Picky Eaters at Holiday Meals: A Parent’s Guide
8 Tips for an enjoyable holiday meal—even with Grandma’s comments!
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
It’s the most wonderful time of the year—right?
And yet, there are plenty of reasons why the hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be stressful for parents.
If your child is a picky eater, attending a big holiday meal with family or friends might be a major source of that stress. What will she eat from the spread? What will grandma say if he only eats bread?
Here are 8 pediatrician-tested tips you can use so that you and your picky eater can enjoy all your family’s holiday meals with less stress and more joy:
1). Establish a game plan.
If you have a co-parent, talk together ahead of time to know how you’re going to approach whatever may happen at the meal. Talk about what you think your child will eat or what to do/say if he starts making a scene.
It may also be worth discussing what will happen if other children invited to the dinner have different “rules” than the ones you are putting on your children. Will you waver or stay the course?
No matter the plan, it’s good to be on the same page. Plus, starting the discussion ahead of time will help you to keep your cool and respond as planned rather than react on a whim.
2). Prep for the “Grandma Factor.”
Come up with some phrases you can say to “well-meaning” relatives who make less-than-supportive comments. You know, like when your mother-in-law says “Is that all you’re going to give him?” or “My kids ate everything on their plate!”
Try something like “Thank you for concern,” or “We’ve got this handled.” When all else fails you can simply smile and change the subject: “Tell me where you got those lovely socks, Grandma.” (Last resort: politics!)
3). Get the kids in on it.
Talk to your children beforehand about what your expectations of them will be. If you want them to eat some dinner food before they get dessert, or if you’re going to require a certain number of bites or that certain foods are tried, then letting your kids know on the trip over can help prevent a surprise battle at the table.
4). Give Your Host a Heads-Up.
If you feel comfortable, talk to the host of the big meal to let them know your concerns and your game plan—they’ll likely appreciate it. Ideally, a friend or a loved one won’t have their feelings hurt by an uneaten plate, but you never know what will ruffle someone’s feathers. You can always spin it and remind them it means they’ll have more leftovers!
5). Be realistic.
Hey, this is may not be the time to force your child to eat her peas. There are 20 other meals in your child’s week to work on. But here at the holiday meal, with all eyes on you and the goal really being a joyful experience, just set your child up for success. If that means giving her a roll with butter and a scoop of mashed potatoes for dinner, that’s okay. It’s just one meal!
6). Feed your child beforehand.
You might have read that this is the secret for adults to prevent overeating at a tasty holiday meal. Well, use the same principle here. If your child has a “pre-meal” in his stomach, then you don’t have to worry about what he will or won’t eat at the get-together. Plus you’ll be less likely to have to deal with any “hangry” behavior when you least want it.
This method works best when there’s a large crowd with a lot of children running around—most people won’t even notice that your child isn’t eating because there’s too much going on to keep track.
7). Do some “catering.”
Bring something to share that your child will willingly eat. If you know your child loves fruit salad, make a big one! Is your special mac ‘n’ cheese recipe your kid’s go-to? Bring a tray of it to share! That way you get to put something on your child’s plate she’s guaranteed to eat, but you don’t look like you’re catering just to her. Of course, check with your host ahead of time—you might not want to bring your special kid-friendly stuffing if your host takes pride in theirs.
8). Remember—it’s just one day.
We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make holidays perfect. “Everyone…must…enjoy…every…minute!” And yet, every parent knows that when it comes to kids and family, the imperfection isn’t only a guarantee, it’s often where all the memories and fun arise.
So you get some eyerolls from your mother-in-law. In a couple of hours, one of you gets to drive home and life moves on.
Rather than letting any frustrating or embarrassing points take over the whole holiday experience, find the enjoyable moments in the occasion and choose to focus on those instead.
If you have picky eaters in your household, a big holiday meal is not the day to “fix” them or put pressure on them—especially if you don’t want to feel that there’s pressure on you, too.
Go in prepared with these eight tips and aim to have a holiday you’ll remember for all the right reasons!
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a pediatrician, dad, and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast. He’s also quite fond of leftovers, so feel free to send yours his way.