By Robin Strathdee, who just told the school nurse that rice cereal every day for breakfast is not an acceptable choice for a kindergartner.

Last time we chatted, we brainstormed a few strategies for dealing with what your kids eat when they’re away from home. But a strategy is no good if it doesn’t apply in real life, right? So today, let’s talk about some situations you’re likely to encounter, and how to apply your plan in real life.

The list of folks who are likely to be feeding our kids is long and varied:  grandparents (and other family members), teachers and other grown-ups at school, friends and their families, coaches and team parents, bank tellers, grocery store greeters, bakery employees…  Yeah, there are some people on that list you probably didn’t think of, right? Your strategy of choice will play out differently based on who you’re interacting with, so let’s talk about some common scenarios, and how to apply your chosen plan.

Family Members

We often hear from parents who are trying to feed their kids Good Food that they feel sabotaged by members of their own families who just don’t seem willing to follow the guidelines they’ve put in place.  Mom and Dad ask (clearly) for no gluten and no dairy, but pick the kids up to find the remnants of soft-serve cones on their little ones’ faces.  Depending on the family dynamic, a conversation may or may not ensue, but after the second, third, or twenty-fifth time you can bet that Mom and Dad are bursting with frustration.

First things first, it’s important to remember that many times our family members try to show our children love through food.  They aren’t really trying to be subversive. They want to give your kids what they know will make them happy (in many cultures, food=love), and they probably don’t quite understand the restrictions you’ve put in place. The usually don’t mean any harm – even if that’s the outcome.

Now, this is where your strategy comes into play:

If your plan is to let it ride…

There’s really nothing to be done here. You sent the kids with Grandma and the only rule you set was, “Have fun!”  Poof! You’re golden.

If your plan is to ‘keep it between the lines’…

You have to preface everything with a serious conversation. And no, a 30 second side note as you’re loading them into Aunt Mabel’s car won’t cut the mustard. Find a time to sit down with any family members who will be responsible for feeding your kids and explain to them what your boundaries are and – most important – why. If sugar makes your kid scarier than Damien from The Omen, tell them so! Use real life examples to illustrate why you feel the boundaries you set are so important: “Remember that time that Katie broke out in a rash on her stomach and back?  We’ve narrowed that down to eating dairy.”

Be very clear about what is and isn’t okay, and give them examples they’ll be familiar with.  Show them some labels and let them know if there are any sneaky ingredients they should watch for.  Let them know that they can contact you for final approval if there’s ever a question.

Most important, though, know that they won’t get it right every time. There’s a learning curve, and if you’ve ever completed a Whole30 you know that the curve can be steep. We’ve all been label-bombed at least once! Stick to your guns and help them see where things went wrong, but be patient with them and don’t lose your temper, even if it means your kiddo wets the bed for a week straight after a crazy weekend at their cousin’s house.

If you’re taking the ‘my way or the highway’ approach…

Be prepared to do a lot of explaining. Seriously. Take the conversation we mentioned above and multiply it by about 9,347, then add in some time for Q&A.  Not that it’s a bad thing – shoot, this is a great chance to share your philosophy – but if you’re going to put the squash on anything you don’t prepare or expressly approve, you’re going to get a lot of questions from your family. In some cases, your family members will be familiar with the circumstances that have brought you to this point and that will definitely work in your favor.

Again, be incredibly clear about what is and isn’t okay since in these situations there’s less room for error (especially when dealing with true allergies).  If no OPF is acceptable, don’t be afraid to voice that!  This approach is not for the meek – it’s going to require a lot of interaction on your child’s behalf.

If you’re going to be solely responsible for your child’s food, make sure you’re willing (and able) to prepare and send enough.  Don’t skimp, either, because one of the hardest things for a Grandma is having a hungry kiddo and nothing to give them.  If the food you sent them with is supposed to last three meals, leave instructions to that effect – don’t leave your family members guessing about what and how much they can have when.

If you encounter a family member who refuses to respect your boundaries… 

You’ve got a sticky situation on your hands. Times like this require more of a practical approach. First, if you’re co-parenting, make sure your partner-in-parenting is on board with your plans. This will never work if one of you is willing to bend the rules with family.  Next, work together to outline a logical progression of “next steps.” If Grandpa won’t stop giving Timmy crackers, what are we going to do first? If he still doesn’t stop, then what?  How far are we willing to take this boundary?

Once you have answered those questions in a manner you’re comfortable with, it’s time to talk to the family members in question.  Sit them down and explain (again) why you’ve set the boundaries, and what the next step will be.  Chances are, once you let them know how committed you are to following these guidelines, they’ll give in and follow along. Most family members aren’t willing to sacrifice relationships over something silly like crackers.

Schools and Daycares

Six: The number of days my 5-year-old ate Cinnamon Toast Crunch with chocolate milk for breakfast (in her classroom) before I found out and put a stop to it. Four: The number of times she has climbed into my car after school with a lollipop hanging out of her mouth. Three: The number of surprise birthday treats that have shown up in her kindergarten class unannounced.  Two: The number of those surprise treats that she couldn’t have because of her food sensitivities.

