Nutrition Articles

7 Tactics for Talking to Kids' Healthy Habit Saboteurs

Efficient Ways to Ensure Caretakers Reinforce Health

It can be super frustrating when you work hard to establish healthy habits at home, only to have a well-meaning caregiver come along and undermine them. And grandparents aren't the only guilty parties—babysitters, friends' parents, camp counselors, divorced spouses, sports coaches, neighbors, aunts and uncles all have the power to sabotage your efforts.
Common Health Offenses
Food is probably the biggest point of contention. When you've made it a point to provide healthy, balanced meals and nutritious snacks, you might indeed want to scream when your kids announce that the nanny let them have ice cream for lunch, that Jimmy's mom regularly hands out cans of sugary soda or that Saturday's birthday party featured multiple cupcakes and candy-filled goody bags.
Another common transgression is letting kids watch television while eating. "Distracted eating is one of the worst habits for both adults and kids," says dietitian Tricia Silverman of NuTricia's Lifestyles. "It promotes overeating through a loss of the mind-body connection that tells us we have eaten and when we're getting full."
Then there are the offenders who may be more budget-conscious than health-conscious. "These people may be telling kids to 'clean the plate,'" says Silverman. "This old adage promotes kids eating beyond their natural fullness points, which can lead to difficulty in maintaining a healthy weight in the future. Children should be allowed to honor their hunger and fullness levels. Leftovers can be wrapped up for later or the following day."
And the rules can just as easily be broken in other areas, like screen time, sun exposure, pool behavior, bicycle safety, driving protocol and more.
If it makes you feel any better, you're not alone in the struggle. Lisa Andrews, owner of Sound Bites Nutrition, says that parents often have different ideas about how much sugar, junk food or screen time their kids have. "Most parents prefer that their kids have role models for good health and are not spoiled," she says. "Caregivers should be active in their care when possible."
Read on for some expert-provided tips for setting, and enforcing, healthy guidelines when your kids are in someone else's care.
1. Communicate kindly, clearly and firmly.
Don't assume that the people caring for (or entertaining) your children know about your health and safety policies. Andrews stresses the importance of communicating your boundaries and expectations, but recommends approaching the topic graciously, starting on a positive note and providing concrete examples of appropriate rewards.
"You might say something like, 'While I appreciate that you enjoy giving my daughter treats, I'm concerned that she's getting too much sugar in her diet. Please don't reward her with treats. She really enjoys earning stickers or going to the park to play.'"
Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says it's best to broach the topic before any incidents occur. "Setting your family members' expectations about your parenting style ahead of time will help to avoid uncomfortable incidents," she says. "If you do find that a family member isn't following your wishes, try to wait to discuss it until later so it's less threatening."
Explaining the effects junk food has on your kids can also work to your advantage, says Silverman. "If the babysitter is told the offensive food will keep the kids from falling asleep or will make them feel sick, this is good motivation for them to follow the rules." If the child's family has a history of obesity or chronic illness, such as diabetes or high cholesterol, you may want to add that to your explanation. Hold these conversations outside of the children's earshot, so the topic of food doesn't seem contentious to them.
The most important thing is to be kind and to avoid attacking the person, says Rumsey. "Be complimentary, then state your concerns politely, offer help and follow-up as needed," she says. "Start off by saying that you know he or she has the child's best interest in mind, and express thanks for all that they do for your children."
2. Provide alternate suggestions.
Grandparents and other relatives often use food and treats as a gesture of love or entertainment. To prevent this, give family members other ideas, such as spending time together playing sports, reading a book, cooking, fishing or gardening.
"If relatives are using food as a reward, perhaps they can buy a toy or game instead," says Silverman. "In my home, good behavior is rewarded with stickers on a sticker sheet, and my kids can earn special toys or experiences, such as going to an arcade or movie by earning a certain number of stickers. Grandparents and babysitters can also grant stickers to help kids earn rewards."
3. Assume a position of authority.
Toby Amidor, nutrition expert and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen, says it's important to remember that you are the boss when hiring a babysitter or caretaker for your child. "During the initial interview, you should make your feeding philosophy clear to them."
Be confident in your tone and demeanor when outlining your expectations. "New parents tend to be more insecure and sensitive—not always, but sometimes," says family therapist Lisa Bahar. "Be gentle, listen for their opinions and answers, use an easy manner—but remain firm with convictions and requests."
For non-family caregivers, Bahar cautions against getting too close. "Avoid getting too personal or becoming too friendly," she says. "It may compromise the relationship and tends to cause more challenges. Although this may change over time, remain the boss for an extended period of time, to set the standard."
4. Get it in writing.
When hiring a sitter or nanny, it's best to outline your policies and expectations in writing.

