Oh, the stories I've heard from parents about junk-food-free-for-alls at Grandma's house: Ice cream for lunch! Bottomless cups of fruit punch! A cupboard of chips and candy there for the taking!
When you're working hard to plan balanced meals, limit sweets, and stay away from sugary drinks and then it all hits the fan when your kids walk through Grandma's door, it can be very disheartening. On paper, we know grandparents mean well. In practice, all those extra helpings of dessert and trips through the drive thru can create very real family strife when your feeding styles don't align.
So what do you do: Express your unhappiness and risk offending your parents or in-laws—or say nothing and let the junk food benders happen?
As with everything in parenting, you have to do what seems best for your family and handle it in the way that works for you. But if you need advice, here's my two cents: Sometimes it's necessary to speak up. And sometimes it's okay to let it slide.
For instance, while you'd always communicate any food allergies, some kids are also simply sensitive to foods and ingredients. If you think your child gets hyper after eating food dyes or comes home from Grandma's with a bellyache after they've eaten fast food, you should say so. Another reason to pipe up: When grandparents are regular sitters. If your child is cared for in part by your parents or in-laws, he's eating a lot of meals and snacks on their watch—and that could influence not only his food and nutrient intake but also his day-to-day habits.
A few caveats about broaching this conversation: Keep emotions out of it as much as possible. There's no reason to make your mother-in-law feel like a bad person for serving soda or accuse your parents of not caring about your child's health. Keep the talk as straightforward as possible ("Emma had a cavity at her last dentist visit, so we're trying to avoid soda" or "Jacob has been having some issues with constipation, so we're making sure he gets vegetables with lunch and fruit at snack time"). Consider providing some food or packing a lunch for your child (under the guise of saving them time and hassle if that helps). Always be sure Grandma knows how much you appreciate her spending time with your kids and the love she shows them. And be open to compromise: If taking your child out for ice cream once a month is really important to your parents, find a way to make it work by cutting back on treats at other times.
But in my opinion, there are also a few reasons to just let it slide. Is an extra spoonful of whipped cream on their Thanksgiving pie or candy at the movies once in a while going to hurt them in the long run? Nope. When it comes to the holidays, I'm okay with my kids eating differently when we visit relatives. I think going to Grandma's house is a chance to try new foods and different ways of eating—and that vacation is also a time to relax about rules. Plus, I believe it's also okay to associate special things—heaps of attention, extra hugs, and yes, even special foods—with grandparents. Letting things go a bit will be easier if you quietly forgo treat foods in the days leading up to a visit to Grandma's house.
And remember: Just because your child has extra dessert at Grandma's house doesn't mean she'll be begging for it at home, especially if you establish house policies and communicate your food values. My kids have eaten pie for breakfast at their grandma's house, but they know that's not something we do at home.
What do you think? Do your kids get junk at Grandma's house—and how do you handle it?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.