Care and Feeding

My Husband’s Horrific Eating Habits Are Rubbing Off on Our Kid

A man holds a slice of pizza.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ridofranz/iStock/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 husband has a very limited number of dishes he is willing to eat. It’s pretty much: burgers, mac and cheese, pizza, and chicken fingers. Basically the children’s menu of any chain family restaurant. He’s not a super taster (he eats olives on his pizza and drinks coffee), and he doesn’t have texture issues (he dips his fries in mayo and his pizza crusts in ranch like it’s going out of style). He’s just very limited in what he eats. These self-imposed limitations on his diet have caused so many problems for him. He doesn’t want to attend work events, weddings, or extended family celebrations because he doesn’t think there will be anything that he’ll want to eat. He doesn’t want to try any new restaurants and sticks to chains where he knows his “food groups” will be represented. I know it’s bad, and he knows it’s bad, but there’s no changing him so we just live with it.

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The problem is I see his food choices potentially impacting our son. Our son is 5, and I have taught him to like a variety of foods. My husband used to work outside of the home—he would work long hours so he often ate his meals outside of the home or late in the evening when my son was already in bed. He’s now in a job where he works from home. He obviously wants to eat his meals with us, so I’ll make the varied meals for myself and our son while my husband will heat up a pizza or chicken fingers for himself. Our son has now started balking at the food he used to love, and he wants to eat what daddy is eating. The whining and complaining is becoming a constant source of frustration at meal times. I do occasionally make all of us pizza or mac and cheese, but I don’t want him eating those every day.

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My husband has suggested that we allow our son to make his own choice—whether he feels like the meal I prepared or the “kid menu” meal my husband is eating. My husband thinks our son will soon get bored of eating the limited foods and will eventually return to the more varied diet he used to love. I’m concerned that if we try this out, I’ll have two very limited eaters in our house, and I really don’t want that restrictive lifestyle for our son. I see how problematic it is for my husband. What should I do?

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—Varied Eater

Dear Varied,

Your son might eat pizza and nuggets for a while, but he will eventually get bored and resume eating the other foods you offer, as long as you continue to offer them. That’s because he’s already shown that he doesn’t have the condition I think your husband has, which is known as ARFID, avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder. This disorder is not widely known, but it’s real and can be treated, and treatment is often covered by insurance. People with ARFID eat only a very limited group of “safe” foods, usually children’s menu staples like the ones you describe. It’s tricky to treat, but the good news is that, especially in its milder forms, it’s more socially disruptive than it is damaging to its sufferers’ health.

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So that’s the good and bad news, and of course you shouldn’t take an online advice columnist’s diagnosis as the last word on this matter (I am obviously not a doctor, after all!). If you and your husband start to do research and feel like this diagnosis fits, great; if not, you are welcome to your money back ($0). I learned about this disorder from Virginia Sole-Smith’s great book The Eating Instinct, by the way, which has a whole chapter of interviews with people who have ARFID, many of whom have kids. Their descriptions of the ways they navigate family mealtimes might be really helpful for you to read, too.

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Want more advice? Check out Pay Dirt, Slate’s newest column tackling thorny questions on money and relationships. Read the first column here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My son Stevie has been BFFs with Andy since they were in grade school (they’re high schoolers now). We know Andy’s parents well, and they’re very nice but Andy and his siblings are generally “undersupervised” and the kids have always been given a huge amount of freedom to decide how they spend their time. As a result, the kids’ home life seems pretty chaotic (parents disengaged, lots of extra kids in the house at all hours, etc.). In fact, in middle school, Andy spent most weekends at our house because, I think, it is relatively tranquil and he got a lot of undivided attention from my son.

Now the boys are in high school, and we’ve heard through the grapevine that Andy has been smoking a lot of pot. We’re not thrilled with this, but we trust Stevie to make good decisions, and as far as we can tell, he’s earned our trust (again, via the grapevine and our own monitoring). Once the boys hit high school, sleepovers with my son and a few other boys at Andy’s house became a regular thing. Again, not thrilled with this (zero parent supervision), but we trust our son. The sleepovers stopped at the beginning of the pandemic.

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Here’s the thing: Last year, Andy’s older brother, a young adult still living at home, was shot in the middle of the night at the house. We don’t know the details, but we are certain it was drug-related (i.e., not random). The brother miraculously survived. We were heartbroken and horrified to hear about the shooting, and we did what we could in the aftermath to support the family. Soon thereafter, the family left town for safety and to avoid traumatizing the kids further.

We are now hearing that Andy’s family is returning to town this summer. Andy, Stevie, and their buddies will resume hanging out together. We are OK with this. However, I differ from my husband on where they can hang out. I want them to avoid Andy’s house during the day, and I don’t want him sleeping over at Andy’s house under any circumstances. I can’t get past that it’s highly likely my kid would have been at their house when the shooting occurred, had it not been for the pandemic. What parent in their right mind would risk a possible repeat? Shootings and drug-related crimes are not part of my life experience; I have no capacity to determine if there is still a safety risk even if we’ve heard that “the guy has been caught.” My husband thinks these restrictions are too draconian. He feels bad for Andy for what he’s gone through, and he wants to respect that our son and Andy are best friends. He’s also afraid of damaging our relationship with Stevie. But I only want to limit where they get together, not if they get together. Can you back me up on this?

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—Risk-Averse Mom

Dear Risk-Averse,

Your husband is wrong. You should not let Stevie sleep over at Andy’s house, where there is parental supervision so demonstrably limited that one time someone got shot there. Daytime might prove to be a bit more challenging. Teenagers are typically going to do what they want, so it is definitely in your best interest to rekindle your relationship with Andy’s parents and make it clear to them what your rules are. You and your husband need to get on the same page about these rules so that you can enforce them together. Decide in advance what the consequences will be if Stevie is found to be hanging out at Andy’s house, then enforce those rules.

