Care and Feeding

My Ex Is Passing Her Bad Food Habits On to Our Kids

I’m worried about their weight, and she won’t listen.

A plate of fried chicken and fries, a burger, and an ice cream cone
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My ex-wife and I divorced three years ago because of irreconcilable differences. We are fairly amicable, but we don’t talk unless it’s related to the kids. Before COVID I had weekends and holidays, and she had weekdays. My mom has cancer and lives with me, so once the pandemic started we agreed that the kids would stay at their mom’s house for the immediate future and my mom and I would have Zoom calls with them every day.

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Now, for some context, my ex has been overweight for pretty much her entire life, even as a young child. Her parents were overweight, and they passed down their habits to her, as it so often goes. By the time we met, she was 250 pounds. Throughout our relationship, I encouraged her to take steps towards a healthier lifestyle, but she never wanted to. Our kids (7 and 10 years old) were on the heavy side of an average weight while my ex and I were still married. When we were together, I did most of the cooking and did my best to make sure that my kids ate nutrient-dense, healthy food, and that junk food was kept as an occasional treat. As we have been separated, though, my kids have slowly gotten more and more overweight.

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It started gradually when we first separated, but COVID changed all that. My ex keeps lots of chips and candy and unhealthy snacks in the house, which they graze on throughout their days, and she hates cooking so they often get fast food or things like Kraft dinner. They’ve always been snackers, and both eat when they’re bored, so all that snacking is a lot of empty calories in their diets. They also haven’t been getting the chance to be physically active since they’ve been stuck at home all day (it’s an apartment, so no backyard or anything). Five months ago, they had a pediatrician visit, and my 10-year-old was in the 92nd percentile for her age, almost obese. About two months ago my mom and I got vaccinated, so we started having the kids back three days a week, and they’ve both gained even more weight since then.

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The sad thing is, they realize the changes and they don’t like them. When I picked up the kids last week, my 10-year-old was crying because a classmate taunted her for her weight. My ex is not responsive to making changes regarding this; I have tried several times to no avail. When they’re here I’ve been trying to re-instill healthy eating habits, but it’s hard. They aren’t used to the things I make, like chicken, turn up their noses at it, and beg for the kinds of things their mom gives them or ask to go for fast food. And any progress I make gets wiped out after four days with their mom. Their mom has gained a lot of weight, too; she looks like she might be over 300 pounds by now. Call me a fat shamer or whatever, but I know that bad eating habits start in childhood and most fat kids become fat adults. I want to nip this in the bud now, but I just don’t know what I can do, either to get my ex to understand the problem and change her habits or to get my kids to be healthy weights again.

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—Dad vs. Food

Dear Dad,

I am going to take you up on your offer to call you a fat shamer or whatever: You are fat-shaming your kids. Your attitude won’t help them change their bodies into smaller bodies, but it will make them unhappier and could lead to serious health problems, mental and physical, both now and down the road into adulthood.

First, the facts: Weight and health don’t have as much to do with each other as we have all been taught to think. There are many unhealthy thin people and many healthy fat people. Being bigger doesn’t automatically mean that your kids aren’t healthy. (I wonder what else your pediatrician said about their health, besides that limited percentile metric?) They are growing, and they are hungry. They’re also living in very difficult circumstances, without a lot of social contact or opportunity to move their bodies. If they’ve been seeking comfort in food, that seems like an understandable response to the pandemic, and I’m glad they have a source of comfort. Your kids aren’t going to be living totally constrained lives with no emotional outlet except snacks forever! Their lives and yours will gradually return to normal.

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When you describe your wife and her parents and your kids’ bodies as “overweight,” and place the blame for this on their “bad habits,” you are ignoring the fact that people come in all different shapes and sizes, and that a lot of that variation is genetically predetermined. It’s very easy for some people to maintain a low weight, and their ability to do so might not have much to do with how they eat or exercise. When we valorize low body weight and treat it as a goal, we’re ignoring the myriad other factors that contribute to overall health. It’s as arbitrary as assigning blue eyes, curly hair, or double-jointedness some kind of inherent moral value.

