Why we’re so judgmental about what people feed their kids

Jane Duncan’s 6-year-old son came home from school with some news to share: A classmate had informed him that his mother thought Duncan was “crazy.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, well, that’s nice to hear,’” Duncan sarcastically recalls. “I thought it would be something about how I might have raised my voice in the playground.”

Instead, Duncan’s son informed her it was due to her snack choices. The other first grader had said, “Your mom sends you with a marshmallow to school every day. And that’s, you know, crazy.

Duncan, who works with the homebound, lives in Manhattan. She says that if this had been a scene out of “Seinfeld,” she’d have thought it funny. But in real life — and involving her child — it was “heartbreaking.”

It’s no secret that being a parent brings along with it a wave of judgment from the outside world. A recent Pew Research Center survey of more than 3,700 U.S parents found that 35% feel judged at least sometimes by other parents in their community. Unsurprisingly, it was more prevalent with mothers (41%) than fathers (27%). And diet and nutrition, particularly when it comes to children, appears to be a key focus point for all of that judgment: According to a 2017 poll conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 6 out of 10 mothers of young kids say they’ve been criticized about parenting, with more than half of those complaints centered around what they feed their children.

On social media, moms express how fellow parents make unsolicited comments about their use of jarred baby food. Some endure side-eye if they dare offer their child a chicken nugget. One mother even received a note from her child’s teacher instructing her to choose more “healthy snacks.”

“I had people say I should have my kid taken away because she regularly ate Nutella sandwiches with approval from her nutritionist,” one mother shared on Reddit.

The pressure goes both ways: Some moms are judged for being “too healthy” and ridiculed for caring “too much.” This constant balancing act of managing nutrition has been described as “McDonald’s Moms v. Organic Moms” by sociologists Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston and Merin Oleschuk. “Either extreme garners social stigma,” they write.

What is it about food?

There’s something going on with diet — and weight — in particular. In a 2019 Harvard University study analyzing millions of Americans’ implicit and explicit biases between 2007 and 2016, researchers found that overall, the country was becoming more accepting. However, an implicit weight bias (“pro-thin/anti-fat”) had increased by 40%. Researchers think “the increasing attention to the health benefits of lower body weight and concerns about the obesity epidemic may be responsible for the increase in bias.” In part, that’s because body size is seen as being “under one’s control” (even though it often isn’t).

Priya Fielding-Singh, a sociologist and author of “How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America,” says the heated discourse surrounding childhood obesity puts extra pressure on parents. “It has led to a growing moral panic … a concern for children’s diets and weight in a way that feels really pressing and urgent.”

What’s more, parents tend to hold fierce opinions when it comes to their children’s health, explains Liane Young, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College who specializes in moral judgment. If you strongly identify with a particular set of traits, “anything that departs from what you do can feel like your decisions are being undermined or your identity is being threatened,” she says.

And it’s not even always strictly about children’s well-being. Janice Baker, a registered dietitian in San Diego, feels that the growing concern surrounding obesity in middle-class and upper-middle-class communities is tied to body size and appearance, with parents projecting their own fears. “Kids are often seen as trophies. … It’s how they look, how they perform and what colleges they get into,” says Baker. Parents fear they’ll be judged for how their children are perceived. (And often, they will be.)

It’s human nature

We all judge. It’s intuitive and largely automatic, says Adam Moore, a psychology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh who researches decision-making‬.

Our caveman ancestors judged to scout for potential threats and to ensure survival, and while modern parents do make snap judgments for safety, many are also about control. “They are about wanting to be included in a group, which goes back to fear,” says clinical psychologist Carla Manly. “If you’re excluded from that group, you don’t feel safe.”

Besides, moral superiority can feel good: Judging others validates our choices and boosts our self-esteem. The problem is that good-or-bad binary thinking oversimplifies what are usually complex issues (and isn’t ultimately beneficial for anyone). There isn’t always a “right” way, just different ways. Can you, for example, judge someone’s nutrition when there is no agreed-upon diet — or when the “ideal diet” is subject to cultural preferences? Not to mention that nutrition is based on overall dietary patterns, not one singular snack choice.

Baker felt extra judged by fellow parents who assumed that because she was a dietitian, she fed her children only whole wheat bread and carrots. Then, when Baker took her 5-year-old to a McDonald’s after soccer practice, one mom commented, “This isn’t something I think is right.”