"Ideally, babysitters should sign a contract before taking on the role," says Bahar. "References should be checked and clear guidelines provided, as well as awareness of being tape recorded (some states need consent) if there are cameras. The sitter should be fully informed of such precautions, to monitor any potentially dangerous situations."
If you hired a caregiver through an agency, the agency should take care of these types of details, and can help with handling any breaches of contract.
For grandparents and other family members, consider creating an informal "cheat sheet" with your expectations (more on that later).
5. Balance the bad stuff with good stuff at home.
If you know your child will be with a grandparent or uncle who might feed them some junk food despite your best efforts, you can make the decision to cut out that stuff at home. "You're aware of what your family member or friend feeds your child, so you have control to balance the other meals your child is eating before and after they go there," says Amidor. "If there is too much of a pull with your family, they may feed your child junk despite you. So it’s really a sensitive balance."
6. Provide a list of approved foods.
"Healthy snacks" can mean very different things to two different people. To eliminate the guesswork, Amidor recommends making a list of specific snacks. "Providing actual brand names helps caregivers shop before the child arrives," she says. "That way you provide the snacks you approve and the kids enjoy, so it’s a win-win situation."
Amidor recommends filling but kid-friendly snacks, such as Justin’s Classic Almond Butter and pretzels, Laughing Cow Cheese Dippers, Wholly Guacamole Minis with Way Better Sprouted Tortilla Chips or Chobani Kids Squeeze Yogurts.
7. Master the art of the compromise.
Even with the best of intentions and crystal-clear communication, there will be times when you have to give up a little control and have faith that everything will be okay.
"It’s a fight that every parent goes through. I even go through it with my own mother, who is also a registered dietitian," Amidor says. "At the end of the day, you want to make eating a healthy and happy experience for your child, and that may mean compromising once in awhile so they don’t feel bad about what other people serve them."
Cheat Sheet for Healthy Practices
If verbal conversations just aren't cutting it, you may want to provide a written document that outlines your specific policies and expectations. Below are just a few examples of items to include, although yours may look differently:
  • Examples of acceptable breakfast/lunch/dinner choices
  • A list of approved snacks
  • Appropriate portion sizes (i.e. what your child's plate should look like)
  • Do's and don'ts for the pool, park and any other areas of play
  • Nap schedule for younger children
  • Limits on screen time (less than 60 min/day) if possible
  • Limits on caregiver's use of phone, TV and other distracting media
  • Required amount of active play time (with supervision)
  • Food allergies to monitor
  • Suggestions for other ways to entertain and/or show love: Toys, games, stickers, reading books, active play, etc.
  • Non-negotiables for your family, such as no eating in the living room, no candy, no soda/sports drinks, no PG or R movies, etc.
  • Boredom-busting activities (to prevent eating out of lack of entertainment): Organize books/toys, clean their room, color, do a craft, dance, do exercise, play outside, etc.
Rumsey recommends visiting the Real Mom Nutrition blog, which offers some great resources on joining the "snactivism" movement, including sample letters and verbiage to use when broaching the topic.

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Member Comments

  • I want my kids to be healthy and have healthier habits and relationships with foods that I did/do. I don't think this the way to achieve that. I think there are times when "junk" is appropriate for a healthy person. Teaching them to make better decisions is my focus. I don't give ice cream as an option for dinner, but that doesnt mean they never get it.
  • As a Grandma/caregiver we've had the opposite problem -- Mom, esp, bringing a lot of sugary food in the car that we don't serve. I've had to strictly ask them to leave it in the car. They actually ended up with a problem with the kid's baby teeth going bad due to the food habits they allowed. They also allowed a lot of TV/movie/game time that we had to put on limits about and try to ask them not to bring it out of the car. The list was always ongoing. It was not easy.
    At this point, not so much as a caregiver - we are still viewed as the less exciting grandparents due to the stark contrast from home. We try to be positive and really think we provide lots of wonderful alternatives when given the freedom to try!
  • Well, I am a lucky grandmother to three adorable and brilliant grandchildren, if I do say so myself and I have just the opposite son and wonderful DIL seem to know little about nutrition and (I think) feel guilty about working so much so buy way to many sweets, donuts, chips, ice cream, etc.
    These kids think every meal should end in dessert and every cereal should be sugared.
    Things are very different at my house!
    (Except when my hubby sneaks the treats in).
    Sure enough, my oldest, a just turned eight girl is getting very very chubby!
  • Chances are grandparents know just as much about healthy eating as anybody else. When I get treats for my grandchildren I read labels, and when we have family dinners I serve healthy foods and desserts. They're still small enough to think a bowl of berries is wonderful. And having cake and candy at a birthday party is not a big deal as long as it isn't every day.
  • RETURNER2000
    Love the advice to make sure the hired help knows their place. (sarcasm) These guidelines are too rigid and controlling.
  • This article screams "Control Freak Alert!" to me. We limit screen time, junk food, etc. at home, but allow our kids to splurge occasionally on vacation, at grandma's, at a friend's birthday party. To me, it's not a big deal. Honestly, the guidelines in this article sound like a great way to trigger an eating disorder. Moderation, people!
  • You know what happens when you instill rigid guidelines like this for your kids, from which there is no reprieve (not even at GRANDMA'S house???)?
    As soon as they're out of your sight, they're going to eat as much of the stuff you tell them they can't have as they can wrangle. They're going to smuggle it in to your house. Kids like to rebel - - this makes it WAY too easy.
    Leave grandparents and favorite aunts out of it. Likewise friends' houses and events away from home. Unless there is a serious health concern or an allergy, this is kind of unnecessary rigidity is just going to create problems in the long run.
  • i agree with the above comment that grandparents should be allowed to spoil the kids with a few treats. I always loved going to my grandma's house where we would bake cookies and get candy treats that we didn't get at home. and she let us watch more tv. As long as it doesn't get out of hand and the kids know that they have to eat healthy at home and follow rules, I think relatives should be allowed to do a little spoiling of the kids.
  • This article is about 16 years too late for our family...
  • Not a fan of this article. Wouldn't trade anything for the time my children spent at their Grandparents on both sides of the family. I am glad I didn't worry about whether they were given a bowl of ice cream or a candy bar or lots of pizza which they were.

    All three of my children are grown and of healthy weight and I never policed any of their food. They eat all kinds of food in moderation and exercise for fun, just like they did when they were kids.

    If you want to police food at home fine, but leave grandparents out of it. Let them have their fun and memories.

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.