- Grandma tells your 4-year-old that she made cookies just for her, and hands her a plate of frosted cookies and a glass of milk an hour before dinner.
- Granddad says, "Eat up. Don't leave food on your plate or you'll never grow to be strong like your big brother."
- Your sister is hosting dinner. She says to your kids, "I've got a fresh batch of chocolate brownies for anyone who finishes their dinner."
Each of these scenarios features well-meaning relatives pushing food on your child. While the grandparents and aunt have the best intentions, they could be innocently contributing to several potential problems affecting your children, such as:
- Teaching children to eat to please others rather than themselves.
- Encouraging the child to eat more frequently, making it difficult to recognize the body's hunger cues.
- Training children to associate food with punishment because they feel that they must eat certain foods to "earn" dessert.
Change the Scenario
Address the family member. "Relatives can try to be silly or fun by offering kids sweet treats and highly processed snack foods" says Wesley Delbridge, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "This may be OK every now and then, but if it becomes frequent, be sure to address it with that person."
Addressing the issue can be a sensitive matter, Delbridge says, which is why he recommends approaching the subject delicately. "Remember that those relatives usually have the kids' best interests at heart. Reminding that person why healthy eating habits are important to you as a parent and what you are working on with your kids will be helpful to get on the same page. It may even inspire that relative to eat healthier."
Help relatives find other ways to realize their best intentions. Suggest reading or playing a game together, going out for a movie or special outing or hiding a sweet note in the child's backpack, lunchbox or under their pillow.
Determine What Is Appropriate Child Involvement
If your kids are young, be sure to discuss this in private, says Delbridge. "Kids can be easily influenced, and it's best to avoid any negativity or dramatic issues around food. Be sure to stay positive and keep encouraging kids to make healthy decisions, listen to their bodies and to have fun with the family they love."
If your children are old enough to speak for themselves, help them find the right words to express how they are feeling. Before spending time with relatives again, discuss the possible scenarios in which your kids may want to turn down food. Instead of simply saying "no thanks" and fearing you've hurt someone's feelings, have your children prepare saying "no" with a compliment. For example, they can say, "It looks delicious, but I'm not hungry right now. May I take some for later?"
Regardless of their age, children shouldn't be made to feel they must eat food they don't want. Consistently teaching them to listen to their own feelings of hunger and fullness will empower them to eat appropriately.