7 Tactics for Talking to Kids' Healthy Habit Saboteurs

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

These tips are helpful Thank you for posting. But Grandparents get very offended when they can’t give kids treats.

I am not a grandparent but my uncle was very upset when he couldn’t give his grandchild a treat at his own house. He would end up sneaking him candy. The children grew up perfectly fit They could be runway models now.

My uncle would call his daughter in law weird and controlling. He was not wrong. She is a little controlling from what he told me.
Family dynamics are hard to figure out.
I appreciate the post but for some reason this is a huge issue for people. It is definitely a family issue that needs to be worked out within the family.
Some are more controlling than others. Report
It’s difficult when most other kids aren’t taught good habits Report
If my in laws lived near us, it would be really hard because they eat horribly. 5-10 desserts always layed out and ready to eat as you pass by them all day long. It’s really hard! They eat donuts for breakfast and then eat HUGE meals every 3-4 hours. Luckily we don’t live close so it is usually only an issue for the 2-3 days we stay there and I try to only monitor myself and not my kids or husband. Report
thanks Report
I had mixed feeling about this article Report
thanks Report
I remember as a child looking for a missing playmate who had gone into my house to use the bathroom. When I walked into the kitchen, she had the “treat drawer” open and was stuffing what she found there into her mouth! Her parents, who didn’t have much money, *never* bought sweets. Although my parents were also financially strapped, they bought a few sweets (mostly cookies), and stored thenm in that drawer. The rule was that I had to ask politely and at an appropriate time (not 5 minutes before supper!). Mom and I always sat down when I got home for cookies and milk and to talk about my day. I didn’t feel deprived, and never forgot my friend’s behavior. Moderation is key. Report
My grandson enjoys youtube he's 5 but he likes educational portions more so than zany crazy. He recently found video that sings what is healthy & not healthy. Well he still eats a nugget here & there he now eats veggies. Train your brain the body will follow Report
Good to know. Report
This is a great article. Report
I am divorced. My kids spend half the summer with their dad. I encourage healthy eating habits (we have our junk food too, but in moderation). I prepare lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. I don't buy highly processed foods. However, when my children go to their dad's he is the complete opposite of me. We struggled with this issue when we were married. The kids are not offered a single fruit or vegetable the entire time they are with him. Little Debbie cakes and soda is breakfast (if they have breakfast). I have talked to my x. He says I can't tell him how to parent our children. It frustrates me that healthy choices are not available. Report
In other words, this article is a road map for how to make your kids binge on junk at every opportunity when out of your sight because you're a control freak. The opening paragraph made me cringe. Yes, lets have the urge to scream because your child enjoyed themselves at a birthday party and ate a cupcake or two. There's no reason why there shouldn't be occasional treats. Report
This article is raising a lot of hackles because it confuses regular caregivers (who may be grandparents) with occasional visits.

It is completely appropriate to have conversations about food, screen time, and other habits with anyone who cares for your children on a regular basis.

Becoming the "food and fun police" for occasional visits to the grandparents', however, is not going to go down well. Barring really damaging behavior (feeding sweets to a diabetic child, for example), a child's diet and habits are made at home, not by those once-a-month or once-a-year visits to the grandparents'.

We have a standing rule of "what happens at Grandma's stays at Grandma's" - I don't want to know what they ate or didn't eat, other than to know they had something offered at each meal. Our two "hard" rules:

1. Don't use food as a reward. Ever. Period. The End. No "just eat that, and you'll get dessert" or "if you're good, we'll go out for ice cream".

2. Offer, never push. If the kid's hungry, the kid will eat. One of mine hardly ever eats breakfast, but loves dinner. The other eats a huge breakfast, and sometimes just has a glass of milk or nothing for dinner. There's nothing wrong with either of them.

The only time we had to come down on grandparents was when we were living with my in-laws for 5 months while looking for a house after a move, and I had to ask her to stop offering the kids cookies after school and to not give them snacks constantly (she'd do this thing where she'd give them pretzels or crackers in an unending supply starting at about 3pm, then make all these comments when neither of them wanted to eat dinner - they filled up on pretzels, of course they're not hungry!). But after we moved out - what I don't know isn't going to hurt them when they only see her once a month or so. Report
People are getting a bit heated. This is advice. That might fit your family or might not. You don't have to follow it if it's not a fit to your family. But it might fit others. Report


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.