Many of us will be getting together with family and friends for the holidays over the next several weeks. Food will be a centerpiece of those gatherings, in many cases.
If your family chooses to eat differently than most, for whatever reason (preference, allergies, etc.), chances are that there will be some questions about why you eat the way you do. I suggest trying to downplay it as much as possible and engaging in fellowship away from the table (or at the table but without worrying about who’s eating what), but it’s inevitable: eventually, someone is going to ask or make a comment.
And if someone else starts the conversation…then what?
Talking about your food choices and standing up for your boundaries respectfully can be hard for a lot of people, but it’s possible to do. Let’s look closer.
When Someone Asks Questions
It might be innocent: “How come you’re not having any of the [store-bought] lemonade?” It might, unfortunately, a little less innocent, “What, are these green beans from a can not good enough for you?”
Questions, however they are posed, may make you feel uncomfortable because while some people really are interested, others will find anything you say offensive (sadly). So what do you say to diffuse the situation?
Answer Them Briefly
“Oh, I didn’t feel like having any today,” perhaps, or “I don’t usually care for green beans anyway.” Give a glib, brief answer with a smile on your face and leave it at that. You don’t need to launch into a lecture about food additives and health and so on. Keep it light.
Make an Excuse
A believable, respectful excuse, that is. ”Oh, I couldn’t possibly have a piece of pie right now. I’m stuffed.” (You don’t have to say you wouldn’t eat the pie anyway.) Or “We’re going to so many holiday celebrations in the next few weeks and I don’t want to feel sick or gain weight. I’m limiting my sugar intake to try to prevent that.” Most adults will understand this one.
Change the Subject
If you don’t have an easy answer (or maybe even if you do), try to change the subject. ”Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet?” or “Do you think we’ll have time for a game after we eat?” Something really neutral to draw attention away from the food issue, basically.
Ask for Respect
“We all have different preferences. I think it’s great!” Basically letting them know that it’s okay that you choose differently and that you respect their right to eat as they choose. Always smile.
Respond to Curiosity
If someone is truly, genuinely curious, go ahead and say a bit more. Answer their questions honestly. ”We like lemonade, but prefer fresh-squeezed. We think it tastes better, it has less sugar, and we try to stay away from the artificial flavors and colors.” If they ask why, you can answer the follow-up questions. Answer what they ask, but don’t overload them with information. It’s a lot to take in for someone who’s new to real food.
No matter what the person says about your food choices, don’t say anything about theirs. ”I really enjoy this food!” is great, “Your food is so unhealthy” is not so great. Even if you run into someone who is feeling hostile for whatever reason (sad that this happens, but it does), just smile and move on with your life. Ultimately what you put on your plate and choose to eat is your business and not theirs, and there’s no reason to feel guilty or angry for your choices or make them feel guilty or angry for theirs. If they choose to feel that way simply because you’ve made a different choice (even though you haven’t made an issue), too bad.
Lay It Out
If someone just won’t leave it alone, put your cards on the table. ”I’m sorry that my food choices upset you. I have chosen to eat what I prefer and what works for me. It is not a judgment of you or your food choices at all, and I’m sorry if you feel that it is. I would prefer not to ruin this occasion by fighting over something so silly. Can we just drop this?” A lot of people won’t even push it to this point, but a few will. Just say it nicely, then walk away if you need to. You don’t need to engage rude or hostile behavior.
Sometimes these are easier said than done. The goal is to make it out of the holidays without making an issue of food and with relationships intact. You may even make light of the situation, if you feel it would be well-received: “It’s so silly for us to argue about food when we finally have some time to enjoy together! How about after we eat we all find a game to play, or a movie to watch? I know I’d enjoy that.” Try to diffuse the tension in any way you can.
If all else fails (and I mean all else, like the person will.not.drop.it. no matter how many times you politely change the subject, ask them to stop worrying about it, etc.), leave. Do your absolute best to make the situation workable, but if there is blatant tension and hostility no matter what you do, it might be time to gracefully bow out and go home. (I truly hate to even say such a thing but in a tiny percentage of cases it will be better for all. And don’t make it a big issue — just say, “Thanks, we had a great meal, but our family needs to be heading home.” Say your kids are tired or you have a lot of holiday preparations to do at home or whatever, just smile and exit quickly.)
What If Someone’s Feeding Your Kids?
The bigger issue for many families isn’t what adults are saying about what is on their plates (the adults), but what is on their child’s plate. Most adults kind of accept that we all have our eating quirks and they are what they are. We don’t care. But when it comes to children, parents feel that their entire parenting is being judged or called into question because of what their children are eating or not eating in comparison to those around them.
