Food and your Au Pair: Label it if you don’t want her to eat it

by cv harquail on December 9, 2008

cookies18-735236 Do you know what it feels like to spend two precious hours baking several dozen homemade cookies for your daughter’s class party, only to discover the next day, when you go to wrap them, that your au pair and her friends have eaten all but 6?

That’s about how I felt last week, when an extremely long, 23-point post about F ood and Your Au Pair disappeared somewhere deep inside my new iMac, my new blogging software, and/or my new voice recognition program. I was so upset that I couldn’t even bring myself to try again. But, several days later, here I am, trying again. Take that as a metaphor for how to sustain a positive au pair relationship– trying again.

So the whole food thing– I’m not kidding when I say it was 23 points long! Food sharing is a minefield in ANY relationship, and so it is with your and your au pair. Let me start with just one tip:

food label Food : Label it if you don’t want your Au Pair to eat it.

The most reliable way to prevent your au pair from eating food items that you want to keep just for yourself, your spouse, or some special event is to label the food with a post-it.

I wish I had done this with the cookies. It is always the special stuff, the fancy stuff, the expensive stuff, the treats, that go first — which only heightens the pain and the drama.

It may seem rather awful to have to  put a post-it note on any food you want to keep just to yourself– but it is the most fail-safe method. There is no way your au pair (or children) can claim not to know that this food is off limits when there is a tag right on the food that tells them so.

Check out this comment from C:

Being a first time host family we were very welcoming with our au pair, letting the au pair help herself to anything in the kitchen. Over the past few months I have become a bit resentful of this, many of my more expensive items (imported cheeses, ice creams, chocolates, preserves, tea and coffee, etc) treats that I buy for myself have been disappearing regularly. A friend brought over some expensive tortes from a famous upscale bakery. Our au pair had helped herself to most of the desserts, which I wasn’t happy about. I recently noticed she has been hording her own sweets in her room which disturbed me since we have been so open with our home. Quite honestly I have reached a point where I don’t want her helping me put groceries the away any more as she oogles every item, licks her lips and comments how tasty everything looks. Realistically, what is a nice way of setting boundaries, after so many months of an open-kitchen policy? Is there a way to do it without having to segregate what’s mine ?471863752_2f7ba7888f_m

In my experience, it is very hard to set food boundaries in a way that avoids awkwardness (holding aside the concern about changing the policy mid-year). Food is a metaphor for love, for abundance, for treats, for rewards, for oh so much. So, it is hard …

  • to explain to an au pair that some of the foods are too expensive to have her eat at will.
  • to explain to an au pair that you are buying treats for yourself- and that sometimes you don’t want to share!
  • to tell an au pair that she is not "on par" with you and your husband in terms of being able to use everything in the house.

(You don’t let her ride your personal road bike, or help herself to your makeup and perfume, or use your personal laptop, right? Do you let her drink anything she wants from the liquor cabinet? I didn’t think so….).

Sometimes, you just need to be direct, and say loudly and clearly what works for you. cookies

Other alternatives to labeling?

1. Have a cabinet just for you.

I have a snack cabinet that is just for me– no kids, no au pair, no spouse (!) This usually has just the chocolate macaroons from Whole Foods and sourdough pretzels, but I will also hide in this cabinet the lemon bars that my friend Deb makes. No one gets these but me, without permission!

2. Create a set of categories like "off limits" and "help yourself", that your au pair can use to distinguish between what she can eat and what you don’t want her to eat. (Check out the food guidelines for some ideas.)

In my house, anything that is chocolate but is not specifically a children’s food (e.g., chocolate macaroons from Whole Foods vs. Chocolate Teddy Grahams) is off limits unless otherwise indicated. I simply cannot bear to have my stash of chocolate treats messed with.

Similarly, I have explained that my special baking supplies, like the imported semi-sweet chocolate, the silver dragees, and the fancy raspberry jam from Sweden, are off limits. I also keep these baking supplies in their own place in the cupboard so that it’s easier to tell the difference between the off-limits jam and the Polaner’s All Fruit for pb&js.

Also, any leftover food from a restaurant belongs to the person who brought it home. I won’t eat her lemon chicken, she won’t eat my pad thai.

I enjoy insanity old poster It may be easier for you to establish a list of things ( e.g., imported cheeses, home-baked goods, espresso pods) that you don’t want her to use.

And, you may also find a way to explain why you don’t want her to eat these things (e.g., "These are expensive foods, they are treats for me and the Host Dad. You don’t want me to drink your SlimFast, and I don’t want you to eat his $8 / lb. Marcona almonds." OR "I don’t help myself to your new shoes from Payless." … ).

