Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Is Hellbent on Turning My Kid Into a Picky Eater

I do not want my child ending up like this finicky, fast-food addicted woman.

An older woman makes a gross face at a plate of broccoli.
Photo illustraton by Slate. Photo by Fabio Camandona/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother-in-law has severe anxiety and food issues, and all of the culinary fears, according to my husband, are psychosomatic. She has had: IBS, gluten intolerance, constipation, heartburn, etc. She can only eat certain prepackaged foods, overcooked chicken, and foods from specific chain restaurants, including fast food. Even when I make the exact prepackaged foods my MIL can have, she still refuses to eat. At my wedding, we went to great pains to make sure she could eat at this five-star restaurant, but she didn’t touch the entree and left early to get Wendy’s. The biggest issues are that my MIL is convinced there’s something wrong with the foods she won’t eat, and she’s pretty racist when it comes to foreign foods. She’s very vocal about her preferences and fears.

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None of this was an issue until COVID-19, and our 4-year-old daughter had to stay with my in-laws for a few days a week after daycare shut down. She used to be an adventurous eater until she spent a lot of time around my MIL. Now things like eggs, shrimp, tomatoes, peanut butter, and salad are “yucky and gross.” She insists that things she’s never tried are horrible, and she only wants fast food. That extends to sweet things, too, like caramel, whipped cream, cheesecake, and apple pie. My daughter “hated” brownies for the longest time until she accidentally tried one. Now she loves them. The pediatrician says my daughter will grow out of it because all kids do. But my husband never really did, and he still believes seafood gives people food poisoning. I don’t see a whole lot of options because eating something different has become an uphill battle that’s reset every time we eat with my in-laws. “You ate Thai? You never know what meat they really use!” My in-laws are local so we see them frequently. How can I get my kid to ignore my MIL’s food issues and just try a $@*&ing peach?

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— Eat the Food, Tina

Dear Eat the Food,

To the best of your ability, try to avoid meals during your time together with your in-laws. Plan activities where you all can hang out without going to a restaurant or sitting down at home to eat. Your daughter is quite young, but I think you should start the conversation with her about her grandmother’s food aversions. Explain to her that her grandmother has certain issues that make most foods unappealing to her, but that she herself does not have these concerns. Emphasize the fact that there are millions of different types of food, and that she is going to miss out on many yummy things by refusing to be open-minded about trying new ones. Don’t bend to her newfound interest in fast food. Continue to serve her a diverse menu of items and encourage her to try them. Remind her that she didn’t know she liked brownies until she had them, and that she can’t know how she feels about something until she’s had it.

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When your daughter gets older, you can talk to her more openly about her grandmother’s disordered eating, but I would avoid getting too deep into those issues now. However, you should correct the things she’s been known to say about ethnic foods. Let your daughter know that people of all backgrounds make delicious foods, and one of the great things about this country is the fact that we get to experience different cuisines made by different people.  Hopefully, your pediatrician is correct and this will just be one of many stages your little one goes through and grows out of without any real problems.

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Additionally, make sure your husband is on the same page with you regarding your daughter’s diet. Gently point out that he seems to have inherited some of his mother’s pickiness as it relates to food, and that it’s important that your daughter has a healthier relationship to eating. As far as your MIL goes, he (or both of you) should also speak to her about how her approach to food is impacting your child. It sounds as though she is navigating an eating disorder or other psychological challenge, so I don’t want to suggest that she’ll be on board with keeping her thoughts on good and bad foods to herself when your little one is around. However, I still think that there should be conversation with her and the request should be made that she does her best to limit her food talk during family time. If she isn’t willing to at least try, you may want to reconsider leaving your daughter in her care on a regular basis, as her influence has already proven to be troublesome.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice From Jamilah Each Week

From this week’s letter, I Asked My Mom to Do One Simple Thing Around My Kids. She Exploded: “She came to my house today screaming that I’m ‘keeping her babies from her,’ shoved me, and said every horrible thing she could think of.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My best friend just committed suicide. What do I tell my kids? A gentle lie, like “his heart stopped working” might make them more scared for me. “He was very sad…” I can’t bring myself to finish that phrase. He loved them, they loved him, it wasn’t enough. Kids are 10 and 12.

