How To Handle Family Members “Helping” At Meal Times (When it goes against everything you’re working on!)

Published by Mama Knows Nutrition on

Family Members

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re sitting down to a Sunday dinner with your family, ready to use the tools you’ve been learning to help your littles have stress-free, healthy, and happy meal times (just like you do at every other meal). But then, you hear it. A well-intentioned grandparent, aunt or uncle chimes in with their super helpful comments like “if you finish your broccoli, you can have ice cream!” And you instantly feel a little deflated. Without knowing it or meaning to, they’re undermining some of the things you’ve been working on, and that can be super stressful! You start to wonder:

Will it mess everything up?

Will your child ask for ice cream every time they finish their broccoli from now on?

And the biggest question: should you just let it go, or do you say something?

It’s such a tricky situation to navigate, but if you’ve been here, know that you’re definitely not alone! In fact, just the other day, a Mom sent me this email:

One of my biggest stresses about her eating is when we are with extended family, my husband's, his parents and sister in law. I know their comments come from a place of love but ugh! I'm so tired of them. I hate the use of dessert as a bribe and the on-going comments; "come on, eat your dinner, etc., etc., etc."  I am dreading Thanksgiving and it's 2 months away!

How should I handle this? I have a hard time sticking up for myself and hate confrontation.

Because this is such a common question that I hear from parents all the time, I wanted to share a blog post so you guys could reference it whenever well-intentioned family members have you second-guessing or stressing out!

Here’s what I’ve found works best for how to handle family members “helping” at meal times:

1. Remember Where They’re Coming From

Family members often don’t know what is appropriate for your young child to eat. Even if they have children, they might not be up-to-date on current recommendations, and we can’t fault them for that. Remember that your family loves your child and is simply trying to do what they think is best. They want to show their love via food!

2. Ask Yourself If It’s Worth The Pushback

What you do at home is most important, and the habits you work hard on won’t all be undone from a day or two visiting family. So if it’s only an issue once every couple months or less, I suggest letting it go. 

Even if you had an extended visit with family where nutrition wasn’t how you wanted it to be, know that you can get right back into the normal routine when you get home. Even if there is whining the first few days, your kids will adjust back to their regular routine.

Dr. Ashurina Ream, licensed clinical psychologist from PsychedMommy.com says; “If there aren’t any safety concerns, ask yourself if this situation will provide a major setback.  In some cases, it’s really harmless and a way our family members want to show their love, so we can let it be for the day.”

3. Talk About It Ahead of Time

If it’s enough of an issue that it needs to be addressed, the best thing you can do is approach the conversation ahead of time (and avoid it fully during mealtime!). If you can remember that your family has only the best intentions, and speak with them well in advance, it will go much better!

Dr. Ream also recommends a proactive approach, and she offers great talking points if you’re struggling with what to say:

In other instances, it may be a repeated pattern that we cannot allow to continue.  When this happens, we have the choice to tell them ahead of time or wait for it to happen and offer feedback. I prefer being proactive.  Give the feedback ahead of time. Tell your family “I love how much you love Sally and I know that feeding her is a way you show you care for her, but I’m trying a feeding approach that works for our family and I’d like it if you took part in that.”  Or if you’d like to be more direct, there’s nothing wrong with telling people “I don’t feel comfortable with people feeding her. It has nothing to do with you personally. I hope you understand.”

4. Get Them On Board

Since your family really just wants to help, sometimes it’s as simple as re-directing their efforts so that you’re all working towards the same mealtime goals. This way, instead of working against your family, you can all work together.

To get them on board, communicate that you are so grateful for the way they love and care for your child, and that you’d love their help because you’re working hard to establish great eating habits. Let them know you’re doing your best to follow the most current research in this area, and are figuring it out as you go. Ask them if they’d be open to hearing about what you’re learning and trying to implement, and go from there.

Tip: Focus on what IS okay, vs. what isn’t.

You’ll probably find that your family is grateful to learn from you which foods you DO allow. This is a way more positive than focusing on what they need to stop doing.

5. Keep the Big Picture In Mind

If you’re ready to have this conversation with your family, here are a few things to remember:

First, you’re the parent, and you know best. If your family makes you second-guess yourself, you can always come back to this.

Second, what you do most of the time matters more than what happens once in a while. Even if your family does things differently than you would, all of your hard work won’t be undone from the occasional visit.

And finally, your family loves your child and just wants to help. As challenging as it can be, try to remember that their intentions really are good!

Tip: Help Them Help You!

Stocking up on snacks you approve of makes them feel like part of the team!

Sometimes giving your family members a little direction is all it takes to get everyone working together again. I created this easy-to-follow Target Snack Guide, which offers a full list of healthy, kid-friendly snacks that anyone can grab on their next grocery shop.

Send it to your family members if they’re wanting to know what food they can buy for your kids!

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