If you’ve got a picky eater at home, chances are, you’re already thinking about how you’re going to get through big family meals with the least amount of stress. Should you encourage your child to try new things, or just let them have what they like? How do you respond to well-meaning family members who may attempt to guilt your child into tasting something – or offer you some unsolicited advice? It’s no wonder some start to dread what should be a festive and delicious meal!
My advice is this: let it go for the day. When you’re at home and following your typical routine, you can introduce your child to new (and previously disliked) foods on a frequent basis. After all, many kids need repeated exposures to foods before they feel comfortable enough to test them. I don’t agree with being a short order cook in your normal life.
However! When your child is away from home (be it school or an extended family member’s home), it’s really not the best time to stretch them. The combination of unfamiliar dishes, lots of people around, and other distractions can be stressful, and none of us want to break out of our comfort zones when we’re overwhelmed. Pushing your child to sample something new is likely to backfire, and then no one’s happy – not your child, and certainly not you and your family members who are having to listen to meltdown.
Here’s what I suggest you about picky eating on the holidays instead:
Stick with safe foods
When making your child’s plate, add items that you KNOW they like, and leave off the ones you’re unsure about (or worse, know will not go well). If they’re severely picky and won’t like anything served, it’s even okay to bring something from home. If you’re worried about this appearing rude to the host, consider giving them a heads-up beforehand!
Don’t pile on too much
For a picky eater, a plate filled with food (yes, even if it’s dishes they like!) can be overwhelming. When kids are distracted by lots of talking, laughing, and motion, it’s very common for them to have trouble focusing on the meal. Having less on the plate will set them up for success AND less will be wasted if they don’t eat. Obviously, it’s fine to give them more if they gobble down the first serving.
Try not to stress if they barely eat
Remember this: your child’s appetite or eating behaviors are not a reflection of how you’re doing as a parent. Your child is not going to wither away after one day of grazing. It’s okay to step back from a power struggle so that you can relax and enjoy your own meal.
Prepare a diplomatic but firm response to others
It’s probably impossible to avoid other people making comments about your child’s eating habits. Maybe they try to offer you some friendly tips on “getting” your child to eat, or maybe they more directly pressure the child with statements like, “Grandma will be really hurt if you don’t try her potatoes.” Stand strong in the knowledge that pressure makes things WORSE! Allowing kids the freedom to decide what they put in their bodies is empowering and ultimately leads to better eating habits. Bribes and threats might work in the short term, but you’re not actually teaching them to like the food, just to tolerate it.
Here are some example responses you can give:
- “We introduce Carrie to new foods often! But we’re okay with relaxing on the holidays and letting her choose what she wants.”
- “We encourage James to listen to his body. If he’s saying he’s not hungry, we respect that. He’ll eat when he’s ready.”
- “Aunt Sue, I know you’d really like for Kiki to try your pie, but she’s not a big pie person. If you hand me her slice, I’d love to try it!”
Help older kids learn to advocate for themselves
You may not be present in the room every time a family member offers your child something to eat. Before the holiday, help them practice some respectful and simple ways of saying no if they don’t want the food, such as:
- “No, thank you.”
- “My body’s telling me I’m not hungry right now.”
- “Dad said I can pick what I eat today.”
- “I don’t care for ______, but I’d like to try the ________.”
What are your tried and true strategies for navigating holiday meals with picky eaters?