Heartbroken, Horrified, and Angry

Dear Heartbroken,

I am so, so deeply sorry for your loss. I hope that you will, if you haven’t already, consider speaking to a therapist or counselor about what has happened. Grief is a lifelong, ever-evolving process, and you deserve support to both help you navigate your own feelings and guide your children through their complicated emotions.

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Your children have likely heard of suicide, even if they don’t know much about it. They are old enough for you to tell them the truth about what happened: Sometimes, people experience tremendous sadness and get to a point where they don’t believe that things will ever get better. Tragically, some of these people choose to end their lives. It is heartbreaking to the people who loved them, who often would have done anything they could to stop such a thing from happening if they knew it was possible. Be honest about the fact that this is a shocking, sad way to lose someone, that you are hurting deeply and that it is only normal that they would be hurting as well.

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I’m a big fan of the A Kids Book About series of explainers covering difficult topics in ways that young audiences can understand. Though your kids are slightly older than the target demographic, I think A Kids Book About Suicide could be useful for these conversations; the same goes for Someone I Love Died by Suicide, written by Doreen T. Cammarata, a licensed mental health counselor with extensive experience helping children navigate grief and who lost her own mother to suicide.

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A little white lie may save you from the pain of discussing what truly happened to your best friend, but it won’t help you or your children to heal from this loss. The truth hurts deeply, but only by confronting it can you begin the process of making peace and moving forward. Wishing you and your kids lots of luck as you take this journey together as a family.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

· If you missed Thursday’s column, read it here.
· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

It looks like my pre-teen son is going to lose one of his front teeth due to an injury he sustained during a sporting game. I know logically it could be so much worse. But I’m having a terrible time with anxiety. I can’t seem to let go of guilt and regret—I should have protected him, or at least gotten him a mouth guard—and worrying about him all the time. He’ll have to deal with this his whole life. I’m a mess, and I know that’s not helping him.

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Fear and Parenting

Dear Fear and Parenting,

It’s totally normal for you to feel guilt and anxiety over what has happened to your son, but you will have to find a way to forgive yourself for what you could have done differently. Your focus now has to be on helping your son get the support that he needs to cope with this. As I am going through a somewhat similar issue myself, I can tell you that there are a number of dental measures that can be taken to help your child, from temporary flippers (retainer-like devices that have fake teeth attached to them) to implants. While your son will have to deal with this issue for the remainder of his life, that doesn’t mean that he is going to hold you or anyone else responsible for what happened. You can apologize for not insisting on putting him in a mouth guard, but ultimately, what happened was an unfortunate accident, and you aren’t to blame. Concentrate your energy on solutions. He’ll need the support of an excellent dentist, and for you to ensure he is responsible about treatment and devices. You have to let go of the guilt and work to make things as smooth for him as they can be.

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Your son may be dealing with his own sadness and anxiety over what has happened, especially if there is a period of time in which he has to walk around with the tooth visibly missing. I would suggest getting him some professional help, as this is certainly a difficult situation for him to navigate as well. If you continue to be rocked by guilt, you may also want to talk to someone yourself. I hope that the dental solutions prove easy to manage and that you and your son get through this difficult period as smoothly as possible.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a mom to a 2-and-a-half-year-old and as a result of worsening inflammatory bowel disease, I had surgery to create an ostomy. My child is not yet potty-trained, and I’m concerned that a change in my bathroom habits and anatomy will confuse her. How can I share this change with her without upsetting her?

— Outed Ostomate

Dear Outed,

Your daughter may be somewhat confused by the change in your bathroom habits at first, but I think you should just be honest with her about the fact that you have an illness that requires you to relieve yourself in a different way from most people. Be careful not to give her cause to worry about you and explain that the ostomy was created to help you, and let her know that doctors are giving you great care to make sure you have everything you need. Though your process in the bathroom is different from the one you are working to train her to perform, that doesn’t mean that she’ll be upset or overwhelmed. Kids are more adaptable and understanding than we give them credit for. She’s young enough where your ostomy will simply become something she is used to seeing, and she will likely adapt to the change sooner than you’d expect. Your illness is a major part of your life, and your daughter will have to learn to live with it. Wishing you all the best as you both adjust to your new normal.

— Jamilah

For More Parenting Coverage, Listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

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