The nice thing about the category strategy is that you don’t have to keep sticking labels on things… but the downside is that it can be easy to forget or misjudge what is off limits. Plus, when you try to explain the rationale behind the categories, it can be hard to say to your au pair, in essence, "this is too expensive to share with you, not that we don’t like you, but we just can’t afford to give you open access to our expensive treats."

Any of you Moms have other tricks that have worked well? Please share in the comments, below. …

(and remember, there are at least 22 other food related tips coming up….)

{ 16 comments }

Anna December 11, 2008 at 4:30 am

My cover-it-all trick is to update the host family manual and share the update with our au pair, if something like that (unforseen) comes up.
we haven’t had issues with food like that yet.
My only rules about food are:
– you can eat any food you see, if it is the last piece, put it on the shopping list
-tell us which foods you like that we don’t buy regularly, and we’ll buy them for you, within reason
-kosher food only inside the house

So far we’ve been lucky; no gluttonous au pairs. The only funny one was when one au pair took such a liking to peanut butter, that we went through a jar a week (she ate it with a spoon for breakfast, I saw it!). I just bought it in bulk. I didn’t mind.

cvh December 11, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Anna, I’ve done that ‘behind the scenes’ update of the handbook too– and not just about food. Using the handbook helps to make the chance less personal and more about a principle…which does take some of the awkwardness out of it. Have you had any trouble with au pairs keeping kosher with you, or have you always matched with already kosher-observant candidates?

Jessica December 12, 2008 at 1:42 am

We had a major problem with our last au pair who was literally eating everything in sight. It made me crazy because I would spend time preparing dinners the night before, and when I got home, our dinner would already be half gone. It was a bad situation only because she was so great in so many ways. I spoke to her about it, but it was a very awkward conversation. The way I dealt with it was that I started to label any food that I did not want her to eat. It was very effective but I did feel bad about it and also hated having to label things in my own refrigerator. I also had to put a $20 per week limit on her food purchases (food that we didn’t ordinarily have in the house) because she would buy all kinds of expensive things when doing the food shopping. She also started to gain a lot of weight which was a little alarming. My present au pair is the exact opposite, but I am really hoping that I don’t have to deal with this again in the future!!

Anna December 12, 2008 at 3:15 am

cvh, to answer your question about kashrut, it is very unlikely to get an au pair who knows these rules or is Jewish, much less observant and keeping kosher! I haven’t come across one single candidate like that. So we matched with the best candidate, but were very open about our lifestyle and all it entails regarding food.

At first I train them and explain things as many times as needed, and ask them to use paper plates and plastic utensils I can throw away until they feel comfortable, and tell me right away about any suspected screwups. It requires a lot of trust on my part. This is why I also prefer to do any major cooking for the kids and family myself. I have a whole section in our handbook describing the rules of our kitchen and general concepts of kashrut.

We are also health food freaks, there is no junk or sodas in our house, and homebaked sweets only once a week, only low sugar whole grain cereals, plain yogurts, etc. Yesterday our au pair finally put on the shopping list “french bread and flavored full-fat yougurt for me”. I was glad, and I told her that. She finally told me she was sick of Ezekiel bread. I don’t like things to fester and I want her to be happy and eat well. I also noticed she buys coca cola for herself, so I bought her a whole case of it and told her to keep in her room away from the kids, I hope she was not too insulted, LOL.

MK February 6, 2009 at 12:59 am

Any tips for gluttonous au pairs? Seriously, I think my au pair eats more than my husband and I combined and often eats a second dinner after we go to sleep. She is def gaining weight, but she is not obese. Maybe she has an eating disorder, maybe she does not. She is great in so many ways so this is a tough issue. I’ve heard some crazy stories about host families that weigh their au pair’s portions and I do not want to do that. I feel resentful because I feel I signed up for feeding one person not two. Any suggestions to politely say ‘cool it’ on the food intake?

Jillian April 22, 2009 at 3:34 am

Anna, I’m late to this conversation but I’m so glad I found it! My family keeps kosher too and we’ve tried to match with a Jewish au pair but man oh man are they difficult to find.
One of the first things we talk about when interviewing au pairs are foods that can’t be brought into our house and make sure it won’t be a problem with her. I’ve actually had some of my favorite moments with APs while trying to explain kashrut, “Is deer kosher? What about squirrel?” We all always end up laughing because the APs always ask about different and really exotic animals. When would we need to eat beaver?
But I like the idea of off limits and help yourself shelves, I’ll definitely give that a try. We actually put a mini fridge in our AP room so she can have her own little stash.