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Impress on your husband that the most effective way of keeping your relationship with Stevie healthy is to be honest with him about your expectations, and consistent with him about your rules.  Keep talking to Stevie, and to Andy, and to his parents, and do everything that you can to make your house a welcoming place for these high schoolers to hang out. It might be that the appeal of Andy’s house to Stevie was its lawlessness. If that’s the case, you might consider becoming slightly more lenient yourselves, or at least enacting some kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell policies and granting Stevie some privacy, within reason. If you end up making compromises about your own house rules, you will be making them in the name of Stevie’s and Andy’s overall physical safety.

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I don’t agree on the amount of risk we’re comfortable exposing our 19-month-old daughter to, COVID-wise. We are both vaccinated, but my husband has stated that he does not plan to change his habits until our daughter is vaccinated. (She does not have any underlying heath issues.) We take precautions with masks and don’t plan to stop anytime soon, and we don’t take my daughter anywhere except to my in-laws’ house (they watch her during the day), and to the playground and on walks around town. Things are improving in our state, and most of our friends and family are vaccinated, but he will not agree to visit indoors with unmasked vaccinated people unless they basically go into quarantine for a week before the visit because of the slight risk of a vaccinated person transmitting the virus to our daughter. Needless to say, he is extremely risk averse.

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I am less so and think that as long as we follow the CDC’s guidelines, we’ll be keeping our daughter safe. This has caused some tension with my side of the family, who don’t understand why the recommended precautions don’t seem to be enough for us. I feel uncomfortable asking vaccinated people to quarantine for a week, and this requirement is going to keep us from seeing family for a very long time. I respect my husband’s concerns, but I don’t share them, and I’m not sure I can keep living this way until our daughter is vaccinated, whenever that is! Am I being a jerk?

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—So Tired of COVID

Dear Tired,

No, you’re not being a jerk at all! Your husband, on the other hand … well, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to when his main concern seems to be the vanishingly rare possibility that vaccinated adults would be able to transmit COVID to your daughter. It might be helpful for your husband to read the CDC’s guidance, or this primer on life with unvaccinated kids could be helpful, too.

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Post-COVID anxiety is real and increasingly well documented, and while I might be reading too much into your husband’s “risk-aversion,” I think there’s a more than slim chance he’s suffering from it. His requirements are not rational, and they’re affecting you in a way that I would find extremely frustrating in your shoes. If you can muster the strength, dig deep and find empathy for him; even if he doesn’t see things your way and doesn’t want to get help with his anxiety, this will help you get through the next few months. Regardless of what he chooses, you shouldn’t continue to let his irrational fears outweigh your need to socialize as normally as possible. It’s not an optional luxury, it’s your life, and right now you need as much support outside the context of your relationship with him as you can get.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old daughter has always been terrible about taking medicine of any kind. Luckily, she’s been very healthy, but on the rare occasion that she’s needed medicine, it’s always a struggle. She was diagnosed with ADHD last year, and we decided to give medication a try a few months ago. I knew it would be tough, but I thought that if she took medicine every single day, she’d eventually get in the habit and take it with minimal complaint. Instead, she’s getting more and more resistant. I’ve tried sticker charts and prizes. I’ve tried mixing it into strawberry ice cream or chocolate pudding. I’ve tried working with her to learn to swallow a pill. I’ve talked to her in calmer moments about how the medicine makes her feel, just in case she’s experiencing negative effects that I wasn’t aware of. Nothing has worked for more than a day, and the only reason she’ll give me is that she doesn’t want to take it “because it’s medicine.” She ends up taking it most days, but only after crying, whining, and fighting about it for an hour or more. The daily power struggle is exhausting, it’s hurting our relationship, and it’s taking time away from my other kids, who also need my attention. But this medication is working well, when she takes it. Besides being able to do schoolwork in a reasonable amount of time, she can focus on things she enjoys, like making art. She even seems happier. How can we deescalate this situation without giving up on medication?

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—A Spoonful of Sugar Isn’t Cutting It

Dear Spoonful,

If your doctor gives this approach the OK, let your daughter go without the medication for a bit, but let her know that you’re expecting this to have a negative impact on her moods and her ability to do her schoolwork. Then, check in with her a few times a day about how she feels without it and see if you can’t eventually get her to acknowledge that she’s having a harder time without it. I know this seems like it might be unrealistic, in terms of the self-awareness that a kid this age is capable of, but it’s worth a try. Maybe with some prompting from you, and some great timing in terms of catching her at moment where she’s calm and capable of introspection, she’ll start to understand where you’re coming from. Even if that doesn’t work, the break from the exhausting fighting will give you both a chance to rest and get your relationship back onto less of a contentious footing. Even if you end up going head to head with her again, you’ll at least have had that break.

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You didn’t mention considering this approach, but in case you’re considering sneaking the meds into a food or drink without telling her, I would not go that route. Though it’s tempting, I don’t think it’s worth the loss of trust that could ensue if she finds out that she’s been taking medication without knowing it. If we were talking about a drug that, for example, prevented seizures, I might feel differently, but the stakes aren’t high enough here to justify deceiving your daughter.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

Recently, another mother told me her son (let’s call him Joe) seems to have some difficulty fitting in with other kids. The boy’s mom stopped me and thanked me for having such a kind daughter (Jane) who was nice to her son when very few other kids had been, and always made him feel included. I was really proud of Jane when I heard that—I was a bullied kid and I’m glad to know that she has taken my lessons to heart about being kind. But now Joe is calling her his girlfriend and won’t leave her alone. What should I do?

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