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 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 ?
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.
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.
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….)