Feeding my kids too much fast food… Now what?

by cv harquail on June 21, 2009

What is it about Au Pairs and fast food? Maybe because it’s so ‘American’, or because fast food outlets are ubiquitous, or because they are always warm, dry and welcoming public places, fast food emporiums seem to capture the attention of many an au pair. Au pairs seem to spend a lot of time at McDonald’s. You can see it in their waistlines, sometimes, or in the trash that they clear out of the back of the van.

What worries me and many other host parents is when au pairs take their kids to fast food restaurants. In our family, we’re lucky becuase there are no MickyD’s nearby. And, we’ve told our au pairs time and again that the only time we go to McD’s or similar places is when we are on a road trip or when they have either Hello Kitty or Star Wars toys in the kids’ meals. So, we haven’t had too much of a problem with this.


Not so with Anonymom, who writes:

I’m a first-time host mom, about halfway through the year with our au pair. We have 2 children, a three year old and a baby.

Let me say that the au pair is wonderful with them! My kids love her. Our neighbors see her out with the kids, and say holds the baby and keeps both eyes on the preschooler. She teaches them her native language and takes them to do fun things–I think they’ve gone to every park and free program in our area!

I like her, too. She, my husband, and I like the same kind of movies, so we have something we can do together occasionally after the kids go to sleep.

Here’s the big "but …." : food issues!

The biggest food issue is that I’m fairly sure that our au pair feeds my daughter more junk food or fast food than I want her to.

At first, I was OK with it if they were going to restaurants with play areas, esp. when the weather was bad. But it was happening a few times a week, so I said "no more."

However, from things my daughter has said, I think they still are still going often to have fast food and I’m just not being told about it by our au pair. (It’s hard to get accurate info from a 3 year old, though. So I am not sure how often they go, how long there are there, and what everyone eats.)

What should I do about this?

_g_images_spaceball.gif Anonymom, having your children fed the kinds of healthy, nutritious and tasty food that you prefer for them is one of your au pair’s top childcare responsibilities. You are right to insist not only that she cut off the fast food but also that she learn to prepare healthy meals for your kids and also for herself.    So here are a few suggestions:

1. First, clarify how often you will permit them to have fast food .

You can put a limit on the number of times they can go per month, and on what they purchase there (e.g., fries vs. apple slices, apple juice vs. milk). (I know you did this already, but…)     You can also limit the money that you give her & the kids for outings, and/or have her account for it more closely.

Also, you might permit them to go for a beverage and a 1/2 hour in the playroom instead of a happy meal.

[You might be tempted to try to establish just how often they have being going, but if it were me I wouldn’t bother. It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past as much as what she will do in the future. Unless you experience this as significant defiance of your authority as a mom, I’d put the past behind you. It’s not like you’re going to punish your AP, and somehow trying to suss out the number of violations will start you down the path of blame…. so I’d move on.)

2. Identify the needs that ‘fast food outings’ are meeting.

Why your au pair is taking your kids out for fast food…. Is she lonely? Bored? Can’t figure out what to cook or prepare? Lazy? Addicted to the Mc Cafe options? Can’t remember to pack a lunch when they go to the library? What is it that gets her there so often?

If you can figure out what is attracting her, you can help her find alternatives.


3. Focus on what you want your kids to eat and how to get these healthier meals put in front of them.

Your AP may need:

  • A weekly menu (she can plan it out, or you can, or both of you can)
  • Lists of foods by type and by meal that your child likes and will eat, along with a mix n match template (e.g., 1 veg, 1 fruit, 1 bread at breakfast)
  • A few easy recipes, or just a training session with a box of Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese
  • A chart where she keeps track of what your daughter eats each day and when (along with baby feedings too)
  • Some articles from Parenting or other magazines on healthy kids’ nutrition
  • A nice momblog where kids’ nutrition and recipes are the focus. (You should check out TakeBackTheKitchen for some good kid food ideas. If Alma can serve healthy meals to 4 kids seven days a week, your AP can feed them to your daughter.)

You probably already do much of this, so you may have to repeat yourself. You could set it up like this:

"Now that Daughter has turned 3, it is time to introduce new foods, so that we can establish healthy eating habits for the rest of her life. This is a really important way to teach a child and care for a child, and I need your help doing this. Given that we want her to start eating more of X and less of Y, what can you and I do to make this easy…?"