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You aren’t obligated to change the way you shop and cook, but you must stop trying to get your ex to change your kids’ diets. Stop judging her food choices and her body. You say you can tell your daughter doesn’t like her weight because she complains about being made fun of by a classmate. The problem is her classmate, not her weight. Please, please, if you change nothing else as a response to this letter, make sure that your kid knows that her body is not a problem. Even if you don’t believe this yet, fake it till you make it. Take time to educate yourself about anti-fat bias and intuitive eating because you need this information in order to parent children who are truly healthy, inside and out, at any size.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My ex and I were high school sweethearts who had our daughter right after graduating college. While we were great together as teens in high school and college, we quickly found out that we didn’t bring out the best in each other as young parents, and we ended up separating when our daughter was 1. I still see him as a great friend, and he’s an amazing dad to our now-10-year-old daughter. For the past few years he’s been dating “Marlene,” and I also have no problems with her. She’s taken on a “cool aunt” role to our daughter and is planning on having her be a bridesmaid in her wedding.

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The problem here is Marlene’s mom. She’s a widow, and Marlene is her only child, so she dotes on my daughter and is thrilled to have a “granddaughter-to-be.” I’ve met her a few times and every time she’s been standoffish with me and has tried to correct me in public about things that she thinks my daughter likes or does. Conversations with her usually have her repeatedly interrupting me to point out that no, actually my daughter told her that she likes this thing better, how could I not know that, etc., or saying that my daughter would prefer it if “Grandma was there.” When my ex takes our daughter to visit her, she always comes back with a lot of expensive presents, and when I’ve asked my ex if he could maybe make sure his future MIL refrains from buying four American Girl dolls, he always says he’ll try, but next time she comes back with another bag of toys.

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I feel that my daughter already has four perfectly good grandparents and the extent that Marlene’s mom is trying to insert herself into her life is weird and annoying. I worry that the piles of expensive gifts are to buy my daughter’s love or to show off and that she’ll end up spoiled (or with toys pouring out of both my and my ex’s houses). I’ve tried to talk to Marlene about maybe cutting back on the toys and talking to her mom as well, but she says that her mom is lonely and because she has no other grandkids she’s just overenthusiastic. Should I keep making a fuss about my daughter’s future stepgrandma? Or should I let it be and let the toys and passive-aggressive conversations keep piling up?

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—Spoiled Step-Granny

Dear Spoiled,

Yikes, Marlene’s mom sounds like a nightmare. She’s insecure about her role in your daughter’s life, so she’s overcompensating in ways that are guaranteed to backfire, like trying to buy her affection and simultaneously undermining your parental authority. And it’s also annoying that Marlene and your ex aren’t lifting a finger to stop her, even after you’ve made it clear that you’re uncomfortable. It seems that they have likely taken the path of least resistance, one that Marlene has probably been treading with this woman all her life.

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You have to set your own boundaries with Step-Granny; it will make you feel better, even if it doesn’t change her behavior immediately or ever. “I appreciate that you care a lot about [daughter] and want to be a part of her life, but I’m her mother and I need you to show me more respect” is the general message you need to get across to her. Say this to her as directly as you can, as many times as you need to.

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The overabundance of toys isn’t just a detail or an inconvenience; it’s a deliberate strategy to sow conflict between you and your ex and you and your kid. Talk to Marlene and your ex about this. Make it clear to them that the unwanted gifts put you in the awkward situation of being the bad guy if you refuse them, and that this is a dynamic that Marlene’s mom is creating deliberately. Maybe if they can see that they’re being manipulated, they’ll agree to set some reasonable limits for gift-giving. Even if they don’t get on board, you’ll at least have the peace of knowing that you’ve made your position clear. As time wears on and Marlene’s mom continues to fill their house with American Girl paraphernalia, they may eventually come around.

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• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have four kids, and we live in a four-bedroom house. My husband and I have one room, the 3- and 5-year-olds (3 is a girl, 5 is a boy) have a second, and my 7- and 13-year-olds, both girls, have the third. The last room is the biggest one after the master bedroom, and we have it as a dedicated playroom. I really like having the playroom. For starters, it allows for communal toys—each of the kids has a few toys that are “theirs” but mostly all the toys belong to everyone. It also allows for toy mess to be contained: The playroom itself is horrifically messy, but the kids’ rooms and the other living spaces are much less messy because the kids only play in the playroom. It’s also nice for me because I only have to keep an eye on them in that one room, rather than across the whole house, and they play together a lot.

