I was really glad to get this question from a reader because it is a problem most parents can relate to:

You bring a stash of healthy food to the playground and then your child makes moon eyes at everyone who has tastier treats.  It doesn’t seem to matter whether the other moms have pretzels, goldfish, fruit strips, cookies or lollipops.  Your child wants whatever they have.

You’re not sure how to handle the situation because even though you would rather your child didn’t eat this stuff on a daily basis (you already give her enough treats at home):

  1. You don’t want her to feel somehow different from the other kids
  2. You don’t want the other parents to feel that you are judging their nutritional practices.

So what can you do?

The way out of this problem is to think big.  Move beyond the immediate situation and identify what lifelong lessons you want your child to learn.  I see at least two.

The first lesson is that different people eat differently — different foods, different amounts and at different times of day. Tell her this explicitly and often (verbalizing the message is crucial) because it will neutralize how bad being different can feel.  Plus, during her entire life people will eat tempting foods in front of her.  You don’t want her to have to eat just because it’s there and looks yummy.  Then point out to your child when she has goodies that others don’t have, when she eats when others are full, when she is done eating and others are just beginning. Similarly, point out the times when everyone is eating the same foods at the same times.

The second lesson is that we eat foods in proportion to their healthful benefits.  Again, tell this to your child explicitly and often too. Then tell her that means that we eat more fruits and vegetables than snack crackers, candies, cookies, ice cream etc.  Because of this, we have to make choices.  Next start giving your child choices such as the following:

  • You may have 1 snack from another mommy each day, whenever you like. OR
  • You may have 1 candy/cookie/ice cream snack each day either at the playground or at home.

The key is to set up a structured choice for your child that you present every morning, or every day before the playground so that she knows what the ground rules are.  Remind your child as often as necessary before the situation so she is prepared.  Note: you may have to alter the snacks you give your child at home so that when she has the snacks in the playground her daily consumption isn’t out of proportion.  So, for instance, if you child is scoring pretzels and crackers at the park, don’t give her these items at home on park days.

At 3, your child should accept these guidelines fairly easily.  The added benefit is that when you repeat the rules to your child in front of other parents, they won’t feel judged about their snack choices.  Instead, they’ll see that you give your child these foods too, only at other times. It’s a win-win situation.

The final step is to praise your child for making choices, and for sticking to the rules each and every times she complies.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.  Remember, it’s not so much what you feed, but the lessons you teach.