Your AP might also like to get your daughter involved in "cooking" lunch… for herself and her baby sibling. This could make it even more fun.

That’s just a place to start…. other parents, chime in!

Paris McDonalds by Dave Tett on Flickr


Jillian June 22, 2009 at 2:39 pm

That’s a tough situation. Our kids have never had fast food, at least to my knowledge, and we’ve always asked the au pairs not to take them. What I try to do is buy healthy snack bars (as healthy as they can be), trail mix, etc. That way there are plenty of snacks that can be thrown in a purse or the car and can be consumed whenever.

Holly June 22, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Hello Ladies,

I have a question that I think would be appropriate to post in this area. Our AP last summer didn’t so much have issue with feeding the kids things we don’t approve of, but doing activities with them that we specifically asked her not to do.

Last summer (kids were 9, 7, and 4) our AP spent as much time as she could with the kids in front of an electronic device. Whether it was the computer, TV, taking them to a movie, etc. she did whatever she could to avoid actually having to play with them and be creative. Needless to say, we rematched, but it wasn’t for a lack a of trying. I made list after list of things she could do with the kids (the library, parks, zoo, museums, etc), we even enrolled them in camps so she didn’t have all day every day. But that darn girl just wouldn’t get up and go! She’d take them to the park for maybe an hour and that would be all that was done for the entire day. We tried to arrange as many play-dates as possible so that she had just one or two kids at a time so that she could do activities that didn’t have to be entertaining for the range of ages. But I found out that she was letting my 4 year old sit in front of the TV for hours of the day!! That was just unacceptable. No amount of discussions, with and without our LCC, made a difference. Though I don’t think this will be an issue with our current AP, I’d like to do everything I can in order to avoid any of the same issues. Any advice? Thanks ladies!

Jennifer June 22, 2009 at 3:49 pm

If you have a lazy au pair, that will not listen to repeated reminders and reprimands from her LCC or from you, there’s really nothing to be done. You did the only thing you could do — drop her.

In terms of avoiding this as a future problem, I think what you currently plan to do sounds right, and is what I do. I wrote into our au pair manual that the kids were not tto be watching TV and repeated it over and over again when she started. It’s like anything else, if you’ve told her and told her again and she still does it — well, the problem is hers.

Having toddlers myself, I’m curious: how did you find out the TV watching was going on “hours on end?” I allow our au pair to use the TV while prepping meals, and sometimes do wonder if that allowance is abused.

Jennifer June 22, 2009 at 3:50 pm

I think you are doing everything you can to avoid the problem. If you’ve told and told her again about no electronics, and providing a list of activities, you’ve done everything you can in my book!

How did you find out your other au pair was slacking off, by the way? Curious.

Another CA Mom June 22, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Do what we did – our TV & speaker combo in the living room is so complicated, and we never showed her how to do it – so she can’t turn it on! LOL. Slightly tongue-in-cheeck reply here – but truly, it did make it not really worth the effort for her.

Anonymom (original question-asker) June 23, 2009 at 11:24 am

Thanks for the advice. I am definitely going to try #1 and have specific limits: as in, “this week, you may go to chick fil a only one time. No other restaurants and when you go you must let our daughter play on the playscape for at least half an hour.” I did not want to micromanage, but it might be necessary.
We have asked her may times to account for the $$ we give her. After months of her not keeping any records, we stopped giving her any cash at all unless she would give us even a general accounting for it. So I think she is paying for all the junk herself. (she has our CC to use for gas and education expenses)
As far as #2, the fast food/junk food seems to be meeting an emotional need. That’s not so easy to address.
And we’ll do more of #3, too–whenever I say, “feed daughter leftover X” or “a sandwich and an apple,” she always complies…but I think I also need to tell her what she cannot feed our daughter. Because otherwise, I find out that my daughter also had a candy bar.
The final thing I’m going to do: have a discussion about nutrition. Our au pair has said things that lead me to believe she doesn’t know better–she seems to think things like french fries are good for you.

Anonymom (original question-asker) June 23, 2009 at 11:27 am

…and, have any of you host moms out there had the same experiences?

