When Parents Aren’t in Sync About Food

Q: My kids visit me (the dad) pretty much every weekend, and I’m committed to feeding them nutritious food and teaching them about being healthy. But their mom, who’s responsible for them during the week, lets them eat whatever they want. I don’t want their visits with me to turn into “food fights” – any advice on how to handle this situation?

A: You’re describing a situation that occurs in just about every modern family, whether separated, divorced, one-parent, same-sex, or any variation thereof. The real answer to “what makes a family” is, of course, conflict.

You face some extra challenges, such as not turning feeding time into a weapon with which to attack your ex, about which I’m so unqualified to speak that I won’t. (But if I did, you’d realize that I’d be making it up as I go along.)

So let’s look at the basic dynamics of the situation and try to figure something out. (Gosh, is that me still trying to make it up as I go along?)

Dynamic #1: Different States of Awareness

Let’s face it; not everyone’s as enlightened as you are. (After all, there are fewer than 6 billion subscribers to this newsletter :)) So there’s a good chance that you and whoever else is taking responsibility for feeding your kids will have different priorities and different knowledge and different capabilities and different beliefs. Hence, different approaches.

And we all have different emotions tied to food. For some parents, taking the kids out for ice cream is symbolic of the fun-filled and generous spirit they want to share. For other parents, ice cream looks more like poison, and letting kids actually ingest the stuff is the equivalent of letting them smoke Benson and Hedges.

The biological truth is seldom the main motivator, at least until biological discomfort becomes the main motivator. As long as your kids look healthy, you’re not going to be inclined to worry about their cancer or diabetes risk down the line – unless you are. And then the task becomes, educating your partner(s) in child-rearing without treating them to…

Dynamic #2: The Irritation of Zealotry

Yes, that’s right, kids. Your humble correspondent has, in his lifetime, been accused of being ever-so-slightly over the top in his eagerness to share his knowledge with others.

OK, so it happens pretty much all the time. Whenever I learn something new, or re-learn something that makes a big impression on me, I shout it from the rooftops like a drunken missionary. And the newer it is to me, the more annoying (so I’m told) I become.

The best thing to do when you feel a sermon coming on is to share it, if you must, as something interesting you’re discovering, rather than God’s truth that was whispered in your ear. Phrases like, “I never realized…”, “I was amazed to hear…”, and “I’m skeptical, but so far I’ve lost 27 pounds, my cholesterol is 124, and an exploratory committee was just set up to convince me to run for President…” are all useful.

Think like a marketer here. Pay attention to the infomercials’ formula for testimonials from regular folks. They all start by saying the things that we the audience are thinking, like, “When I heard about Nose-Off, I didn’t believe that it would literally wipe the nose off my face. But I heard about their money-back guarantee, and so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just give it try – what do I have to lose except for this awful nose of mine.’ And, boy, I’m glad I did! Look – in just two weeks, my nose is almost completely gone.”

When you’re trying to convince someone else to change based on “insider information” (stuff you know and they don’t), act like an explorer, not a guide. Your job is to get them thinking, not convinced.

Also, as a marketer, focus on what your kids want, not what you want. Are they athletes? Performers? Scholars? Musicians? Are they dating? Surely it’s not a leap to suggest that excellent health, immunity from annoying colds and flus, and a lean body are advantages in the pursuit of these and other desirable outcomes?

Dynamic #3: Addiction and Toxic Withdrawal

This dynamic refers specifically to the challenge faced by the questioner – how can I get kids who eat junk from Monday to Friday suddenly choosing broccoli and sweet potatoes on the weekend?

The sad answer – you really can’t. Not unless you want your kids’ memories of you to resemble a rehab center that they continually check into. Preferences and parenting and psychology aside, your kids will begin toxic withdrawal from their addictive diets approximately four hours after eating their last junky meal. They (and the rest of the world) interpret this feeling as hunger, but it isn’t.

If you offer a healthy diet to a child in this state, without allowing any recourse to what they’re addicted to (salt, sugar, caffeine, fat, whatever), you’ll have the pleasure of watching them begin to detox in front of you. Sometimes tough love is an option, but why bother when you’re just going to have to repeat the whole sorry scene next week?

Dynamic #4: Vitality wins the Clio

The Clio, of course, is the advertising industry’s award for the best commercial (I had to look that up). If you want to convince someone to be like you, the best strategy is for you to look like a you that people want to be like (can you believe I used to get A’s in English?). If you’re all strict and a bummer and judgmental, that’s not exactly an attractive vision. (After my 7-day water fast last week, I became a total jerk for a week after that. Apparently I gave fire-and-brimstone sermons to my children on the evils of salt, although all I remember of the affair was an offhand comment on the relationship between high sodium content and heart disease. My daughter has been begging me to eat ever since.)

You want to be a walking advertisement, both to your kids and to the other adults who feed them, along the lines of “If you want what I’ve got, do what I’ve done.” And even then, don’t except anything. As Robin Williams said of some hunky Hollywood leading man, “I would do anything to look like him… except exercise, eat right, and get enough rest.”

Dynamic #5: Little Stones, Big Ripples

So, depressed yet? Sounds like you don’t have much leverage over how your kids eat, huh?

Well, here are a few suggestions.

I’m not saying don’t introduce real food to your kids. By all means, shop with them, cook with them, if you can garden with them (even indoors, you can grow herbs and sprouts and cute little lemon trees that will give you one stinking piece of fruit every four years – oops, sorry about that), and you can educate them as to the wide variety of good stuff the Universe has planted on this sphere for our enjoyment and benefit.

But you may need to “fortify” that food with some junk. Dairy, processed foods, fatty meats – go for the minimum, but don’t except to get away with a purely healthy menu. Try adding unnoticeable traces of goodness: if you cook rice, make it 10% brown rice. If they don’t complain (or notice), go to 20% next time. And so on.

Throw a single lettuce leaf into the dessert smoothie. Next week, double the amount. Reduce the amount of oil in the stir-fry by replacing it with water or broth. Make chocolate chip cookies with oat flour and bananas instead of white flour and eggs.

The thing is, you may not have a hugely noticeable impact now. But good eating is a lifetime endeavor. If you can’t impact the present the way you’d like, rest assured that by being motivating but not annoying, a role model instead of a drill sergeant, a competent provider rather than a pleasure-depriving whiner, at some point your kids will remember your example and know what to do.

Good luck!

(Note to self – reread this article daily.)

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