Anna April 22, 2009 at 4:48 am

Hi Jillian,
this year I switched agencies and the new agency had a matching system where you could search by criteria. My search for “jewish” produced one candidate, who was so grotesque I was laughing reading her essay (a girl had dreams of Hollywood and wrote about it, she was very young). I matched for next year with an au pair who is not Jewish but who has one Jewish parent. It was not intentional on my part, but for me was a plus because I thought she would be more understanding. Actually I think that what really matters is openmindedness and willingness to live with our differences. I would not match with a Jewish candidate just because they are Jewish, I think sometimes Jewish people who are on a different religious level are more likely to disrespect your rules (like in “I am Jewish too and I do it THIS way”) than somebody for whom it is totally new and a part of their new cultural experience.

Lola April 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Luckily, my host parents gave me the rule that I am allowed to eat anything I want, whenever I want, including the beer (Germans!) I am also allowed to take things from the cellar and even the last item as long as I put on the grocery list so they can replenish it for next week. However I’m very conscious not go to hording in their fridge and take everything in sight, regardless of the monstrous appetite that I have. I think au pairs should be considerate to their Host Parents refrigerator, they are already getting enough of room, board and 3x daily meals and access to things in the house

Ms Labeled August 18, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Hi….I frequently have this issue with my aupair…..my leftover Ribeye Steaks disappear…when I was expecting to have it for dinner…but specifically..i bought my husband a birthday cake for his bday and there was one piece left in the box, which my husband labeled..”SAVE FOR DAD”…my aupair saw this and was absolutely APPALLED and offended….made several comments like “I have NEVER seen this before” and couldnt believe it. So…we offended her and now I feel like I have to let her eat anything and everything. …

CV August 18, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Ms Labeled– You can always tell your au pair that you read about this technique on that blog for host parents, where they said that the labels were the #1 way to make sure that nobody– not the AP, not the host dad, not the visiting playdate, not the 9 year old — ate food that was assigned to something else. You might also remind her that it is “very American” to do something explicit like a label. Also, you’re not just notifying her…but also HD, etc.

Please *don’t* respond to this by giving up on the food&fridge management attempt… that would be self-defeating, doesnt’ solve her problem of being offended, and would keep you feeling annoyed (and surprised when the ingredients for tomorrow’s meal were gone today).

instead, have a conversation with your AP. How would *she* like this handled? If it were her special food? Take some suggestions from her and try them. It’s a Learning Opportunity!!

I recommend that you do *not* try eating or using up something special of hers so that she knows how it feels. That’s an ‘almost last resort’, just before rematch.

dear hostmom January 8, 2010 at 5:37 pm

oh my Gosh…that`s just insane…
Have you ever stop to think that maybe this girls didn`t have the opportunity of tasting this things at her home country? That she was curious to taste it? If you don`t want her to eat, keep it safe in your room! It`s a torture to leave things for the au pair to see if she can`t have it! What kind of person would do that?
I would say to your au pair to have a triple chocolate sundae in front of your kids and tell them it was too expensive so they can`t have it…
Just think about how would they feel?

Gosh!

Anonymous January 8, 2010 at 9:03 pm

How, exactly, do you keep rib-eye steaks in your room? LOL! As long as you are not labeling everything tasty as off-limits, there’s no reason that she should feel offended or deprived. It is perfectly reasonable for Dad to be able to have the last piece of his own birthday cake. And FYI, my AP frequently eats treats in front of my kids that they can’t have (I don’t let me kids eat the kind/quantity of crap that comprises her basic diet)

Sara Duke January 8, 2010 at 9:59 pm

A Russian friend once said, “In Russia everything is on the table and nothing is in the cupboard, and America nothing is on the table and everything is in the cupboard.”

In my book, food is meant to be eaten. And if you think your au pair eats a lot, try housing a 20-year-old man working in the construction industry! We were shopping three times a week! Au pairs, especially younger ones, still eat a lot because their bodies are still developing.

We have a shelf in our our pantry just for the au pair. No one touches the food there that is hers. There is also a shelf in the pantry for our son and our daughter. My son is less inclined to share, but daughter is severely retarded and unaware that all her favorite foods are stored in one place – at least for now. If I want something just for me, I hide it up high behind the paper towels. So far so good. The rest of it stays out in the open for everyone to eat (especially my bottomless-pit of a 9-year-old boy).

I cook 4-5 times a week because I am a severely lactose intolerant vegetarian. I plan the menu on Friday nights, and my husband does the grocery shopping on Saturdays while I talk our daughter to an adapted aquatics program. I ask the au pair if there is anything special she would like us to buy. Our previous au pair enjoyed my cooking and would make specific requests. Our current au pair does not enjoy my cooking, although she will eat my vegan dishes happily enough if she has no other plans.

We always take au pairs grocery shopping with us when they first arrive so they may select the items they know they want to eat. Eventually they find stores that sell foods from their country and purchase items themselves.