“We ate a variety of foods,” Baker says. “I knew in the context of everything it was OK. … One meal doesn’t make or break.”

Lower-income and marginalized communities often face extra scrutiny and additional government surveillance about their parenting practices, especially when they receive public assistance and benefits, Fielding-Singh notes. “Generally in our society, good moms are portrayed as white, upper-middle-class and married to men. So anyone who kind of deviates from that image is not given the same sort of benefit of the doubt.”

Duncan struggled as a single parent to keep up with wealthy peers who often sent their kids to school with sushi. “I’m not a millionaire and everyone else was,” she says. “There was a lot of poor-shaming.”

She recalls how her son once attended a birthday party at which only children with parental permission slips or prior verbal consent could have soda. Except, “Nobody could get in touch with their parents,” says Duncan, “so only my kid was allowed to have it.” Later, several parents told Duncan they didn’t want their children to eat with her son because financially it was unlikely she could keep up with their nutritional standards, which included, among other constraints, food that was organic, gluten-free and sugar-free.

It all falls on moms’ shoulders

When it comes to what is considered “good parenting,” mothers are particularly subject to gendered ideas — and their fallout. “Feeding children is one of the most idealized forms of femininity and motherhood,” Fielding-Singh says. And food is disproportionately managed by mothers.

Melanie Marie Boyer, a nonprofit foundation executive from Pittsburgh, once saw a group of moms at the park shame a mother for giving her child a sugary juice drink and snacks. The next time she went to the park, a father shared the same types of snacks with his son, which garnered a different reaction.

“These same women [exclaimed], ‘Oh my God, what a great guy! He even remembered snacks!” says Boyer. “It was the exact situation I saw this mom be torn apart for.”

Mothers are often expected to be self-sacrificing, child-centered and experts in everything, despite few structural support systems — like comprehensive maternity benefits, extended postpartum care or sufficient childcare policies. “The list goes on and on,” says Sara Petersen, author of “Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture.” “So it would make sense that we would want to root our concept of maternal fitness through relatively easily controllable variables, like choosing what to feed my toddler for breakfast.”

According to Fielding-Singh, the “privatization” of feeding means food has become an individualized affair that’s solely the parent’s responsibility and is detached from societal or economic factors. “But the food system and policy landscape are not set up for you to be supported in doing that work.”

Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University and the author of “The Unfinished Revolution,” agrees: “The lack of institutional support for parents means that the stakes are higher. When we don’t have institutions that make it possible to achieve our goals — when we’re left on our own — we don’t just judge other people. We judge ourselves as well.”

More specifically, when mothers feel scrutinized, there’s often a sense of having to defend one’s own choices by evaluating other people’s choices, Gerson adds.

Is it like this in the rest of the world? A 2020 study published in Qualitative Sociology analyzed the nature of maternal guilt across four cities: Stockholm, Berlin, Rome and Washington, D.C. Sociologist Caitlyn Collins found that middle-class mothers in all four countries suffered from guilt, but it was particularly strong in the U.S. — and it was tied to mothers’ lack of support.

How to reduce the judging

It would seem that the divisions — and Goldfish cracker critiques — are symptoms of these shared social issues. And the solution is to reach across those divisions, instead of resorting to individual evaluations. “First and foremost, mothers need to support each other,” Gerson suggests. “Secondly, they need to say to the larger society: These are collective issues, and we shouldn’t be held as the default for solving problems that we did not create and that we cannot solve.”

But again, we’re all human. So experts have a few tips the next time you feel tempted to judge another parent’s food choices:

Reflect on your response. We’re all guilty of thinking, “I would never do that.” Ask yourself what’s at the core of your criticism. Does this stem from some other anxiety? Could you need reassurance about your choices? Show some curiosity: Explore why someone might have done something differently.

Recognize that most people are trying their best. Not everyone has the same exposure to health information, access to nutritious food or the bandwidth to prepare certain kinds of meals. Many parents barely get the time to shower, so let’s not hold them to Alice Waters-level expectations.

Be mindful. Shaming people prevents them from pursuing healthy behaviors. The stigma is a deterrent, not a motivator. Determine whether it’s essential to leave that snarky comment or offer your sister-in-law your two cents. If you do, ensure the tone is helpful, understanding and, most of all, kind.

Practice self-compassion. We’re our own toughest critics. As Gerson says, the less you judge yourself — the less you’re concerned with evaluating your own practices — “the less likely you are to judge other people.”