If you’re one of the many parents raising a child with a food allergy or special diet needs, the thought of sending your child off with your ex for visitation or parenting time may make your stomach clench with worry. Will the other parent make sure he stays away from dangerous food items? Will the other parent be as vigilant as you are to follow your child’s special diet? These concerns are real, particularly when food choices can be so confusing with so many potentially serious consequences. Follow these steps to ensure your child’s needs are met while with the other parent.
The very first step is to educate the other parent. Ask him to come to a doctor or nutritionist appointment with you and your child, or offer to set one up at his convenience. The most important thing you can do is have a professional stress the importance of your child’s diet and lay out all the dos and don’ts associated with food. You might be able to tell your ex everything he needs to know, but it’s all going to carry more weight coming from a professional in a position of authority. It’s very important that the medical professional tell your ex what the consequences are of NOT following the prescribed diet, so he cannot just brush off the advice.
Provide your ex with a clearly written sheet of dos and don’ts. For example, if you child is a celiac, you could print out a list from the internet detailing surprising foods that often have hidden gluten. If your child is allergic to tree nuts, a list of unexpected places those can be found would be helpful. The same goes for lactose intolerance or other allergies. A list of no-no foods is very helpful, but also make a list of foods, brands, and products that are safe for your child to eat, particularly if you have your child on a diet such as one to control or reverse autism. Remind your ex that he must be ever vigilant when eating at restaurants or at other people’s homes with your child. Teach him how to ask – and what to ask– about food that is being offered to your child. Sow him how to read labels when shopping. Give suggestions about what alternatives to offer your child when she wants something she can’t have. In the beginning, it may even be necessary for you to pack a bag with some food items to be certain your ex has some products available, just in case.
In many cases, all of this will be enough to keep your child safe. In some cases though, the other parent can make things difficult. It’s a good idea to ask about what your child has eaten while away. Red flags are statements like “My mom fed him something,” or “We just ate at X restaurant.” That’s not enough information for either of you! If you have real doubts about your ex’s ability to stay on track with your child’s diet, start a food log and send it along on visitation, asking your ex to fill it out. To make things a bit less confrontational, fill out the log for when your child is with you as well. This way it will seem like a joint effort and your log entries will provide an excellent model for your ex to follow.
Empower Your Child
If your child is old enough, you can educate him or her about what he and can’t eat. You are probably already doing this, but many children would not think to question choices a parent is making for them, so make sure your child understands that the diet comes first, no matter what anyone, even a parent, says.
If you have an ex who either does not believe the special diet is important or who seems to be unable to follow it out of laziness or even just to spite you, you need to take action. Document what is happening (make dated notes about interference with the diet, as well as the consequences your child experiences). Then go back to court. Depending on your situation, you can ask for a few different things. Some parents just need a judge to tell them they have to follow the diet (but you may need a doctor to testify about the importance of it). It may be enough to have your custody order modified to include a directive that both parents follow the recommendations of the child’s doctor about diet. If that isn’t going to do it, you can ask to have visitation modified so that your child is not with your ex at meals or so that your ex has supervised visitation, where another responsible adult is present and can make sure the diet is being followed.