Being Polite vs. Honoring Your Values

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I am learning that being offered processed food when you’d rather avoid it is a hot topic. The other day on Facebook I asked, “What do you do when someone offers your children a treat that’s likely full of artificial dyes/flavors, preservatives, and other chemicals?” I was floored at the range of answers….here are a few examples many of which are at opposite ends of the spectrum:

  • “I think it is best to be gracious to people that don’t eat like you and accept their food.”
  • “I let my kids have them. I figure I have control over the majority of their food, so I’m not going to worry about the few times when I don’t.”
  • “Sorry this is crazy let kids be kids.”
  • “I agree with many others who have said it’s all about balance and moderation. We eat a whole food lifestyle on a daily basis…but, whenever there are special occasions, social events, etc., we just go with the flow and enjoy the company! :)”
  • “If it is from a stranger like at a bank, we say ‘No thank you, we’ll have a treat after lunch.’ or something else polite. If it is at a party, I feed my kids before we go so they can eat party food, but won’t be so hungry that they eat a lot. If it’s at a playdate, then we bring something healthy to share, usually a fresh fruit tray full of my kids favorites. They’ll eat the junk too, but not as much.”
  • “I am sort of surprised at some of the replies. This is a ‘real food’ page. Of course some are at different levels but to say things like ‘this is crazy. let kids be kids!’ — I do not understand! I don’t think what kids eat define how great their child hood is or isn’t?!?!”
  • “Since when did ‘letting kids be kids’ have to mean filling them with processed, refined foods full of chemicals and additives?”
  • “I go with the flow with a little when possible, but sometimes being polite means politely saying no thank you. I have to tell people no when artificial dyes and artificial sweeteners are involved. My mom raised me right and I know how to use my manners to say no thanks.”
  • “If it’s a meal, I’ll sit down and eat. But if it’s a snack, I have no problem saying no.”

Does the reason for saying “no” really matter?

I have so many thoughts based on the feedback around this topic. First of all, some readers have indicated that unless you have a true allergy or medical concern it’s not right to “break the rules” at a public place (i.e. by bringing your own food to avoid concession stands at an amusement park) or turn down junk food that others are offering you. For all those that feel this way…what’s your opinion about vegetarians? That’s not exactly a medical condition is it? It’s a choice. And a lot of times it’s a moral choice. So is it bad manners for a vegetarian to turn down meat when it is offered? I don’t see how that’s much different from my choice to not eat (or not give my kids) factory-made junk food.

Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone that I am picking sides here because most of the time I honestly don’t know what to do when my kids are being offered junk food. And I think that decision doesn’t come easy because there’s frankly no “right” or “wrong” answer. At what point does being polite need to override your personal morals and values (or vice versa)?

How do the French handle it?

There are a couple of quotes from the book French Kids Eat Everything that really stood out on this topic. I’ll do a more in-depth review of the book later, but for now how about this for food for thought:

“Nutrition and healthy eating habits, while important, don’t need to be the main focus. Rather, enjoying your food is the focus, and healthy eating habits are a happy by-product.”

“The French are not primarily concerned with policing their children’s food intake, or banning all ‘fake foods.’ Rather, their goal is to train their children to eat a balanced diet and to realize how much healthier they feel if they eat mostly ‘real food.’”

I’ve always said that I don’t want to teach my children to say “no” to highly processed junk food just because “mommy said so.” But teaching them to make good food choices all on their own is no easy task especially considering that (unlike the French) almost everywhere our kids turn they are faced with some sort of junk food whether it’s a birthday party, friend’s house, gas station, dessert menu, school event, T.V. commercial, billboard, mall food court, etc. In France it’s apparently “against the rules” for anyone to offer your kid food without your permission (especially in-between meals) so no wonder it’s so easy for them to not police anyone’s food intake. Regardless, I still think there’s a lot to be learned from their attitude.

Where do you draw the line?

