As parents, we’re all guilty of putting pressure on the food choices our kids make—especially when we have picky eaters and especially at holiday meals when it almost feels like an unspoken family competition of whose kid is the “best” or “most adventurous” eater, which of course isn’t healthy at all.
In the moment, it’s tough to remember that you were once that kid running around Grandma’s house with a fresh-baked roll in one hand and your third Christmas cookie of the day in the other. And now your plate is full of practically everything, even that weird green bean dish your aunt has been bringing to the holiday meal since the 90s.
According to author and picky eating expert Jennifer Friedman, MS RD, the holidays aren’t the best time to focus on eating.
“It’s not worth it to let the stress of what your child does (or doesn’t) eat ruin the day. That being said, preparation is key if you want your child to feel comfortable with the new foods and new environment—and maybe eat something other than the dessert or bread,” she says.
Wondering how to help picky eaters (and yourself) thrive at holiday meals? From whipping up their favorite foods for the whole family to adjusting your own unrealistic expectations, here are 10 expert-approved tips for making it through all those festive meals with your picky eaters.
Managing picky eaters during the holidays
1. Pack familiar foods
If you’re heading to a relative’s house for the holidays, ezpz product designer and pediatric feeding specialist Dawn Winkelmann, M.S., CCC SLP recommends you ask them if it would be OK if you brought a few favorite foods for your child to eat.
“Oftentimes, having one (or two) familiar foods can help encourage your selective eater to try something new! For example, your little one might be more comfortable at mealtime if you brought their favorite chicken nuggets. This can be a positive way to expose your child to a new holiday dish while keeping mealtime anxiety low,” she says. They might even surprise you by dipping that nug into the cranberry sauce!
2. Avoid any “have tos”
For example, “You have to eat at least one bite” or “You have to try grandma’s stuffing.” Imagine if the roles were reversed, notes Friedman. That wouldn’t feel good for you, so do your best to dial back and take the pressure off.
3. Stop the comparisons
Don’t compare your child to other kids at the table. “Hearing that cousin Susie eats the green beans won’t inspire your child to try them, but can actually backfire and make them want to eat them even less,” says Friedman.
4. Get kids involved in the menu creation and cooking
Kids who cook are kids who eat. “There’s loads of research that tells us that when kids are involved in food prep, they’re more likely to want to taste,” shares Friedman. Holiday meals for picky eaters can even be selected by your little ones.
“It’s OK if your kids want to add sweet potato fries, mac and cheese or chocolate chip cookies to the menu,” says Winkelmann. “Chances are, some of the adults might like these additions too! Having a familiar food (of their choosing) on the menu gives them ownership of the meal—plus a greater likelihood that they will eat it alongside other holiday foods.”
5. Don’t put dessert on a pedestal
We know, it’s SO hard! But leveraging dessert (you can have some pie if you eat your asparagus!) is more likely to backfire on you. “There’s a lot to be said for letting kids just enjoy the meal and be in charge of their own intake,” tells Friedman. “Remember, this isn’t every day. It’s just one day. And tons of cookies won’t hurt them in the long run.”
6. Set up a dipping station
Another healthy(ish) way to combat the holiday sugar overload? A dipping station. “This can help your child eat a few fruits and vegetables and (hopefully) not just fill up on cookies,” says Winkelmann. Some of her favorite, kid-friendly dippers are graham crackers, jicama and strawberries.
“Try offering a few traditional sugary dips, such as melted chocolate or caramel. But you can also add in healthier options too, such as applesauce or chia pudding.” Or, you know, whatever your kid will eat: ketchup, ranch or In-N-Out Burger Spread for the win.
7. Bring your own plates and utensils
Fair warning: Eating in new environments during the holidays may escalate your child’s picky eating behaviors. It’s overwhelming—even for adults sometimes. To help your child regulate these changes, Winkelmann suggests keeping your child’s meal and snack routine structured by bringing the dishes and cutlery they are accustomed to. “This newfound comfort in novel settings can help expand their feeding development and may reduce picky eating tendencies too.”
8. Share the menu in advance
“Discussing the holiday menu with your children in advance helps them prepare for the new smells, tastes and visual changes that occur,” says Winkelmann. It’s also a good idea to prep them on timing, points out Friedman. “Trust that you know what’s best for your child and prepare them the way you would for any day that is different than usual.”
9. Fill them up beforehand
Know your picky eaters will be too busy playing with their cousins to eat a balanced meal? “You can always plan to front and back load their eating, meaning serve a filling snack before mealtime so they won’t be too hungry,” advises Friedman. If you’re worried they didn’t really eat anything at all, offer a filling and familiar snack (or meal!) once you get home where there are less distractions.
10. Lower your expectations
We promise, one day of poor eating isn’t going to ruin them for ever. Friedman recommends focusing on enjoying the time and not on trying to get your child to eat something new—or anything at all! “You’re not creating bad habits or undoing any work you’ve done around food and mealtimes. Holidays are exceptions to the norm, so enjoy them and don’t sweat the little things—like your child only eating the brownies.”
And who knows, maybe your kid will even surprise you! When you take the pressure off of them (and yourself), amazing things can happen—like your picky eater finally trying Grandma’s green bean casserole or going to town on the charcuterie board.
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