Working with children who have restrictive eating issues has taught me a few things about taking the apprehension and stress out of meal times. For those of you with picky eaters at home, the holidays can be a particularly challenging time, but fortunately, the methods we use in speech therapy actually translate well to anyone facing eating issues – even picky eaters.
There is real value to be found in exposure, rehearsal, and underwhelming opportunities. Each of these methods can mitigate the anxiety level your little one may be experiencing at mealtime. Too often, during the holidays, stress levels can be elevated, for both the parent and the child. It’s not an opportune time to introduce new foods, or be faced with large volumes of food, but unfortunately the holidays provide us amply with both.
So instead of focusing on those aspects of holiday eating, try to emphasize the social aspect of mealtimes, as you build traditions for your child. Remember, they are still an “eater in training”. That gives you a chance to show, by example, that while food is part of the holiday experience, the emphasis should be on the act of being together and enjoying each other’s company – in a space where food just happens to be.
Here are some tips for surviving the small holiday gatherings with your picky eater.
Include some of your picky eater’s “safe foods” in your holiday spread
A buffet or charcuterie board may look intimidating to a young one, but it’s easy to include some of their favorites there, items like crackers, mild cheeses, and fruit slices.
When faced with a buffet or food table, take the time to be food detectives. Look at the food and talk about the each dish’s different physical properties. You can encourage your child to place some new foods on their plates, without the worry of having to eat it. You can also have an extra plate for your little one which is the “learning food” plate so that any anxiety of co-mingled foods (the safe with the new) can be minimized. Even if they don’t end up eating the new food, get them in the habit of accepting something new on their plate.
Along the same lines, encourage your child to get inquisitive about the variety of foods around them. If you and your child have been working on his/her feeding skills for some time – and your child is ready for this more advanced tip – you can help your little eater learn about how some of the foods on the “menu” being offered at the table are similar to his/her favorite/preferred foods. I like to call these foods the “cousins” of their favorite foods or – if they’re really close resemblances in color, size, texture, flavor profile, crunch factor, etc. – the brother or sister of their favorites.
Sample related food items
If your eater likes hamburgers, show them how Swedish Meatballs are “just like” burgers. Don’t be afraid to play with the food to make this point. Smoosh the meatball to make it flat and then encourage your little one to do the same. Have them find a roll or cracker to complete the burger look. Engage them in the transformation. The point is to expand your child’s appreciation of new foods, by starting with ones that share similar traits to their established favorites.
Give your child the opportunity to discover food options on their own
Parents are guilty of two bad behaviors. Forcing the child to eat something they don’t want to and instantly dismissing an option as something they won’t like. Instead, give the child a chance to explore on their own, without inputting your commentary or two cents worth.
On their own, they might find something that piques their interest, or observe a peer enjoying. Mirroring peers works. Often times, when working within a classroom setting, I like to have a positive food-model standing nearby, someone who may influence the child to eat or try something new.
In the end, your child may be triggered by any number of stimuli… give that a chance to happen, organically, and forego presuming ahead of time what they will or will not like to eat. They might surprise you.
Resist confrontation with your child over food
If you publicly display your disappointment or resentment of your child for not partaking in holiday food, they will begin associating small gatherings or holidays with negative feelings. Try to keep things positive and celebrate what your kid does do this year at the table, rather than what they didn’t do.
Involve your child in the creating your holiday spread menu
If your family is hosting the holiday meal, make sure you incorporate some of your picky eater’s choices into you’re the offerings. And certainly, have your little one assist with menu selection, food shopping (even virtually), meal prep, cooking, and baking. Have your little one set the table and get ready for the fabulous holiday.
If you’re visiting family or friends elsewhere, consider bringing just a few safe foods so that your child does have something available to eat. If possible, ask the guest to serve these items along with the rest, so that the child doesn’t feel separate from the main dining function. Bringing just the right amount so that your child has food but may still have a little hunger will encourage your child to possibly consider trialing a new food if he/she is not filling up.
Your goal this holiday season is to let your child discover that holiday gatherings (even small ones) offer many foods, but the true enjoyment comes from the social experience of being together with friends and family, while building traditions that will enhance their lives forever.
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Lori Caplan-Colon is a leading speech language pathologist specializing in pediatric feeding disorder and founder of Montclair Speech Therapy, a family friendly practice that provides services for infants, children, adults and seniors.