Every year, it’s the same routine. After a year of healthy eating attempts, the holidays hit. For six weeks I’m tempted by rich goodies at Thanksgiving dinner, holiday gatherings, Christmas parties, New Year’s extravaganzas – and in my family’s case, two birthdays and an anniversary. All of those celebrations end up being filled with culinary splurges I’d never typically eat.
Forget about any balance of naughty and nice – it’s too easy to be swayed to make naughty food choices at every single gathering. (Honestly … who wants to nibble at the fresh but limp vegetable tray when there are delectable Christmas cookies and candies?)
It seemed bad enough when my husband and I were the only ones dealing with the consequences of the celebrations. And then we had children. Sure, lack of sleep – and exhaustion – became major issues. But once our kiddos were old enough to eat solid food, they were also old enough to nibble on “goodies” that really were “baddies.” Get me started on the topic of sugar and I could end up sounding a lot like the Grinch – “Oh the sugar! Oh the sugar! Oh the sugar, sugar, sugar!”
The thing is this: My son FREAKS OUT when he eats sugar. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Because we try to eat fairly healthy most days, any amount of sugar turns him into a spaz, including the natural sugar found in grapes. It’s not his fault – his body is simply reacting. The reactions just happen to be very visible. The same thing happens with food coloring – both artificial and natural: spaz, spaz, spaz.
As his mom, I hate to watch his supercharged sugar transformation. Yet I know it’s coming at the holidays – and, truthfully, at any family gathering.
What parents are dealing with
I KNOW I’m not the only mom dealing with this issue, because it’s the second most popular question asked through Accidentally Green. And I’ve watched the same conversation play out dozens of times on Facebook. Here are actual situations from actual moms (other than myself):
- “Not only does Grandma probably think I’m overreacting, she probably thinks I’m just a cruel mom who deprives her kids of treats. ‘It’s a holiday! What’s the problem with another piece of pie?!’ was the line I heard last year. We normally don’t have a problem with strained relationships over food, but something about holidays makes it more stressful than usual.”
- “I need to have the healthy food talk before we see family today. I don’t think my MIL gets it. At least I can fight with my mom.”
- “My in-laws and I do have a great relationship, but they just don’t quite get the food thing. I usually let the kids have stuff at Grandma’s house, but there’s just 10 times more of it when it’s a holiday, so I get to be the weirdo.”
- “I’m not sure why people feel the need to guilt, embarrass or manipulate parents into allowing their kiddos junk. I just don’t get it when healthy food can be 1,000 times yummier! Why can’t they just be happy that the children are nourished and stay out of it? We are blessed with very supportive family, but some other people can be really difficult. It’s got to be a whole lot harder when it’s people you have to try to keep a good relationship with.”
- “I had a terrible situation come up with my sister and some very hurtful things were said. She and my mom were pushing to have my kids eat candy, and after a whole day of letting them eat things I don’t normally allow, I said no, and they kept pushing and saying they should. I was accused of putting food before relationships, and I finally had to explain that the same thing was being done to us when we say no to something and it’s pushed and pushed against. It becomes not an issue with food anymore, but of just respecting an individual family’s preferences and encouraging the children to honor their parents. That’s what gets me! I hate the sneaky, it’s-fun-to-disobey teaching that it reinforces.”
Just a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T
My husband and I try very hard to put family before food and overlook what’s offered to our family – and especially our children. But regular splurges don’t make us happy. (No, our school age children do not need a jelly bean reward every time they use the bathroom. They’ve been potty-trained for years.) And the unhealthy “treats” don’t respect our family’s healthy attempts.
I don’t want to be hypocritical, though. When offered soda pop at a get-together, we usually drink it — because we so rarely get it and it truly is a splurge. And we do eat desserts at parties — but it would be nice to have healthy options at meals away instead of only processed foods and junk.
My dentist was venting his frustration about a similar situation in his family. He pointed out that it angers him how family members (and society, in general) try to undermine parents’ decisions by pitting children against their parents. “Would you like some ice cream?” “You can watch this television show … it’s OK with me.” “I know it’s bedtime, but you can stay up later and have an extra piece of cake.” “It’s OK … what happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s.” “We have different rules at Grandpa’s house.”
I honestly never thought about how those comments and situations do completely undermine a parent’s authority. Yet I’ve heard the comments before from friends, family and neighbors. And they do disrespect a parent’s authority.
Every parent I know would love to be a fun parent – but fun doesn’t always equal what’s most beneficial. That’s part of parenting. So when responsible parents choose to skip processed food or sweets or excessive toys and other family members and friends cater to those pleasures, parents are automatically made out to be the bad guys. All the while, parents are just doing what parents ideally should do – enforce healthy boundaries that benefit their children.
Everything in moderation
I end up dreading the holiday party circuit each year, because I know most neighbors and friends will load our children down with candy as gifts. Tasty fruit punches will trump our typical plain old water at dinner parties. We’ll give in to just a little treat at every party over a jam-packed 10 days, and everyone will end up sick the first week of January. And once we start feeling better and detox from the junk food barrage, I’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief when it’s over.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution – because every family dynamic is different. Splurging just a little is OK – it is part of the season. But it can go overboard. And excess can become a huge issue for some families.