Navigating the food word of daycares, public schools, and even private schools can be dizzying and daunting.  There are federal, state and even district laws governing what foods can and can’t be served, there are school policies concerning allergens, class parties and surprise birthday treats.  The amount of food presented to your kiddos on a daily basis is overwhelming. That’s why it’s really important to have your family’s OPF plan firmly in place when you’re dealing with educational institutions.

If your plan is to let it ride…

Again, there’s not much for you to do here. Plan breakfasts and dinners that you know will set them up for success throughout their day, give your kids the option of packing a Good Food lunch, but don’t stress if they opt for the pizza sticks instead.

If your plan is to ‘keep it between the lines’…

Again, this is going to require some conversation. Make an appointment to talk to your child’s teacher, and if necessary the principal or daycare director.  Let them know what your boundaries are and, most importantly, explain why you have those boundaries.

Ask if there are any steps you need to take. They may ask you to provide your kiddos snacks, pack their lunch, or send alternative treats for celebrations.  Offer to help organize class parties and make them friendly to your kiddo and the others with dietary restrictions (there are five in our kindergarten class alone!) They also may ask you to get a doctor’s note. Don’t be intimidated by that idea! We’ll talk about how to handle that in just a bit.

Find out what accommodations can be made. For example, our public school offered Rice Chex cereal so my munchkin would have a gluten-free option as part of their Breakfast in the Classroom program. My youngest’s preschool teacher asked for a list of snack ideas and offered to let us know when there’s a birthday coming up so we can bring her alternative treats.

Be willing to live up to your end of the deal.  Pack those snacks, lunches and treats. Organize awesome parties that revolve around activities rather than sugar and salt-packed foods.

If you’re taking the ‘my way or the highway’ approach…

Plan to have some lengthy conversations with school administration, in the same way that you did with your family members. Again, give them details and be prepared to answer questions.  You’re likely going to need a doctor’s note for this strategy, but again, that’s okay. You need as much cooperation as you can get from the school staff.

Packing lunches, snacks, and birthday treats is a must.  If your kiddo can’t have any food from the school or other parents, then you’ve got to make doubly sure their eats are covered.  Since there’s no room for error in this plan, send some emergency food, too, in case your kiddo winds up in a surprise situation.

If you find you need a doctor’s note…

Don’t be intimidated by the idea of talking to your doctor about your kids’ diet. Your doctor is only interested in keeping your family healthy. Here’s how I suggest getting the support you need for your kiddo:

  • Make an appointment to chat with your doctor, rather than going through the nurse or showing up unannounced with a form.  Plan to have the same kind of conversation with the doctor as you had with your family and the school administration.
  • Be honest about why you want to make these dietary changes. Give the doctor examples of how these foods affect your kids and how changing their diet has relieved some health issues.
  • Questions are inevitable, so try to think ahead and prepare yourself to answer those questions.  Print out some information to reinforce your perspective and to demonstrate that your kids won’t be missing anything nutritionally by removing certain food groups.  You can even print out our FAQ or bring a copy of It Starts With Food with you.
  • Be genuine with the doctor. Help them to understand that this isn’t just a phase in your family’s life – that you’ve made significant changes for many reasons and that everyone’s health is improving.
  • Fill out any necessary forms in advance. Detail what foods you’d like to avoid and what symptoms they cause.  Then, all your doctor has to do is sign when they’re ready.

If your doctor says no, you still have a couple of options. First, you can go back to the school and see how willing (or able) they are to work with you without the official paperwork.  There’s a really good chance you can work out a plan with the folks who will be dealing with your kids directly, even if there’s nothing on file.  Secondly, you can find another doctor. Now, I’m not advocating that as a first course of action, especially if you’re otherwise happy with your physician.  But, if you feel like this gives you significant cause to look for care elsewhere, make sure you find out about new potential physicians’ dietary opinions before you choose a new care provider.

Play Dates, Sporting Events, and Other Slightly More Frequent Than Occiasional Occasions

Granted, dealing with coaches or your kids’ friends’ parents is less of a big deal than the previously mentioned situations, but food-related issues still arise. There are post-practice snacks, post-win celebrations, sleep-overs, and impromptu play dates. However, compared to some of the situations we’ve already mentioned, applying your strategy here should be pretty simple.

If your plan is to let it ride…

Well, there’s really nothing for you to do here, either. Take those situations as they come.

If you’re planning to use the ‘keep it between the lines’, or the ‘my way or the highway’, approach…

A simple conversation and a promise to send alternative snacks should cut it here. These folks aren’t likely to be invested enough in what your kids are eating to cause too much of a fuss.

If you’re dealing with something like a sleep-over where there are full meals involved, a little more planning may be necessary.  Just call the other parents and explain the situation. Ask what’s on the menu and offer to provide an alternative if necessary. Plan to pack enough of the alternative snacks for everyone at the get-together, to reduce any awkwardness.

Ride Your Own Bike

I know we haven’t covered every possible OPF-inducing situation in this series, but that wasn’t the goal, really. The goal was to present you with the tools you need for form and apply a strategy that keeps your kids (and in the process, you) happy and healthy while at the same time navigating the social-food world.    There will always be situations that don’t go according to plan, but with confidence and planning, there’s no challenge that you can’t face as a Good Food parent.

Have questions about dealing with OPF in your life? Ask them, or share your support for those who need it, the comments.

Published by Melissa Urban

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.

Melissa Urban

Co-Founder / CEO

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the # bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.