The family is gathering around the table for holiday festivities. Everyone is looking forward to a beautiful meal full of flavor, abundant food offerings, and gratitude. But then there is your child who is scowling, or maybe even refusing to come to the table. You feel embarrassed, perhaps angry, and worry that your in-laws, your own family, or your friends will judge your child or even you. The tension mounts… This is not going to end well.
Surviving Holiday Gatherings with a Picky Eater
As we all know, family gatherings can be both wonderful and stressful. But when you’ve got a child who is a picky or selective eater, these gatherings can be an even bigger challenge. Your child can feel anxious or defensive, you can feel self-conscious or embarrassed, and loved ones can have all sorts of opinions to share. It’s enough to make anyone want to just turn around and go home. But don’t lose hope! There are ways to successfully survive holiday gatherings with your picky eater.
After years of living through this struggle myself, both as a formerly picky eater and as the parent of a formerly selective eater, I have found that a little preparation can go a long way. As you get ready for the season’s festivities, it can be helpful, both for you and for your child, if you do a little bit of thinking about ways to preemptively manage potential tensions at the holiday gatherings.
Here are the tricks that helped when we were struggling with our (formerly) picky eater.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes
All of the food that is either unknown or unappealing to your child is likely to feel overwhelming and even a little scary. Your kiddo is very aware of the expectation that s/he should eat it all and that pressure probably feels pretty intense (check out my interview with my formerly picky eater to learn more about this).
One way to shift this dynamic is to think back to when you were a kid. I bet there was at least one dish that you thought was disgusting, but felt pressured to eat. How did that feel when you were little? Were you angry, resentful, embarrassed? Just by understanding a little bit about how your child perceives the situation, you may find you have a bit more compassion, patience, and flexibility in the moment.
Get on the same page as your partner
If you are partnered, talk about your concerns ahead of time and make sure that the two of you can be a team in your approach, both in terms of how you communicate with your child and how you communicate with any friends or family who might contribute to tense dynamics.
The first step I recommend is to come to terms with the fact that this is very likely not going to be the meal where your child suddenly eats everything. Then discuss what you will expect of your child in this situation. This could range from bringing food for them to eat, to asking them to find one food being served that they are willing to try, to expecting them to politely decline the foods they don’t want, but still eat a full meal. You and your partner know your child best and what they are capable of doing, but the key here to be on the same page.
Then agree on how you will handle loved ones who try to intervene. Perhaps one of you is the designated interference, while the other takes on the task of feeding your child. Or perhaps it is a dual-zone defense, either way, having a game plan can help if emotions start to run high.
Talk with your child ahead of time
For picky or selective eaters, these gatherings can be quite stressful, which can lead to acting out. In order to avoid such a scene, there are a few things you can do: help your child to mentally and emotionally prepare, set expectations for behavior, and then come up with a game plan so that everyone feels in control of the situation.
To start, talk with your child about the fact that that there may be unfamiliar or unappealing foods on the table, and that is OK. It can also be helpful to reassure them that they will not be forced to eat anything they don’t want to eat and that you will be happy to describe any foods they aren’t familiar with.
Then, talk about expectations of polite behavior—“No thank you” instead of “I don’t like that” or “eww” or “gross” is a great place to start. If it is a sit down meal and staying at the table while everyone is eating together is a priority for your family, then make sure that is also clear to your child.
Once their fears have been assuaged and expectations set, then come up with a game plan together for how to approach the meal. What foods are they willing to eat? How will you handle desserts? Are they willing to do one-bite tries of one or two new foods?
Once the plan has been agreed upon, then final step is to stick with it. Being calm and consistent will help your child to remain relaxed and well-behaved in a time that may be stressful for them.
Talk with anyone else you think you should talk to
Sometimes the biggest pressure comes from well-intentioned loved ones. So, if you’ve got a family member or friend (or two) who might start insisting that your child try this dish or that one, consider speaking to them ahead of time. Explain, that in the interest of everyone having a pleasant meal, it would be really helpful if pressure to try new foods was not put on your child during the festivities.
Remember to relax
The more tense you are, the more tense your child will be, which increases the likelihood of a meltdown. So… take a deep breath when needed, have a glass of wine, and focus on the joy of connecting with loved ones, since really that is what these gatherings should be about anyway!
How do you handle the food at holiday or family gatherings with your kids? Do you have clear expectations or do you just wait and see what happens? I’d love to hear your thoughts on surviving holiday gatherings with a picky eater and what has or hasn’t worked for you in the past!
Want more delicious and easy recipes, check out The Scramble’s family-friendly meal plans to see just how simple getting dinner on the table can be!