While I think it’s okay to say, “This is for a special dinner we’re having on Wednesday.” I personally don’t think being stingy with food is worth the bad feelings it might impart. And if your au pair is eating all the expensive stuff maybe it’s because it’s closer to the food she eats at home than the cheap stuff we feed American children (especially the cardboardy stuff that comes in a box or gets delivered in a car).

Sandra Newman November 17, 2010 at 4:18 pm

As an ex au pair, all i can say its that your comment shows the difference between people and people and i feel really happy someone can ever have a thought that we dont really necessary love mac and cheese or cheerios and no we are not starving in our home countries and we might like good staff as well.

evyyk November 17, 2010 at 8:34 pm

It´s a shame i found this post a bit late as it would have come a bit more handy a few months ago. Especially when i saw the titel saying “food and your aupair LABEL” a started reading it with an interest!
I´m an ex-aupair in England and a future-to-be aupair in America. I worked for a few different families back in England (yes, i was aupairing for quite a long time:)), but none of them was alike my last family i lived with! The first day i joined them, i was told “you can help yourself anything in the fridge”. The other day i was called by my hostmom to come to talk to her and she led me to the fridge, opened it and told me: please can u not eat this, this and this. Mind you, I didn´t touch those things she showed me, neither i would ever eat someting i knew it was special, or sweets, treats etc. (my other families could have witnessed i never did unless i was directly offered to help myself these). I never ate anything more i needed “to survive” no matter how big appetite and cravings i had, i just wouldn´t feel that comfortable to browse in their fridge and help myself to anything in there! But in this family there never was ANY food!!! The hostmom cooked dinners, we didn t eat together, every night they ate together in front of the telly in the living room and i ate alone in the kitchen, so i knew if they knew i wouldn´t see their portions they would give me just a small little child-alike portion. But there was just nothing to take for the lunch! the only thing that was (nearly) always in the house was bread and i was allowed that. So my lunches consisted bread with jam, bread with one piece of ham or cheese (if i was really lucky), or marmite, and several times just bread with the butter. I´m not too demanding and my only demand is not to suffer from hunger lol. but most of the times i was because simply i was bored of bread or a couple of times there was just a few pieces left and i would have never finished the last piece. But things got worse. They started to label the things! Even the cheese. Yoghurts. sometimes they bought a few yoghurts for me (different ones, the cheapes – i wouldn´t mind that though), but once i found two new yoghurts in the fridge (after like five weeks of having a none), so i was quite looking after to have one. but when i opened the fridge guess what? labeled. It was for the hostdad. the wave of dissapointment in me, but of course i didn´t touch it. The thing i never will get is that those yoghurts were in the fridge TWO WHOLE MONTHS, a long after their date expired. they ended up throwing them in the bin coz they were no more eatable. Some of the evenings there wasn´t any dinner expecting me, and some of the evenings while the parents were enjoying their dinner out i was given a microwave food from sale for 1pound. but it wasn`t all, my hostmom often came to me to tell me if i can make sure i will not eat this and that, but most of the time there was just “food-nots” waiting for me in the kitchen. she could write me A4 long letter about what i can and i can`t eat, that five centimetres of milk should be enough for all of us till the rest of the week (telling me that on monday morning), so i should “behave” according that, i couldn`t eat any of the vegetable and at the end of the “letter” stood PS: and please don`t eat the bananas, leave them for nell (the hostkid), or please don`t eat any fruit, if u want fruit buy your own and we won`t touch it. i never had any special requirments and i don`t thing buying five apples for 1pound was out of their budget. They definitely weren`t a poor family, when my friend saw their house she said she has never seen anything like that – beause it was all nie and new, quite expensive looking, they enjoyed luxurious holiday and had two expensive cars, but had no money for basic groceries???
now I think i had the right to be OFFENDED!!! it really wasn= t a good feeling that apparently they want to save on ap as much as they can or were thinking i was something less then them?? i really don`t get such a behaviour AT ALL!!!
and yes, i survived with them a whole five months and yes, i was being quiet for that whole time, i`m not the arguing kind of person and i would feel embarrased myself to bring the subject up! I`m just sorry for the new girl there! (it wasn`t through the agency ). i even took a pics of the letters and labeled food coz none of the ppl i was telling that could even believe me! it wasn`t the only issue with the family though and i could write a whole novel about them, but this the most bizzare thing with them.
I just hope that my american family will be as good as they sound and i`ll finally be able to enjoy my (probably last) aupairing time to the fullest:)!

My 2 cents November 18, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Oh my word . . .

There’s always the extemes on both sides. This takes the cake (well, not the birthday cake like above ;))

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