By Robin Strathdee, who likes to keep it firmly between the lines…most of the time.
It’s bound to happen. Sooner or later, your kids will come face to face with OPF: Other People’s Food. As parents, we do everything we can to keep our kids safe and healthy. We cover them in sunscreen, we make them wear their seat belts, and we teach them how to cross the street safely. When we make the change to a Good Food lifestyle, that desire naturally extends to the food they eat. So now we also make sure they have protein at breakfast, enough fat in their lunch, and that their little plate is full of veggies at dinner. But the (frustrating, humbling, sometimes terrifying) truth of parenting is that we can’t control every situation.
And so, we must create a plan to deal with those situations we can’t control – like OPF.
There are a few different angles you can use to approach OPF. You may decide on one you like and stick with it in all situations, or you may want to be flexible with your application based on the context of the situation. Personally, I find that we can stick with one plan for a majority of the time, but some situations warrant special strategical maneuvers. For example, we have set boundaries that apply 90% of the time, but decide to really tighten down in a situation that’s unfamiliar to us food-wise. As Good Food Parents, the choice is yours (well, mostly). So, let’s take a look at some strategies you can use to navigate the world of OPF.
Plan #1 – Let it ride.
Some parents choose to set the rules at home, but allow any/all off-plan foods in situations outside the home. They feel this gives their kids the benefit of a primarily whole food lifestyle, but also gives them the opportunity to practice making their own choices in social situations where they may want to blend in with the crowd a bit. It also takes the pressure off of other adults to understand and comply with your boundaries.
This strategy can create some very teachable moments for your kids, and give you the opportunity to help your kids build the connection between what they eat and how they feel. If Joey decides to eat pizza when he’s out with his friends, but then spends the evening feeling sick, perhaps he’ll make the connection between what he ate and how he feels. However, this benefit is only realized by kiddos who are old enough to make and understand their own choices—a tw0-year-old will almost always choose a cookie over a carrot, but they cannot understand the ramifications of that choice.
However, some parents feel that this strategy can undermine the boundaries you set at home. In other words, by allowing your kids to eat whatever they choose when they’re away from home, you teach them that the nutrition lessons you try to apply at home aren’t important in the context of their outside lives. There is no definitive right answer to this debate, so you have to choose what’s more appropriate in your context.
One additional caveat—if your kids have allergies or intolerances, this is probably not the best plan for your family. It may help teach your kids to better control their own food lives, but the fallout as a result of that learning experience is often unpleasant enough to warrant complete avoidance.
Some things to consider with this approach:
- If you’re trying to pinpoint a food-based cause for a physical or behavioral issue your child is having, this approach will prevent you from clearly identifying any triggers.
- Some of the foods that make us less healthy can continue to have negative effects on our health (even in small doses) long after we consume them. A regular helping of those less healthy foods can cause ongoing effects despite the Good Food your kids are getting at home.
- By choosing to allow your kids food freedom like this, you’re essentially giving up your right to be unhappy with the outcome. I know this isn’t going to be popular, but I’m going to say it anyway: If you let your kid eat food that you know makes them sick/tired/cranky/crazy, you don’t get to complain (especially to them) about them being sick/tired/cranky/crazy.
Plan #2 – Stay between the lines.
Parents who are just not comfortable letting their kids (or other adults) make the rules when it comes to OPF but are willing to be a bit flexible might feel more comfortable setting some guidelines that apply in every situation. These boundaries may be based on known sensitivities, or just on foods that you know are less healthy choices. For example, my girls are always gluten and dairy free (and my oldest is also HFCS free) when we’re dealing with OPF. Those are foods we know trigger unpleasant physical and behavioral reactions that are just not worth it. Outside of those boundaries, though, we don’t fuss too much.
When you choose this strategy it allows your kids (or the adults they’re with) to have a little more freedom with the menu, but still leaves you feeling comfortable that your kiddos are not going to suffer any substantial ill-effects from OPF. Having simple guidelines makes it easier for your kids to make good choices, and it makes it easier on other adults who may be making choices for your kids. It also allows you to explain your dietary choices without having to cover all of the “Less Healthy” foods in detail.
Of course, it can be hard to guarantee that your guidelines will be followed when you’re not there, but that’s a part of teaching, and learning to trust, our kids (and others) to respect boundaries in all areas of their lives.
Some things to consider with this approach:
- This plan isn’t foolproof—there’s no guarantee that your guidelines will be followed 100% of the time. If your kids have serious intolerances or allergies you may want to consider a more controlled approach.
- You will have to do some recon to determine when potential OPF situations could arise. That means checking with your kids’ school at the beginning of the year to find out about food policies (will parents be bringing in surprise treats for birthdays?), finding out what the snack schedule is for soccer practice, and calendaring important family events so you know in advance when a little more legwork is necessary.
- You have to be willing to provide alternatives. Cupcake-toting parents at a school birthday party can’t be expected to understand and comply with your kiddos food rules, so there will be additional food preparation in your future for those special events that revolve around “treats.” (And don’t they all these days?)
Plan #3 – My way or the highway.
Other parents feel that the best plan for them is to control and/or provide any food their kiddo eats. These might be parents of munchkins with serious food allergies or intolerances, parents who are working to determine their kids’ tolerances (perhaps via a Whole30 or similar approach), or simply parents who believe that choosing foods that make their kids more healthy should always take precedence over social situations. The benefit of employing this strategy is (if executed properly) complete confidence what the kids are eating, and reassurance that there won’t be any nasty fallout from OPF.
However, this is a pretty restrictive approach to feeding kids, and puts a lot of stress on both you and your children. In addition, there’s a lot of truth to the idea that kids (well, all people) will gravitate toward things that are forbidden, especially without a real understanding of the reasoning behind the prohibition.
This plan may work well with younger kids who are not likely to be making any unsupervised (by you) food choices and who are too young to really question why things are non-negotiable. As kids get older, they may begin to question why the rules are different for them than for others—and that’s okay! That’s where one of the biggest responsibilities of parenthood, education, comes into play. The thing is, this strategy only works if you – and everyone who’s going to be feeding your kids—are all in. If there is anyone inside the Circle of Trust that makes an off-plan decision, the whole thing goes to pot and you find yourself in a frustrating cycle.
Some things to consider about this approach:
- You’re going to be doing a lot of research and a lot of prep work. There’s no way around it. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, just something you have to be prepared for. Every birthday party, sleepover at Grandma’s, or day out with friends will require either explicit instructions or packed food (sometimes both).
- Be prepared for a lot of questions. Again, not a bad thing. But if you’re not prepared for it, the barrage of questions can quickly become overwhelming.
We’ve presented a few strategies for dealing with OPF here, but the reality is that you have to find the plan that works best for your family. That might be straightforward and unchanging, or it could be as flexible as a crazy straw. Just take a deep breath and think about what you’re currently doing. If that’s working for your family right now—great! If not, think through what you’d like to change and then read through these strategies again to see how you might be able to make those changes.
In part two of this series we’ll take a look at some of the folks who are most likely to feed our kids and talk about how to apply these strategies in real life. In the meantime, do you have any specific strategies you use to manage OPF? We’d love to hear them! Share them in the comments.