Q: My in-laws (self-proclaimed "simple folk" in the Midwest) have never had great eating habits. Although it would be great for them to adopt a healthier lifestyle and stick around longer, that's their choice — they're adults. However, they've taken our 2-year-old son to McDonald's twice in one week: "He just loves that ice cream!" and chicken nuggets. This is a new development. They've spent a lot of time with him since he was born. What can we (or more specifically, my husband) say about this in a constructive way? We've worked hard to get our son to love fruits and vegetables, and we would hate to have him turn into a kid who only will eat white/breaded foods. Thanks for any advice!
A: This is a common issue among children and their grandparents; I will begin by putting my bias out there: Unless there is serious abuse or shaming, I almost always support a relationship between children and grandparents. And though there is no perfect relationship, the benefits of your son being with his grandparents far outweigh the danger of chicken nuggets and ice cream. Research shows that a strong relationship between kids and their grandparents results in a lower chance of depression for both parties, as well as better physical and mental health for the grandparents, even for those fighting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, in some cases.
But do you really need data to tell you this? Of course not. Anyone who has enjoyed a good relationship with their grandparents can quickly tick off the reasons their lives were vastly improved, and these reasons rarely include grandiose trips or extravagant gifts. It is simply the presence of a doting adult; an adult who believes in both your awesome potential as well as how special you are. From serious caretaking to here-and-there visits, grandparents can offer the qualities that many parents can’t — or shouldn’t. So, when I see (and have experienced myself) the many gifts that a loving grandparent can offer, I am reticent to coach you to do anything that will jeopardize it.
How do you reconcile feeding your son fruits and veggies while you watch your in-laws give him nuggets and ice cream? To begin, let’s accept that children can and do handle different rules with different people. Remember, humans are the most adaptable creatures on Earth, so it is well within your son’s grasp to get this basic idea: When I am with mom, I eat cucumber. When I am with grandpa, I eat ice cream. Seriously. It is the same way that children know that when they are at school, they sit in a circle, and when they are at a house of worship, they sit in a pew, and when they are at someone else’s house, they don’t jump on the couch, but when they are in your basement, it is okay to jump. Children are endlessly adapting to different rules with different people.
To double down on this point, ice cream and nuggets do not erase or take away from your nutritional impact. Though most children will always prefer the taste of nuggets and ice cream, your son’s exposure to a wide array of foods (including McDonald’s) translates to a more discerning palate; a palate where all food is meant to be savored and enjoyed.
Encouraging this idea, Rebecca Scritchfield, a well-being coach, registered nutritionist, certified exercise physiologist and author of the book “Body Kindness: Transform Your Health From the Inside Out and Never Say Diet Again,” reassures parents that there are, in fact, good nutrients in the nuggets and ice cream. “Assuming the order is a chicken nugget Happy Meal, it comes with apples, milk or water. There are multiple nutrients in the chicken nuggets (protein), fries (potassium), and ice cream (calcium), and collectively the meal is providing energy for your child to enjoy play, creativity, and toddling about in life,” she said.
And though breaking away from “good foods” and “bad foods” can be daunting for many of us, Scritchfield challenges parents to question how we categorize food. She asks, “Do you believe that there’s something directly harmful about the food? Be curious about why. Unfortunately most of what parents hear about food is fearmongering, labeling individual foods as good or bad. I’m constantly asking clients to see the harms in moralizing individual foods and instead focus on the overall healthy eating patterns.”
When we moralize food, we tend to force children into lying about the food they want to eat, creating shame where there could be enjoyment. As Scritchfield says, “Keeping the child from McDonald’s ice cream and chicken nuggets will only backfire over time, as most children want foods more when they never get a chance to eat them.”
I have empathy for you. I bit my tongue as my mother-in-law popped one cookie after another into my children’s mouths as I steamed broccoli at home, wishing she would just stop. I inwardly groaned when I saw a platter of cupcakes on my mother’s kitchen counter. But none of my fears came to pass. My children don’t gorge, they rarely sneak, and they don’t eat more than they need at any given time.
Consider your in-laws and the McDonald’s visits a lesson in parenting patience, and trust that all the meals and love you are serving at home also matter.
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