7 Tips to Help with the Holidays and a Picky Eater

By Jessica Getter

Let’s face it, the holidays can be stressful for all of us. As a parent of a child who is a picky eater, you may feel like you just can’t win when it comes to holiday meals. Here are some easy, straight forward tips to making it through a family gathering during the holidays with your picky eater in a way that will make both of you feel successful.

Tip #1: Stay Calm and Stay Positive

When picky eaters are pressured to eat food that they perceive as a challenge it triggers a stress response. This response causes the release of hormones that will reduce their appetite, thus having the opposite effect of what parents are trying to achieve. Remain calm and encourage family members to do the same. Focus on the small victories such as your child being able to come to the table or having a small portion on their plate. The positive energy that you emit will make your child feel less stressed about the meal situation. 

Tip #2: Even adventurous eaters are stressed during the holidays

New smells, new foods, changes in routines, a house full of people…the list goes on as to the stressors that affect all of us during holiday gatherings. For even the best eaters, all of these factors can affect appetite and how well (or not well!) they eat for the holiday meal.

Tip #3: Stick to normal meal and nap times

Obviously, this can be a big challenge for the holidays. We know that kids do best when things are predictable and routine. Overtired kids who have been snacking all day will not make the best meal time companions and getting them to eat a good meal will be difficult.

Tip #4: Offer some familiar foods

Plan ahead. If it’s a potluck, bring something to serve that you know your child will eat, even if it’s non-traditional. If you think other family members will be offended by your child not trying their traditional recipes, have a conversation ahead of time and remind them to stay calm and positive when you all arrive. If your child likes dipping their foods, bring the dip along and you might be surprised that your child may experiment with dipping other new foods, too!

Tip #5: Do a practice run

A few days or weeks ahead of time, do a practice run. Talk about what foods will be there and which people will be there. Together with your child, prepare and cook a few of the traditional foods that may be at the holiday gathering. This will allow your child to experience new foods in a safe, familiar environment. We know that repeated exposure is key for picky eaters and this technique will allow them to become acquainted with holiday foods ahead of time.

Tip #6: Keep serving sizes small

The goal when offering new foods is to underwhelm (not overwhelm!) your child. A heaping scoop of mashed potatoes may look like a mountain of a challenge to your child and they will quickly avoid and refuse to explore. Offer 1-2 teaspoons of new foods and this may trigger their curiosity.

Tip #7: Encourage self-serving and family-style serving

If your child is old enough, allow them to go through the line on their own if serving buffet-style. When given the control, they may surprise you as to what choices they make and the new foods that may make it on their plate. If serving family-style at the table, again allow your child to serve themselves or others; this will allow for exposure to the sights, smells, and textures of various foods without the stress of having to eat it. (Remember, repeated exposure!)

Use the tips that work best for you and your picky eater to make holiday meals enjoyable and fun for the entire family! Happy Holidays!

Jessica Getter is an Occupational Therapist at CP

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