NewAPMom June 23, 2009 at 12:05 pm

My kids are still babies and are still eating purees and finger foods, but I’ve been surprised at how little my au pair knows about nutrition. I guess we have a similar problem in that she’d rather feed them puffs, boxed crackers, and sweet potatoes when there’s a whole freezerful of homemade fruit and veggie purees to choose from. I’ve been trying to teach and constantly reinforce the basics of nutrition – every meal needs a protein, a grain, a fruit, and a vegetable, and have taught her that different colors of veggies have different vitamins, so it’s important that each meal contain a mix of different colored veggies. One thing that seems to have worked (after a long time and a lot of communication) is to have a list of options in each category; like for proteins they can have cheese or chicken, for grains they can have cheerios or waffles, for veggies x y or z, and for fruits a b or c, and let her pick what she wants from each category. I ask her to write down exactly what she feeds them every day.

I think if I were in your shoes I’d suggest alternate activities to the fast food playground, like a local park or the mall or… and then say that fast food is a treat that is reserved for weekends with mom and dad. If the au pair wants to get fast food for herself she’s welcome to do that when she’s not working.

Anonymom (original question-asker) June 23, 2009 at 1:41 pm

NewAPMom, our au pair is absolutely wonderful at taking the children to activities that aren’t the fast food playground. In fact, I suggested the indoor playscape at the local fast food place as a place to go when the weather was bad on a day when there was no storytime at the library. In retrospect, that was a bad idea because then there wasn’t a “no fast food ever” rule.

Calif Mom June 23, 2009 at 4:13 pm

I found some books about nutrition and healthy eating targeted toward kids at the library. I had the AP read them to the little one, and our older kid read it herself.

This is a tough issue. I do think that in general, you may need to micro-manage a little more. I’m a natural delegator myself, but believe me, I’ve come to that conclusion after lots of “learning opportunities” with several au pairs. ;-)

Franzi June 23, 2009 at 4:25 pm

@another CA mom, that trick certainly worked for me. no tv (in my free time – the kids only watched tv friday evening for a movie) because i couldn’t figure this thing out. :-)

regarding food, be specific. very specific! give her cards where she can look up your directions on. but remember to stick to the rules yourself. it’s no fun if the AP has a “no candy” rule and then the parents give the kids candy whenever they want to.

Calif Mom June 23, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Re: the spending money for kids. I’ve done this with every caregiver for almost ten years now. Give her an envelope (maybe a durable one from that place that always looks lovely and perfect and has frequent shelving sales). That envelope holds the spending money she needs when she has the kids, and then she puts in any receipts for things she bought. When there are more receipts than cash, she brings it to you. Ice creams at the pool don’t come with receipts, so you can’t be overly demanding, but this system keeps things accountable.

I’d be surprised she’s regularly buying the kids the “stuff” out of her own money. That adds up!

Here’s a subversive idea: does she read books much? What about putting a copy of Fast Food Nation out on the table? It’s pretty easy to digest (pardon the pun).

Or for pop culture/video oriented APs, get the DVD of “Super Size Me” — that might be more accessible. My 9 year old was disgusted just by reading in the newspaper movie review about what happened to the guy who went on the McDonald’s diet–she didn’t even watch the movie–and won’t order anything but apple slices from fast food places. Might do the trick, and you wouldn’t be a meanie for it. Just add it to the collection, maybe, and display prominently? ;-)

CV June 23, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Calif Mom, you are devious. And a lefty. No wonder you live in CA.
I like the idea of reading materials… I tear out lots of those kid food guidelines from magazines and post them on the fridge.

Anonymous June 24, 2009 at 10:55 am

I wish the AP agencies included nutrition in their training when the aps arrive. We had a vegetarian ap that did not understand the basic food groups. She went for days w/o eating any protein (even vegetarian sources of protein) and as a result was gorging us out of sweets. Anyone who has ever tried the atkins diet knows, if you eat a balanced meal many of those cravings subside. She also boiled every vegetable until every vitamin was cooked out of it, cooked with a lot of butter and fat. We also had to tell her that our water was safe to drink, in her home country no one ever drank the water, juice or hot beverages were prefered. It makes me appreciate the USDA and American Dietary Association that makes nutrition second-nature to most Americans.