I was listening to Michelle Obama talk about her “Let’s Move” program on NPR the other day and she made a valid point on this very topic. She believes that our kids shouldn’t have to worry or obsess about nutrition when they leave the house. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, but finding the right balance between the wholesome food you believe in and being “polite” to all the outside forces that seem to be working against you isn’t easy. Because let’s face it, as I’ve said before, it’s NOT just one cookie or one birthday party or one piece of candy. It’s never just one. Most kids are given junk food multiple times a week for all sorts of reasons including holidays, sports practice, dance class, church events, trips to the bank, celebrations at school, and birthday parties. Junk food is no longer reserved for truly rare and special occasions.

I may sound like I am all over the map here because the truth is I am. Where do you draw the line if you don’t want your children to be overly concerned about eating healthy while at the same time not compromising the values you desperately want to teach them? My husband thinks telling others “no” helps to spread the word that junk food isn’t always appropriate…how else are we going to influence a culture shift anyway? All I know is that I am constantly bouncing back and forth between telling my kids “no” and then giving in to the junk that’s being offered to them (and frankly that they want). But as stated above, I think one reader said it best, “Since when did ‘letting kids be kids’ have to mean filling them with processed, refined foods full of chemicals and additives?” So until the rest of America catches on to this idea how are you going to handle it?

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353 thoughts on “Being Polite vs. Honoring Your Values”

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  1. Lindsay Untherbergus

    I have celiac disease so saying ‘no’ when offered food is no problem for me. I say, go ahead and politely decline and explain why if the person is persistent. Hopefully that same person won’t offer you the junk food again. I am not obligated to eat anything I don’t want to or deem safe for myself. Even when people tell me something is gluten free, I still don’t always eat it because lots of people don’t know what gluten is or know about the importance of avoiding cross contamination. I don’t want to offend anybody, but my health is more important than that.

  2. So hard, I have been a vegetarian over 25 yrs without issues but this year, I tried to have no added sugar and somehow I started a war at Thanksgiving. Family was so put out when I said that I could fend for myself. There was sugar added to cranberries, stuffing, cauliflower stuffing, on salmon (honey baked), rolls, pies, cheesecake…. I offered to make dishes but was told this is what we always have and you can eat it, it won’t kill you. On Thanksgiving people eat stuff they might not otherwise eat”. They are still annoyed. Yet when one relative refused to eat an enchilada dish that I made the night before because she “doesn’t like Mexican food” that was ok?? Families!!

  3. This is very similar to “religious reason” or as you’ve said, “vegetarians” (and “vegans”). Here’s how we do it:

    1. They do not know (yet) or they may have forgotten
    2. “Thank you for the food, we deeply appreciate it. However, our faith/religion _and_ diet is different from most, so we’ll have to decline.”

    If they are interested to know more about it, then you can slowly introduce them to your reasons. For example, “This is just our belief but I’m glad you asked. We believe that _put_your_reasons_here_but_keep_it_brief_and_curious_.”

    Living healthy is a common thing today but very few actually do it. Since people are aware of it already, it is easier to decline than say 3-4 decades ago or more. Even more so if your reason is or are “faith/religious”, “vegetarian/vegan”, “doctor_said_so”.

    Lastly, if they really insist, make a stand. They can not shove their beliefs on you because you’re not shoving your beliefs to them. Then excuse yourself/family to avoid any unnecessary exchange that may go out-of-hand.

    Maybe it works here in the Philippines, but not in other countries. It will still largely depend on our type of culture and social “requirements” (which I find a joke, my family, my body, my rules, not society).


  4. I think the most important thing, whether vegetarian or choosing not to eat certain things, is that you don’t make it a preachy thing. When I was a vegetarian, I didn’t turn passing on meat into a diatribe on animal cruelty, and now, I think making other people feel bad when they are choosing to eat something is the same. A simple no thank you works well. If they press, “I’m a vegetarian” or “we’re watching our sugar intake” is much gentler, and still likely to provoke thought. There is a time and place for the more intense conversations, and if isn’t when someone is about to take a bite of a Twinkie. People get defensive.

