My parents are a nutritionist's dream come true. They regularly eat quinoa, kale, and flaxseed; grow their own vegetables; and, as a general rule, feed us extremely well whenever we visit. Of course, they have a real soft spot for their grandkids, which is often communicated in the form of treats. And even though they get the best of the best when it comes to kid snacks — organic fruit snacks, hormone-free chocolate milk, whole-grain bunnies — our biannual visits have often felt like treat-loading. At least, that's how I used to feel.
When my daughter was a younger toddler and hadn't yet had many added sugars or packaged foods, I obsessed about it. I hated that fruit snacks were taking the place of her normal snacks (which included actual fruit), and I worried that the more flavorful chocolate milk was going to make it hard to convince her to go back to the plain white kind when we got home.
Her mood swings were also less than ideal. And while I can't say whether they were from the sheer excitement of being somewhere new (and the correlating lack of sleep) or the result of sugar crashes from inconsistent eating, I thought that the availability of treats was probably not helping her behavior. In my desperate moments, I even wondered if eating this way for a week would reset her taste buds forever. Would she ever eat vegetables again?
I was being crazy, I know.
I've come to realize that my discomfort over what other people were feeding my daughter was actually about control — or more accurately, my lack of control. I was more worried about whether I had done a good job of setting her up to handle a treat-heavy situation than I was about her actual intake. Would my endless preaching about letting kids decide what to eat and trusting their hunger cues actually work in this foreign food environment? Would I look like a failure if my daughter threw up after running around, high on the sugar from fruit snacks?
I also now appreciate that grandparents (and other relatives) buy special food because it's a fun way to show that they care — not because they want to undermine my efforts to raise a healthy eater. They know that my daughter will be excited about her treat because it's something she doesn't normally have at home. In fact, I am also guilty when we randomly decide to go out for ice cream on a Sunday or bake cookies some afternoon. It's just that then, I'm the one who's in control.
These days, my strategy is to take a step back and do little more than remind my mom to try to add a little protein to a snack to help my girl from crashing an hour later (and nobody likes a toddler tantrum). I'm much happier during our visits, and my daughter, without feeling any pressure or guilt around her food choices, enjoys herself more too.
I'm not advocating that sound nutrition go out the window whenever relatives are involved — especially if they are regular caregivers — but I'm now able to see that these experiences where my daughter is exposed to foods that are different than the ones we typically eat at home are, in fact, teaching her something valuable. She's learning self-control and moderation. She's figuring out that there are foods that we eat less often to celebrate special occasions. She doesn't actually expect a parade of treats to appear at every weeknight dinner when we're at home, and she still eats plenty of vegetables.
I've even come to hope that when she's an adult, she'll think back fondly on her favorite bunny fruit snacks in the purple package — just like I get nostalgic for the animal cracker boxes with the red circus scene that my own grandparents packed for me whenever we went to the beach.