Anonymous June 24, 2009 at 12:22 pm

2 things: First, it has become apparent to me that these girls (more often than not) know NOTHING about nutrition, food groups, caloric content, etc. I have had 2, both from former Yugoslavia, and if I had allowed them to choose what to feed my kids, they would not have fared well! :O I had a hard time trying to teach these concepts, because they think I have no idea what I’m talking about (I’m a physician)

Second – DO NOT EVER give your AP a credit card or debit card to use. We learned the hard way with our first AP. She was getting cash back with all grocery and gas purchases and managed to fund a tidy nest egg before we caught her and sent her back to her home country. Now when AP buys something, she pays with her own money and give us a reciept for reimbursement. We try to do our own shopping and keep the car full (she puts her own gas in for social use). I will leave her a 20 once in a while to pick up milk or a pizza, but I ask for a reciept and the change. Lead them not into temptation.

Holly June 24, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Hello Again Ladies,
I’ll just first say that the way I discovered the excessive amount of TV watching happened over a period of time. We have Tivo and I record a few kid shows for my little ones and the big tell was when I’d go to put on an episode of something and the kids would say they’d already seen it (and these were new episodes). Also, when I’d get home and my 4 year old was bouncing off the walls as if she hadn’t been outside all day, let’s just say I started to catch on. If my oldest was home and asked what he did that day he was honest about the amount of time on the computer.

Back to the food issues though. We’ve had APs who didn’t understand the health part, getting fruits AND vegetables in meals, nixing the fried foods, etc, but most Americans don’t either! The most effective method that we use is to just not give her money for junk food. We give our AP cash for the week if there are fun day-adventures planned but that’s pretty much it. We have a zoo membership so no money is required to go there, packed lunches are taken along and parking is free. HD and I have taken the easiest path, she can pay out of pocket for unexpected things for the kids and bring a receipt home to be reimbursed. We’ve found that most girls don’t want to spend their own money (understandably), even if we pay them back, so that pretty much does the trick. The way we explain it is, the kids don’t need more stuff. They have plenty of toys and our house has plenty of food, take with you what will be needed for the day and when you’re finished or need another meal, call it a day and head home.

We love our APs like any other family member but when she’s with the kids she’s working. I wouldn’t take a company credit card and buy things for my coworkers or myself. (Sorry if this sounds harsh, we’ve been burned by APs before and I’m a bit hard*ss about money now).

TX Mom June 24, 2009 at 2:15 pm

HD and I are very particular about foods and environmental chemicals for our kids. I try to be accommodating with our AP’s (now on #4) but I have found a few things that work after having 3 very challenging Foodie AP’s. First of all I’m really upfront in the interviews and I probe deeply about their food interests. Secondly, I make it clear that the kids are expected to eat what we buy and serve and the AP is expected to eat the same at home. Third, I talk with the AP’s about the differences in the US FDA and EPA regulations and their home country. (One of our rules at home is “if it’s banned in Sweden or anywhere in the EU – like yellow dye #5 and Genetically Modified foods – we don’t buy it.”) Many of the AP’s are surprised about what is allowed in the US industrial food chain. Fourth, they can buy/eat whatever they want on their own. Fifth, they can put up to $20 per week of groceries in the cart that they want but the kids aren’t allowed to eat. (I learned that on this website.) Sixth, I always have treats from home with us on kid outings and I make sure the AP does the same. Seventh, let go and turn your eye sometimes! :) and Finally, we have rematched because food was one (among more important) issue with a Princess.

Busy Mom June 24, 2009 at 10:30 pm

We’ve had 6 nannies & 1 au pair and I’ve had to provide a basic education to all – even though several were college educated American girls – regarding nutrition. Everything is written down and reviewed. We are very specific about foods that are prohibited and we define what “junk food” means to us. We provide meal guidelines and what food (and portions of those foods) fall into each food group. Several of them had never before encountered a chickpea! We provide a variety of recipes from which they can choose and have encouraged them to suggest recipes that we review before allowing them to add to the rotation. For school lunches, we have a list of what foods the girls will eat by food group and make sure there’s something from each group. While we’ll purchase foods they like, unlike TX mom, we won’t pay for any foods that the girls are not allowed to eat and have asked that the nannies/au pair keep any prohibited foods in their room because we want the girls to be able to eat anything in our kitchen without restrictions. So, if they crave white bread, they pay with their own money.