  5. The problem is that one is offered unhealthy food all day long everywhere you go. So it isn’t ‘just this one time’, it’s all the time. And I don’t have children but I imagine it is even worse for them. I find that half the time people are offended when I decline no matter how gracious or polite I am. Recently I’ve been giving the excuse of severe acid reflux, that seems to work well and was also true. I’m just going to continue in that direction.

  6. I struggle with this when going to see a movie at the theatre. I “sneak in” our own healthier snacks like natural popcorn (Annie’s cheese popcorn for ex), and sparkling water. I’ve actually never seen a sign that says no outside food, but I feel like I’m breaking the rules some how. If anyone ever called me on this, I’d say I’d be happy to purchase similar options if they were offered! Otherwise, buzz off, I’m not eating your cr@p! …And I do sometimes let my child have a small portion of candy, not the jumbo mega box size they sell there!

  7. I have the hardest time with this. Our 4yo has juvenile arthritis & we tray her with diet. She cannot have dairy, eggs, or processed sugar, & all sugars have to be closely monitored/regulated to maintain balance. Now that she’s in remission, even family members who know what she went through, who saw her hurting, still try,”can’t she just have this cupcake, etc”…… It’s constant. Even at school, my kid is singled out on almost a weekly basis BC is done other kids birthday & mom brought cupcakes. i’m constantly either risking her health, or making her feel alien. But, the problem isn’t me. It’s others. I shouldn’t have to break down the fact that my daughter has a serious medical condition for you to be OK with how we choose to nourish her. Her great grandma is the worst. The woman is a shopaholic when it comes to food, I’ve given her lists of OK treats, & foods, yes every time we visit she offers nothing but processed, sugary, crap. IMO, THAT is rude. That puts me & my daughter who is only beginning to understand in a bad position. The point here is, even if there’s an actual medical condition, A) unless it’s visible, no one cares. & B) people don’t owe an explanation of such. Respect the choices of others. In the end, it rally doesn’t matter why. ~a mama that does have to police everything her kid eats

  8. Lisa I’m so happy you are starting this conversation! I have often felt like the underdog when I suggest a healthy treat over a sugary treat when it comes to my kids being at a friends house, a special event, even church and school. A LOT of parents do not understand that if we ALL collectively presented kids with more healthy choices, instead of just sugary junk, kids would love the fresh healthy treat! I’m afraid even though I constantly try to teach my kids to just say “no thank you” they still wish they had taken the junky treat! Lol It’s a constant battle but one I believe in so I will keep fighting the good fight!

  9. Be kind.
    I once saw a mom pry a lollipop out of her son’s desperate hands and berate him that he couldn’t have it in front of all the guest at a birthday party. Meanwhile, I decretely asked my son if I could save his for later and threw it in my purse. He forgot about it and I didn’t offend the nice lady who bought the lollipops for the kids. Honestly, the woman wrestling her kid was rude! You can teach your children to say “no thank you.”

  10. We do struggle with this. We have one or two parent friends who, no fail, every time, brings a treat for my child. We are still working off of candy given for Valentine’s Day! The thing is, the treats and occasions add up. We work really hard not to have “food treat” be equated with special occasion/reward/consolation and also work to teach moderation. Added to the challenge is worrying that if we don’t give our child the offered treat, the other parent will have some hurt feelings. It’s a struggle!

  11. “No, thank you – we have a family no-treat policy.” is my go-to response when lollipops are offered to my 4-year old and 5-year old as a reward at the end of their weekly swim lessons (at a private fitness club no less!) They understand. Parents need to start standing firm more often if we ever want to see our culture shifting toward a healthier mind-set.

  12. The director at the preschool my child used to attend liked to hand out M&M’s to children as they were leaving “if they had a good day” She asked me before offering it to my child if was ok to give it to her, and I politely said “no thank you”. To which she responded, “Oh, you’re one of those parents.”

    Why, yes. Yes I am.

