Healthy Eating Away from Home

Dear Sharon,

Healthy eating is very important to us and our kids are comfortable with our priority for that. However, our 9-year-old son hangs out a lot with a friend whose parents have a different way of operating apparently. When he’s with them, they give him all kinds of junk to eat and he says he feels uncomfortable turning it down. He’s afraid to be rude and of course to be “different.” I want him to say “no” and feel very strongly about this. It’s my right as his parent to make sure that he stays healthy. I don’t want him eating mass produced jelly donuts with gobs of icing on them as snacks. How can I handle this??? Help!

Dear Parent,

Families often have different parenting styles. Approaches to discipline, bedtimes, entertainment, and of course eating habits can vary widely.

It is often challenging for children, even those older than your son, to negotiate adult expectations and personal beliefs. In fact there have been times when I have had a hard time being graceful when friends have warmly offered me some food that was on my “off-limits” list. This has most often happened in relationship to sweet food – still a common way for people show care and hospitality.

I often suggest that parents help negotiate familial differences by maintaining strong lines of communication with any adults who have contact with their child. This is especially true when a child is spending a lot of time with one particular friend. When parents in separate families have an open and honest relationship there are often ways (although not always easy ones) to talk through differences, reach compromises or simply agree to respect each other wishes when hosting each other’s child. Good talks between parents can result in agreement on dietary guidelines and many other important issues.

Of course 9-year-old children sometimes have friends who have no previous relationship to their family and a variety of circumstances can make it hard to have ongoing contact between parents. If efforts to build a relationship between families fail then the “sticky” issue you describe in your question can become even more complicated.

Practically speaking many parents I know who have run into similar problems have decided to host their children’s friends at their own home as much as possible; perhaps the easiest way to reduce exposure to unwanted food and other parental concerns.

In such situations parents can also help their children by listening to their thoughts on the topic. Sometimes when a 9 year old has an opportunity to think out loud about ways to solve this and other problems they can come up with some creative solutions. It can also be helpful for a parent to listen to their child’s perspective. When a parent takes time to listen, it can help them understand their child’s point of view more fully and can make it easier to work together to solve the problem.

It is true that good eating habits are important to 9 year old boys but maintaining healthy social relationships is also essential to a child’s long term health and well being. If a child is getting a lot out of a friendship, (fun, respect, sharing of ideas, etc.) and there is no way for adult communication or other solutions to resolve parental concerns then dietary and other guidelines might have to be seen as less important than a relaxed relationship with a friend and his family. In fact it can be a sign of strong character when a child has learned to be respectful of someone else’s ideas and culture even if they are different than their own.

I am glad to hear that your family is putting attention on healthy eating! Thinking about a child’s diet is an important part of their long-term health and well-being. Maybe your talks with other parents will help create some solutions that will be good for everyone!