We go over the basics of this in our interviews so that they know what they’re getting into and that they’ll have to get used to whole wheat bread :-)

It was more challenging with our au pair, because it was difficult for her to follow recipes. I don’t think it was only the differences in measurement, but also that she wasn’t accustomed to cooking. (I’ll screen better for this next time.) In her first few weeks, I showed her how to make a number of the dishes so she could then make them on her own.

As for taking the kids out to eat, I provided strict guidelines – e.g., On Wednesdays, when there is only 1 hour between school & gymnastics, you may take our daughter out to eat at McDonalds. She may eat chicken selects or a burger, an apple dipper & milk. When the weather is nice, pack a picnic lunch and stop at the park to eat it. We also were specific in the summer about ice cream – e.g., you may give/purchase ice cream no more than once a week.

Regarding playing outside, we simply made it a requirement. E.g., the temperature is > 40 degrees, the kids should play outside. We’ve had to nudge and remind sometimes along the way, but with specific guidelines, I’ve found that most complied.

Now the the girls are school aged, food (along with driving) is one of our most important requirements.

Regarding credit cards, we’ve given every nanny & our au pair a card. Never had an issue, but we have an envelope for receipts and download the transactions at least weekly, so we’d know right away if we had a problem. It’s just so much more convenient than cash for gas & occasional grocery runs.

CV June 25, 2009 at 6:13 am

Busy Mom… there is a poll & post on credit cards scheduled for tomorrow, so be sure to add how you make it work! thanks cv

cynthia June 29, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Wow…I thought I was the only one. i wonder if they give the girls any nutrition information at that “school” they go to. My au pair (who left two days ago – my house is mine again!!!) we had constant conversations with her about what to feed them. I ended up spending an additional $500 a month on extra groceries on frozen meals from Whole Foods to ensure they were eating healthy, becuase otherwise – it was garbage. If it wasn’t an easy make meal – I can’t even imagine what they would eat during the day. She tried to feed them hot dogs for breakfast once and her come back was “well I eat hot dogs for breakfast” – point exactly. The funny thing was, we’d come home during the day to check up on them and she’d be making herself elaborate meals – while my children sat in front of the tv getting their frozen or packaged meal. WE had numerous conversatiosn with her and it’d get better for a week or so and then conveniently she’d either “forget” or just not care. She’s going to a new family where they are going to make her cook on a schedule for the kids – all organic….she’s in for a wake up call. It’s partially our own fault too, we should have been more demanding of her, but once it started going downhill we just checked out and wanted it to be over.

TX Mom June 30, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Cynthia, I’m LOL’ing about the hot dogs for breakfast! I have had the two extremes of AP’s and the one in the middle: the foodies who have extremely specific ideas about cooking (from Asia and Europe) and I’ve had an AP who told me she “wasn’t the best cook but loved to bake” before she arrived. (You can imagine where that ended up. Her idea of baking was arranging wafer cookies and candies into art projects for the kids and she learned to “cook” toast for my kids.) I’m concerned for the next host family where your last AP is going. (Thank goodness it’s not my house!) When we were in rematch I really appreciated the honest (and COOPERATIVE) discussions I had with other host moms – either interviewing my AP or when I was interested in theirs. (I’m with APIA and can’t imagine being with an agency who wouldn’t let us talk to the other LCC or HF in rematch.) When one of my foodie AP’s went into extension with another family, we talked in a lot of detail about the food issue; they still decided to extend with our AP but the food issue drove the AP back to her home country after 1 month… I guess it proves that food compatibility may be as important as communication and driving skills.

aussiegirl October 5, 2009 at 4:25 am

When I was an aupair in the US I was in the oppoisite situation. I was expected and asked(in the weekly written sechdule) to take the children out for lunch to fast food places most days. I would have loved to have some more stay at home lunches as I love to cook as much as in the beginning I loved the treat of going out for lunch, i soon grow tired of it. With the TV I limited it to half an hour a day before 9am and half an hour after 4pm excepted on days when she was sick.

My experience in Canada was different. We had McDonalds once on the day we moved house. We would go to Tim Hortons once a Week for half a Bagel and a Timbit that was their treat. On one of my last weekends, with the family. I took the 2 older kids(3 and 4) to as the called it a `Real Restaurant`. Tv consisted on half an hour a week on a Friday when the younger 2 were sleeping the 4 year old and I watched Berenstein Bears!!

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