    When this particular incident happened, my child was a very young toddler. I don’t mind if my child as a treat now and then, but there’s no reason she needs candy on a daily basis. I don’t feel it’s appropriate to link behavior to food as an external reward, and certainly not daily. If you must reward behavior externally, there are much healthier options.

    Is it rude to decline food when it is offered? No. Absolutely not. “No, thank you.” is a perfectly polite and acceptable response. No further explanation or justification is needed. How is it impolite to decline food you don’t like, don’t feel well after eating, or don’t want? I don’t get how any of this is impolite. What I eat or my children eat is no one’s business. As for venues that have little to no healthy food options, we either choose to eat there and balance our choices with healthy options later, or yeah, we bring our own food. When venues can offer truly healthy options (vs. faux healthy options), I will eat those. I have never had anyone complain that I brought my own food for me or my children.

    I’m pretty sure my kid can still “be a kid” while she’s eating a piece of fruit. And I’m also pretty sure that not eating that sugar and chemical laden piece of candy will not rob her of her childhood, and she will still somehow manage to be a kid. Funny how that works.

  13. Unless your child is going to a birthday party every day, I really don’t think this is that big of a problem. I mean it’s certainly not rude for a child to decline a snack that’s being offered at soccer practice or dance class, by offering a simple “No, thank you, I brought my own” or similar response, since that’s not really that unusual,especially if it’s something that they don’t care to eat, but it seems it’s starting to cross the line and be a little rude to bring in ALL your own birthday party food, to avoid the pizza from Dominoes, the bakery cake from Harris Teeter and the Ice cream from Turkey Hill, unless there is a real immediate consequence to eating the food, such as being diabetic, have celiac disease or some other severe allergy. Even in those cases guests will usually be able to eat some of the hosts offerings or at least, (hopefully ahead of time to give them a chance to be a gracious host and have a suitable offering) explain to the parent why without casting perceived judgement(intended or not) on to them of their choices as being reckless or unacceptable. Sports and other activities come with the generally acceptable idea that the kids’ parents provide for their own, other then some cut up oranges or a juice box, which many kids will refuse on their own anyways, where as a party is an event where you are a guest. Think about the activity, and then ask yourself if as an adult being invited in the same type of situation would you be carting along your own food. A vegetarian may refuse the meat portion of a dish, but will usually still consume some of the hosts food. Use manners, and common sense, and if you are that concerned then at minimum show up with a dish to share that you feel is acceptable and it really shouldn’t be that hard.

  14. One point I’d like to make is this: “let kids be kids” does not mean FILLING them with junk food. It means chill out and don’t police everything they eat. Depending where you’re at, being a vegetarian and refusing to eat what you are offered (including meat) is considered extremely rude. My vegetarian friend and I visited another country, if we were offered meat as a part of a meal she ate it. If we didn’t like something, we still ate it. The people offered us what they could or what they thought was best, so it would be insulting to refuse. It can be a cultural thing, but even still, if you are not allowing your kids to eat anything they are offered, even politely refusing can still be construed as you know better than the host and what they have isn’t good enough. Sometimes it is more polite to accept in moderation, than to out rightly deny it.

  15. Victoria Baker

    I think you can model a gracious balance between holding the line and going with the flow. It doesn’t have to be one answer all the time. I think it is healthy to model the acceptability of not prioritizing social approval over family values, health or dietary needs or to keep the balance in your day or week, when there have already been treats or there is a special occasion on the horizon, “Thank you for so much, but we are going to be having birthday cake tonight” or “That is so nice, but we are taking a break from ______ right now to see if it helps with ___________________________. You are politely declining the unhealthy, snack not ignoring the gesture or rejecting the person who is offering.

  16. When I was working at a summer camp I remember a girl crying her eyes out at lunch. Two girls at her table ridiculed her lunch and said her mommy must not love her very much if she lets her eat poison she has to eat food shelter food thats why poor people are fat. I would hopemy child would take the bag of chips and say thank you Ill save them for later rather than be superior and cruel to a child…. Then it hit me those kids learnedthat behaviour from somewhere and if you are making your eating habbits another notch of social status then you need help.

