How do you approach family gatherings with a child who doesn’t like to eat?
I think that most parents can agree that while the holidays bring excitement and comforting traditions, they also present their own unique challenges. Many parental concerns involve finding the shortest line for a photo with Santa or convincing their two-year-old to wear a wool reindeer sweater long enough to have One. Decent. Picture. taken. Parents of picky eaters often have a special kind of holiday dread: The extended-family dinner.
What starts as a jovial opportunity for relatives to catch up with each other can quickly become a stressful situation. Many parents find that a holiday meal provides no respite from the daily struggles of picky eating. In fact, the combination of an unfamiliar environment, strange faces, new foods, and unsolicited advice can make a challenging meal downright unbearable.
Here are some guidelines for helping to set up a painless holiday meal:
1.) Prepare your child ahead of time: The holidays lend themselves to unpredictability. School is out of session, parents’ schedules are adjusted, and bedtimes become less concrete. Kids do best with routine, so provide as much stability and information as you can when approaching holiday events.
If you are traveling, find out which foods will be served, and talk to your child about the menu beforehand. Ask your child about which foods he or she might like to try, based on his or her preferences. For example: Turkey is similar to the inside of a chicken tender, yams taste like sweet potato fries, stuffing is made out of bread, cranberry sauce tastes like fruit leather. Let your child know that they are welcome to sample what they would like to, and if they put it on their plate but change their mind, it’s no big deal.
If you are hosting the meal at your home, you can have your child help with the grocery shopping and, if they are old enough, the meal prep. Some kids may be willing to sample some of these foods ahead of time. Even dipping a dinner roll into gravy could be a good start into a holiday menu! Many kids will not be willing to explore the foods, but your gentle discussions in the days prior to the meal are guaranteed to stick with them.
2.) Set reasonable expectations: It’s always best to keep expectations low when bringing your picky eater into an unfamiliar mealtime situation. Some parents do report successes with tastes of new flavors during holiday dinner, but this is the exception and not the rule. It is better to end a meal feeling pleasantly surprised than frustrated and defeated because the meal did not go as you hoped it would.
You know your child better than anyone else, so you will be best equipped to decide on what his or her mealtime goals should be. For some kids, simply sitting at the table and participating in the meal may be the most reasonable expectation. For others, you may be able to encourage them to try a bite of one new thing (in addition to the plain dinner roll which is, of course, a staple item!). Your child may feel more relaxed and open to sitting at the table if you offer a small activity for them to work on during the meal.
3.) Give Grandma the Lowdown: It is very common for family members who are not involved in the daily comings and goings of a child’s feeding routine to want to offer their encouragement during mealtime. This often involves spooning unwelcome green bean casserole onto little Sophia’s plate, or yelling across the table to Ethan to “Come on, just try one bite, you can do it!!!”
While Aunt Betty’s heart may be in the right place, this strategy is by and large ineffective, and can actually reduce intake at meals. The mere presence of new foods on or near a child’s plate can be enough to turn him or her off of the meal entirely. In addition, many parents report that their child will refuse to even come to the dinner table if extra attention is directed toward them or the obvious absence of food on their plate.
While the meal is being prepared, go into the kitchen and let your relatives know that, at this point, new foods are still a work in progress for your child. Politely inform them that you have planned to do XYZ during the mealtime, and in order to keep things positive, you’d like to downplay your child’s intake (or lack thereof).
4.) Facilitate but don’t push: While there are definitely situations in which it is beneficial to push your child out of his or her comfort zone, a large holiday meal is often not the time or place. When it comes to the meal itself, help your child to be as comfortable and successful as possible. A stressful, negative holiday meal will have much more of a lasting impact than a positive, if uneventful, one.
If he or she does not do well with lots of noise and activity, allow your child to trade their spot at the kids’ table for a seat next to you. If your child chooses not to put any new foods onto his or her plate, don’t despair! In these situations, kids often have greater success sampling from Mom or Dad’s plate rather than their own. Allow them to inspect your plate, and ask if anything looks good. If there is an interest, offer a tiny taste of that food--no strings attached. Follow your child’s lead to see how far that interest will take them!
Remember to recognize any efforts your child makes during the meal, and stay positive. After all, it’s only 1 dinner out of the 365 dinners that your child will have had this year!