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How to Deal When Grandparents Feed Kids Junk

Grandparents tend to feed grandkids poorly, research shows. Should you care?

I'm not going to lie. I am thoroughly looking forward to giving my grandchildren plenty of sweets and treats. Yes, it's a little early to start thinking about how I'm going to feed my grandchildren. After all, my daughter is only 17. I hope my fantasy doesn't become a reality for at least 10 years. But when it does happen, watch out. I'm going to thoroughly enjoy every ice cream I buy the little ones.

Source: TarasMalyarevich/depositphotos

Turns out, my future self is in good company. Grandparents like spoiling their grandchildren. They are indulgent and permissive, research shows. This is particularly relevant during summer, when kids often spend time with their grandparents.

Parents, of course, vary in how they cope with indulgences. Some parents I know look forward to a little spoiling. Others worry. Will all their hard work fostering good eating habits go down the drain after one extended visit with Grandma?

The good news is that one or two visits, even if they're extended, need not change fundamentally how your children eat. I might even argue that grandparental indulgences can foster healthy eating habits if parents use these visits to teach kids how to incorporate, let's just call it holiday eating, into their diets. Healthy eating lessons abound. Below I list three.

The sad news is that grandparents do not alter their feeding practices when they are frequently the primary feeders. Think of the grandma who regularly helps with childcare. This happens a lot, in the U.S. and in countries around the globe.

It probably comes as no surprise then that when grandparents disregard parental feeding rules/practices, there can be a lot of tension and conflict. Parents I know feel torn. On one hand, they love that grandparents and grandchildren get to spend lot of time together. Parents are grateful, too, that grandparents are available to help with childcare. On the other hand, parents desperately want their children to develop healthy eating habits. What to do?

When grandparents do not have regular feeding responsibilities, I say, let them do what they want. In the long run, and that's what really matters, the bonding/relationship/good memories that are being built are way more important than how many brownies your kids consume. Even if the visit lasts the entire summer.

Letting grandparents do what they want does not mean you have to passively accept whatever happens. On the contrary. Here are three lessons you can teach your kids to prepare them for a lifetime of healthy eating.

1. Talk to your children, no matter how old they are, about the upcoming visit and how many sweets and treats they are likely to consume. Plan ahead for a few days of "clean" eating before and after the visit. It doesn't have to be an equivalent amount of time, i.e. two days of healthy eating for two junk-filled days. Focus on reinforcing the basic principle.

2. Help your children identify and get excited about the special treats, the ones they really love. Maybe even find out when those treats are likely to get eaten. Talk to your kids about the idea of passing up "ordinary" treats and thoroughly enjoying the special ones. But don't make it a requirement. Again, we're going after a principle, strengthening a muscle.

3. Remind your children to pay attention to their tummies. Learning not to overeat during times of abundance is way more important than ensuring your kids always have the healthy stuff.

When grandparents do have regular feeding responsibilities, talk to them about your feeding practices and priorities. Then, instead of asking and expecting grandparents to live up to your standards all the time, differentiate between "regular" feeding times and "grandparent" feeding times (such as Friday afternoons). In this way, everyone will end up with the best of both worlds. Parents will have caregivers who provide reliable, regular healthy meals and grandparents will still have the fun of the indulgence.


Young, K. G., Duncanson, K. and Burrows, T. (2018), Influence of grandparents on the dietary intake of their 2–12‐year‐old grandchildren: A systematic review. Nutr Diet, 75: 291-306. doi:10.1111/1747-0080.12411

About the Author
Dina Rose Ph.D.

Dina Rose, Ph.D., is a sociologist and the author of the book It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating and the blog It's Not About Nutrition.

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