Approaches that work for one family may completely backfire for another family. But some families have found solutions.
First, keep a reasonable approach. Don’t expect to be able to stick to a strict healthy meal plan without a struggle. On Accidentally Green’s Facebook page, some readers pointed out that they let their children splurge – because their children know what “sometimes food” means. “It’s part of what makes the holidays special – special food and treats that they only have a few times a year.” Remember to use a lot of moderation in your food choices.
For parents with older children, it’s good to have the conversations about “sometimes food” – and to also talk about the realities of junk food and healthy food. Kids know when unhealthy food makes them feel crummy.
Yet other parents bristle more at the idea – possibly because their children are exposed to sweet after sweet at Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. Sweets – and guilty pleasures – have somehow become the cultural norm in all of these holidays. If you surrender at each holiday with a spirit of celebration, that’s six months of unhealthy splurging.
To cut back on the barrage of unhealthy eating, some families bring healthy snacks so their children can have an alternative and not binge on junk all throughout the party. If you’re bringing a side dish to the party, bring something healthy (and ultra-appealing!) that your children love.
If you’re only going to a party (and not spending the night at someone else’s home), try to load up on healthy foods ahead of time so you’re not hungry when you get to the party.
Some parents with older children train their children to ask parents first before giving into treats. Through many conversations with extended family members, some parents have established a policy that adults offering the treats should ask the child’s parents first.
And when it gets very bad, some parents get blunt. After many attempts, one mother told her family that they don’t have to understand or agree – her decision is final because she’s the mother. And as the mother, it’s her duty to protect her family’s health.
The bottom line
Holidays can be a jumble of love, joy, and stress. Try to keep everything in perspective – including food choices – and lavish some grace on your loved ones. Don’t give up your healthy eating options, but also try to go with the flow and choose relationships with family and friends over beliefs about food.
And if you know family members are trying to make healthy eating choices, make things easy for them — try to cooperate and be helpful. That could end up as one of the best gifts of the holiday season.
Because I know parents deal with this issue every single day — and not just at family get-togethers, I’ve written a follow-up post, Help! My Children Are Bombarded with Junk Food!
How do YOU help your children keep their healthy eating habits during the holidays? How do you deal with family disagreements over healthy living?
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Jerri Ann says
I don’t even have children and this topic is already so stressful for me. You see, my husband is a people pleaser by nature and he comes from a family of “food pushers”–they’ll tell you the same thing. We have lived away from family since we’ve been married so when we are around (at his parents) there are sweets every.single.night. Nothing homemade, everything is bought from the store–pies, cookies, you name it. They know how we live and eat, and I’m comfortable with saying no, but he will have something every single night. So, there’s little ‘ol me sitting at the table, the only one not eating. He knows he shouldn’t and we’ve talked about how it makes him feel, but he just doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’m not sure how to approach it, but I’d really appreciate it if he even passed on it half the time. I look like the party pooper.
I don’t know how to handle this either! It’s not just junk I deal with. I have an 11 month old and I haven’t given him grains yet. (Waiting till 1) We have a history of auto immune disorders in my family, and I am dealing with serious health issues myself from food sensitivities I didn’t know I had over the years. I am trying my best, through a lot of research, to give my son the best start I can so he will have better gut health. My family doesn’t get it and constantly suggests I give him bread or cheerios, but doesn’t push too hard. My in laws on the other hand, who are doctors and nurses no less, think I’m off my rocker, are constantly trying to give him stuff he hasn’t had yet, try to sneak him pizza crust for example, think the gluten free diet is just a junk fad. I don’t know that he can’t have wheat but I want to wait a good while before offering that grain! How do I keep them from sneaking my son food, that could very well upset his digestion, when I’m not looking?
My thought is, lighten up, holidays are about family. Very few people die each year from pumpkin pie overdose. Let it go. Is it worth it to ruin someone’s holiday because you’re freaking out over desserts? Is that the memory you want to leave with your children? Also, is that being respectful towards your parents, who have probably had to skimp on their own fixed income food budget to provide a holiday meal for the family, only to have someone complaining the whole time? That is not an attitude of gratitude nor is it respectful. In the words of Dolly Parton, “Get down off of your cross, honey, somebody needs the wood.”
actually, it is a big deal when the food being pushed at your kids will make them sick or send them into a hyperactive state. Would you say the same thing if someone was offering your child food he was allergic to and you knew would make him sick? Would you let your kid play with someone who has the flu because you didn’t want to offend the family? I agree that some people go overboard with their reactions, but to completely dismiss concerns isn’t right, either. You can be grateful without allowing your kids to eat every treat available that will make them sick. No one is saying “don’t eat any of the food provided”. This is about limiting the junk intake and people pushing food on other people’s kids.