    1. Healthywifehappylife

      This is so so sad and my heart breaks for all the children involved, especially the little girl being ostracized. Without knowing the parents of the children acting meanly, I can see how it would be a natural assumption that those parents have taught their children the exact things they repeated or modeled the exact behavior that the children exhibited. (In this case, it seems there was an acute attitude of cruelty that is horrifying.) However, it’s also of value to note that children are children and are often very extreme in their interpretations. As a mom, I’ve explained things with moderation and compassion only to see my child mirror back a very black-and-white, seemingly judgmental perspective (not cruel but certainly insensitive.) They are kids and still figuring out how to categorize everything in their world. That’s what makes this issue so very tricky for parents.

  17. I totally agree with your husband! I used to let my kids have treats when we were out of the house as we eat very healthy at home and really, we weren’t out that much. But when I realized it was becoming a few times a week, I just put my foot down. It’s actually easier if my kids know the answer is just “no” and not “I wonder if we can talk mom into it.” They know not to ask, not to whine and we talk about this at home. It fits how we eat all the time and as they grow (now 7 and 9) they are getting it. We don’t have any food allergies here but the junk makes them feel crummy. I allow a treat at a birthday party but again, we’ve discussed it in advance. And seriously if there is a birthday party on the same day as another special event, my kids pick. They know they can’t have a treat at both. More conversation. This was really interesting for me because I don’t have a hard time saying no to people (it took a few decades). The hangup for me was my kids. I wanted to bless them and let them have the occasional treat. I didn’t want to be THAT mom. I found if I just let them have a cookie at church, at clubs and meetings, at friends’ houses, etc, it added up to “all the time!” So, now I am THAT mom. That’s ok.

  18. Just like in all things we do as parents, our job is to teach, not to control. I try to approach this issue from that standpoint. I teach them about healthy eating, I try to lead by example, and then I step back and let them make their choices. If you consistently offer your children healthy home cooked foods they do develop a taste for it. My kids are teens now and would much rather have something cooked at home than a fast food meal. I’m not gonna lie, they would probably still choose homemade french fries over a kale salad but they do have a real appreciation for good home cooked meals, and home baked treats made from real ingredients, To me that was the most important thing I could give them. Ultimately like it or not they will all be making their own food choices one day. Making some foods “forbidden” only makes them more attractive. Teach them that real food IS the good stuff, that it’s a pleasure, not a punishment.

  19. Yeah, I wouldn’t want my kids to worry about what they eat outside the house. The only exception I would make is if we were eating out more than once or twice a week. There are some situations (like during a move or if parents are especially busy with a special event) when you just don’t have time to cook, and that’s when you need to make good choices with your outside food. I know this, and I’d want my kids to know it, too.

  20. My boyfriend’s family eats a lot of processed food. I was raised with a big garden and homemade whole food but as an adult struggle with obesity and craving all the junk. Visiting his parents is hard because I am seen as a snob for not wanting to eat what they do or for bringing my own healthy snacks, but no one would consider an alcoholic a snob for turning down a drink, for not going into a bar (i.e. the parents junk and temptation filled house). In fact, it would be considered rude to even offer. No one seems to take it seriously when food is turned down, people rarely take no for an answer the first time. It makes me sad and is discouraging when trying to make healthy food choices is considered stuck up. To me, it feels like I’m being offered poison and I’m expected to not only drink up but also be thankful for it.

  21. There’s definitely value in teaching your kids to politely decline. And honestly there are times when you may decline for other reasons as a child or an adult and it’s good practice – maybe they’re not hungry, just don’t like the food, or are watching their health. No one should be bullied into eating a certain way. What you feed your body is your own choice and you don’t need to defend it to anyone. Personally I let my kids eat junk food when we’re out, I figure it’s 80/20 but I’m realizing there are more and more opportunities to eat junk and I think it’s good to say no sometimes. The exception would be if we are dinner guests, then i think it’s polite to at least taste the food they provide.