously shared. Here is where you sit down (not over food), in a warm, neutral space. Ask them about their experiences with food and how those experiences may play into how they are feeding your child.

While this discussion may not change anything in the dynamic, it may give you greater insight as to your parents’ (or in-laws’) emotional relationship with food, and why they feel the need to “spoil” or “treat” your kids the way they do. If nothing else, it may help to repair what may have become a tense relationship, as you’ve been battling over food and your kids’ care for some time now.Action item: Ask your parents or in-laws open-ended, non-judgmental questions:Tell me about your experiences with food as a kid. Were you allowed treats, or were they limited?
Did your family use food for love, comfort, or praise?
Why do you stock up on treats for your grandkids?
How would you feel about saying “no” to their requests for junk food?
Can you think of other ways to show them how much you care?Bonus: share some “insider” information about special activities your kids would love. Tell your parents that taking them to the zoo, science museum, or park; treating them to a mid-afternoon movie or theater offering; or playing their favorite board game or a round of mini-golf would mean more to their grandkids than a package of Oreos.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Finally, if none of these tactics change the way your parents feed your kids, it’s time to set some healthy boundaries. While you might be tempted to restrict your parents’ access to the kids until they comply with your dietary wishes, that’s not the solution. First, your kids (and parents) will see it as a punishment. They willl either rebel, sneaking time (and junk food) behind your back, or resent you for standing in the way of their relationship. This will only lead to more of an “us vs. them” mentality around food, and it’s really not fair to either party.

However, it’s perfectly reasonable to limit the way your kids interact with their grandparents. You’re free to eliminate unsupervised visits, or restrict visits to your home or a neutral (non-restaurant) location, where they can’t ply the kids with junk food.

Action item: Make your boundaries (and the reasons for them) clear to the grandparents. If at all possible, don’t involve the kids, especially if they’re young. They won’t understand why you’re changing the ground rules about visitation, and it’s not their job to comply—it’s your parents, as the grown-ups.

Finally, if your parents are still disrespectful of your wishes and boundaries, it’s time to take further action. At this point, I suggest working with a family counselor to determine a strategy that will be healthiest for you and your kids.

While dealing with friends and family can be difficult, I hope these tips will help you find a compromise that works for your family in a way that keeps everyone happy and healthy.

Best in health,

Got a question for Melissa? Submit it here.

Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.

Melissa Urban is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and a 5-time New York Times bestselling author (It Starts With Food; The Whole30Food Freedom ForeverThe Whole30 Cookbook; The Whole30 Day by Day; and The Whole30 Fast and Easy Cookbook). She has been featured in the Wall Street JournalNew York Times, Forbes, CNBC, DetailsOutside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography

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