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Well, the problem is my oldest. She would play with her younger siblings last year, but since the pandemic she’s mostly outgrown toys, at least the kind of toys the younger kids have. She also doesn’t want to share a room with her sister anymore. I empathize with her situation. She’s going through puberty, 13 is a hard age, and sharing a room with a 7-year-old while all that’s going on is not fun. The problem is that she now wants us to convert the playroom to be her room. I am very hesitant to do that. Since everything fun is closed, the playroom is the younger kids’ happy place and place to just relax and not have to worry about Zoom or masks or anything.

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I’m also worried about the tension it will cause. We don’t really have a lot of space downstairs so a lot of the toys and likely some of the furniture (we have a train table, a Little Tikes house, lots of shelving and toy storage, a huge dollhouse, and a play kitchen) will end up in my 7-year-old’s room. She doesn’t like the younger two going in her room, and I already know that it will be a total nightmare trying to navigate the little ones wanting to play with the stuff and the 7-year-old wanting to keep them out. At the same time, like I said, I want to respect my oldest daughter’s need for space … but not at the expense of my youngest three’s playroom. Can you help me navigate a solution here?

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—One Room, Two Room, Bedroom, Playroom

Dear One Room,

I feel like I need access to floor plans to answer this question perfectly, but here are some ideas about how to prioritize everyone’s need for space of their own.

It sounds like both your 13-year-old and your 7-year-old really crave their own space, both away from their younger siblings and away from each other. I don’t know if this is realistic given the dimensions of the playroom, but what if you moved the younger kids’ beds in there and made the smaller two rooms the older girls’ respective bedrooms? Maybe there’s even space to make a sleeping/quiet time area with a bunk bed and a cozy book nook that’s delineated from the rest of the playroom by a curtain. You’ll have to sacrifice the playroom-as-dedicated-disaster-area strategy and get rid of some of the less popular toys, but if the space is big enough to be reconfigured in this way, it seems like a potential solution.

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The other possibility is that you keep the playroom as is and swap your bedroom with the older girls—with the larger space, they can create some kind of partition (maybe with shelving and a couch in the center of the room) so that they’re at least not always in each other’s line of vision. It’s a big sacrifice, but if you’re committed to the dedicated playroom, it seems like the only way out, other than moving or renovating your house.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our baby is turning 1 later this year. Vaccines for COVID-19 are available to the entire state soon, local case numbers are dropping, and the horizon looks bright. We would love to have an outdoor party for our baby, both for his birthday and to introduce him to extended family members who have never met him since he was born during the pandemic. The spouse and I can’t agree on making the vaccine a requirement for attending the party (if you are eligible to be vaccinated). The guest list includes lots of small children who are still too young to be vaccinated. My spouse says since the kids can’t get vaccinated, the least we can do to protect them (other than no party) is make sure the adults are vaccinated, and my spouse wants this to be a requirement on the invitation so that there’s no confusion. Is this pushy? Is this reasonable? Are we totally insane from social deprivation? And if we can make it a requirement, how do you even begin to word that? We are so privileged to even be able to have this conversation; I’m embarrassed and protective and lonely and also so eager for family and friends to meet our baby.

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—Vaccination Gatekeeper

Dear VG,

It seems totally reasonable to me to request that your adult guests be fully vaccinated, but it seems a little weird to put it on the invitation. Are you really inviting so many people that you can’t just call up guests individually and ask them about their vaccination status? It might be awkward, but it could also be a chance to catch up and, if your friends and extended family members are vaccine-wary for any reason, for you and your spouse to encourage them to get vaccinated. If being in the position of unpaid public health PR official doesn’t appeal to you, I understand, and I don’t think it would be wildly irresponsible for you to invite people to an outdoor party without knowing whether they’re immunized. But I’m also sympathetic to your spouse’s desire to have the party be as fun and worry-free as it can possibly be, so that it can feel like a true celebration rather than another fraught half-measure with masks and gloves.

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—Emily

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