Hilary Kimes Bernstein says
Since my husband and I do try very hard to respect our families and be grateful for what we’re given – and pass those values onto our children – I don’t freak out in public over food choices. I don’t complain to others – except occasionally to my husband once our children are asleep. And I don’t freak out to my children about it. Instead, I bottle it up so that no one’s holiday is ruined. But the burden of dealing with it year after year in silence zaps my own Christmas cheer and excitement to be a part of the parties. I know so many other parents are dealing with the same burden – and it’s hard to be respectful and grateful yet also try to help our own children.
Jessica A. says
I’m going to have to respectfully disagree. Food overdosage may not send someone to the hospital immediately but reinforcing the idea that it is ok to indulge is why we live in an obese society with all the issues that come along with it, heart disease, diabetes, etc., and these issues are becoming a problem at an earlier age. So trying to undermine parents’ teaching of good eating habits to help our children stay healthy is not right. Of course, dealing with it respectfully is appropriate but our families must also respect our wishes when it comes to OUR children.
My in-laws LOVE to fill my children with sugar and processed foods (and I am not a strict avoider of sweets…moderation is key for me). They act as if I’m overreacting when I am shocked when they hand my one year old a basket filled with chocolates, marshmallows, gum, jelly beans… What about toys, stuffed animals, books rather than sugar filled treats, most of which are highly inappropriate for a one year old (choking hazards could land my toddler in the hospital)? My concern is that they loved my husband in a similar way and bought him all kinds of junk foods during his childhood leading him into morbid obesity for half his life. Luckily, he broke the lifelong habits and food addictions once he moved from his parents’ home and shed the extra 130 pounds he carried. I want my children to have a life free from the bonds of junk food and obesity. Thankfully, we do not live near his parents (nor mine for that matter) so it is easier to teach them healthy eating without all my lessons being undermined.
How about people respect parents’ decisions and don’t ruin their holiday?
Why do people need to push their beliefs about food on other people’s kids. Imagine trying to cajole a Jewish family’s kids into eating pork!
Hilary Kimes Bernstein says
Fantastic point, Cira!
Love this article and DEFINITELY sharing this on my social media outlets!
Hilary Kimes Bernstein says
I appreciate your pain. But on the other hand, sometimes, it is the DIL’s that cause the bad food to be eaten and there is nothing a MIL can do to change it. There are two sides to everything.
Parents decide. Sometimes they choose poorly but I doubt if you feed a kid a vegetable she will get mad.
I LOVE this post and it might be the perfect thing to share with my relatives to get the point across. But, I know the title would offend them. If the title was just a little more sensitive and it could be viewed as a polite “FYI” or self help type of article, then I’d definitely pass it along and I rhink they’d get the message. They would see that it’s not just them adding to the holiday pressure – it’s everyone, on a daily basis!
Hilary Kimes Bernstein says
Thanks to your comment, others I’ve received on Facebook and what I’ve been hearing in day-to-day life since this post came out, I’ve written a follow-up post (with a less offensive title!). I’d love for you to read “Help! My Children Are Bombarded With Junk Food!” … http://accidentallygreen.com/help-children-bombarded-junk-food/
Oy, I can tell stories of being undermined by my in laws. They just couldn’t understand why my son acted out after eating candy and sweets. Even though I told them he reacted to the dyes and sugar, they didn’t believe me. They couldn’t believe such a thing because no one else they knew had that problem so I was making it up. GAH! I was just being a bad and mean parent. We don’t live close by anymore and my husbands parents passed away, we can have relaxed holidays without the drama. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the family but certainly not the drama when I am the one being ganged up on.
As someone who’s parents have both passed away relationship is most important. The reaction to the food will go away but these people are important in the life of your child.
The first thing to consider is teaching your children to make healthy decisions. I realize that children have to have a certain level of maturity and development for this to happen but ultimately it is their body and they have to decide what to eat. I am saying this as a person who gets migraines from eating wheat and have had a time where I felt yuck after eating diary. It is not hard for me to resist wheat because I know how it makes me feel but I would have some dairy once in a while knowing I would not feel great but wanted to enjoy the dairy dish. Help your child become aware of how they feel after they eat and praise them when they make a good choice. Even as an adult it is sometimes hard to resist wheat knowing I will be really sick if I eat it.
The other aspect is help your family see first hand how your child’s behavior changes with the food they eat. encourage interaction before sugar is eaten so they can see that your child is more enjoyable to be around without sugar or food dye and then kindly ask them to be the one to supervise your child or break up the scuffles when their behavior deteriorates with a bad reaction to the food they encouraged. Let them experience the consequences of their actions. I would hope that before long they too will want happy grand kids to be around and not be interested in pushing sugar.
Hilary Kimes Bernstein says
Oh, I love your approach and advice, Deb! I especially like your idea about encouraging your family to spend time with your child before and after eating, and then dealing with the food reactions. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!
My in-laws are now both diabetic and they continuously ply all their grandchildren with candy and pop. This is mind boggling to me and my spouse. They tell my children to sneak more junk home so they can have it here too. It is so disrespectful! They say grandparents have a duty to spoil their grandchildren. What their are spoiling is their grandchildren’s pancreases.
Hilary Kimes Bernstein says
Whoa! I would think diabetics would be more understanding about food and health. Sorry for your situation!!