If the issue is just the parents feeling judged while you prepare your child’s plate, try some of the suggestions above. ”She doesn’t really care for green beans,” or “Oh, she’s had so many treats lately, one small piece is all she needs today.”
It sometimes helps if you clearly respect other adults’ boundaries too. Reminding kids to ask their parents before getting another treat or asking the parents “Hey, did you say that was okay?” can show that you’re considering their rules and boundaries as the most important. Never say anything to someone else’s child about the wisdom or healthfulness about a particular food choice, nor make a big deal about what someone else’s child is eating (even if you are privately thinking something very different!). (Plus if everyone can respect others’ boundaries, then if your kid is sneaking another dessert, you know another adult will tell you!)
The real problem comes in when the other adults don’t agree and actually try to give your child foods that you’d rather s/he not have. That is one of the biggest complaints I hear from my readers, sadly. I have a few ideas on how to handle this, as well.
(Side note: some of these suggestions, especially the later ones, work if you disagree on other parenting issues as well, like discipline. ”Oh, let me handle that!” or pulling them aside to explain that you do things differently. Always make it about you and not them.)
Feed Your Child First
As soon as it’s time to eat, grab a plate and start serving your child. This keeps your child busy and happy, of course, but also lessens the chance that another adult will see a hungry child without food and try to help out by filling them a plate. Jump on it as quickly as you can.
Encourage Them to Eat
If a grandparent starts filling a plate for your child, say, “Oh, I’ll do that! You’ve already done so much today, go eat your meal. Don’t worry about her.” Then smile and go about filling your child’s plate yourself.
Ask for Non-Food Help
If they really try to insist on helping, you might say, “Oh, no, you’ve had plenty of years of having to wait to eat when your own children were small. I don’t mind doing it at all. If you’d like, though, Sarah would really enjoy playing dolls with you after dinner. She loves to spend time with you.” Basically, re-direct their help to a non-food activity.
Use the Mean Mom Excuse
Grandparents love to spoil their grandkids and often want to offer extra treats. Make it about you and how you’re a “mean mom.” ”I know you love to give treats! We’ve had a lot of parties lately though and she’s had so many. I’m going to have to be the Mean Mom and say no more for today.” You might follow that up with a non-food “treat” suggestion, like taking a special walk or watching a movie.
Invoke the Allergies/Sensitivities
Don’t lie, but use a health excuse most understand. ”When he has too much sugar, he gets pretty wild. We’ve got a long day and he won’t nap and I really would like for him to play with his cousins nicely. It will just go better if he doesn’t have the sugar too.” or “I’m sorry, he is allergic to that, so we can’t have that.”
Offer Another Treat
If Grandma wants to offer a piece of candy, swap it for a cookie you brought from home. ”You know what, he really loves these cookies. Perhaps you’d like to offer him one of these?” Make it about how much the child really loves/prefers the treat you are offering. Bring something that you don’t mind your child having (or look at the choices and decide what you’re okay with) so that well-meaning family members can offer some sort of treat that satisfies everyone.
Have a Private Conversation
If the family member won’t back down, don’t challenge them in front of everyone. That will lead to embarrassment and anger. Say, “Can we talk about this in the other room?” and quietly walk away. Then say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t want her to eat that. We have made some choices to keep her healthy, and especially with there being so many treats and special occasions during the holidays, we really need to stick to the boundaries we’ve set. I hope you understand that.”
Lay It on the Line
In my experience, if you have family members who really do not get it, or who are very stubborn, you may have to finally lay it out (privately). This might be a good time for you and your husband to present a united front, especially if (like me) you don’t like confrontation. ”I understand that you make different choices and we respect your right to choose for your family. These are our children and we’ve made our choices very carefully and we ask that you respect them also. If you can’t do that, then we will not be able to spend time with you, and our children will not be able to be alone with you.” This conversation is very difficult to have because you don’t want to deny your child a relationship with a family member (often grandparents), but if you have tried everything else and they will not back down, it’s time to say it. Do it privately, do it gently, and let them know you still love them and know they just want to treat their grandchildren. But be firm about your boundaries. All but the most stubborn will back down at this point. My own parents still don’t “get” it, and occasionally make tongue-in-cheek comments like “It would be so easy to swing by McDonald’s!” but they respect it and they don’t offer my kids things we don’t want them to have. That’s okay — it’s not my job to change them or theirs to change me. We are all adults.
The bottom line? In all you say and do, be respectful. Smile. Don’t make it a bigger deal than it needs to be, but don’t be afraid to gently but firmly stand up for yourself if it comes down to that. You’re the one who is charged with caring for your child and keeping him healthy. You’re the one who will have to deal with any “fall out” of consuming less-than-healthy foods that night or the next day. It’s ideal if food never becomes an issue at all, but if it does — gently do what you need to do, and don’t feel bad.