Are you worried about how your child will react to a busy family holiday meal? The sensory overload alone can turn their world upside down.
Holiday meals usually have traditional foods on the menu. Not all of which your child is used to eating. In my family, there are only a select few that love Christmas pudding, yet it’s a traditional food that gets made every single year.
Maybe you don’t want to see the look on your hostess’s face when your child looks at her lovingly prepared dishes like they are made of live larvae.
Maybe having to hear all the “tips” from well-meaning family members on how to feed your child is already making you rehearse your speech to make it “polite”.
Or maybe, you are dreading how your hostess has sweets on every available side table of her house, easily within your child’s reach.
With a twist on the 12 days of Christmas, here are “12 tips of surviving Christmas with a Picky Eater”.
12 Tips for surviving the holidays with picky kids
Keep your child on their mealtime schedule.
This is one of the most important things you can do to set your child’s mind at ease. Young kids thrive on routines. Knowing that they will get food at predictable times during the day removes a layer of anxiety.
Even if this means that you have to pack them their own dinner and they will be eating it before the holiday dinner is served, so be it. It’s better to have them full by keeping to their own mealtime spacing of 2-3 hours than to have them cranky.
Call ahead and ask what’s being served.
Most times, we usually end up in a conversation with the hostess and as her what we can bring to holiday dinner. We can take that opportunity to also ask what the menu is looking like to better prep for the kids.
Usually, your hostess would much rather know if there are any allergies or dietary preferences well in advance and see what they can do to cater to their guests. A conversation about what your little one’s need are and how you can help will be most welcome
Explain what they can expect once they arrive at the holiday dinner.
Trying to keep to their mealtime schedule is one thing, but during the holidays, your daily schedule might change.
In my experience, whenever I prep my kids with what lies ahead, it makes them co-operate throughout the day. There will still be off moments, but overall if they know what’s going to happen, they have better listening ears.
So tell them, about the day’s schedule.
Will they be traveling a long time to meet other family members?
Who will they meet at the holiday dinner?
Once you arrive at holiday dinner, what information do you have that you can tell them about how it’s going to go? Sometimes even telling them the basics will work here … even though you might not know yourself:
“Once we arrive at xxx’s house, we’ll take off our boots and coats. Then there will be a lot of people to meet. There will be playtime and time to talk to others before we eat dinner. And after dinner, we will open presents. Mommy will be close to you so if anything feel like too much, you come to me and we’ll make it better. We will need to practice our manners since we are guests and I will expect you to do good listening and follow my instruction”.
And finally, let them know there will be big noises, many things to look at, people moving everywhere. You can let them know that this might make them cranky and making eating a little harder to focus on, and that’s okay!
Bring the tools you know can help them carry the extra sensory load, like earmuffs, a calming activity like colouring, a stress ball … really any of their go-to tools to help them take a breather.
Inform your child of the Holiday events and festivities.
Taking it one step back, prepare your kids a few days in advance of what’s to come.
During holidays, there can be special events that don’t happen throughout the rest of the year. Maybe there’s a visit to take a picture with Santa. Or the big holiday dinner with family.
“This weekend we are going to see Santa and take a picture with him”
“In five sleeps, we’re going to have a big dinner with a lot of people, and all of your family will be there.”
Letting them know that an event coming up that’s outside their normal, will help mentally prepare. They won’t be caught by surprise!
Include two foods from your child’s safe food list as part of the menu.
One of the biggest life savers that helped me navigate holiday dinners, is to always pack a separate dinner for my kids and bring it from home in their lunchbox.
In case you can’t call ahead and ask the hostess what’s on the menu, bringing your own “safe foods” is a must. In fact, I would argue that bringing at least two of your child’s favourite foods is a must even if you do know the menu.
How many recipes are there for mash potatoes, roasted carrots, or hams? So so many! And just because those dishes are served, it doesn’t mean they are prepared and seasoned the way your child is used to them.
Just in case … pack some safe foods.
Explain that this is a great time to practice their manners.
Prepare your kiddos that you hope they will fill their tummies at dinner, but if they find it hard to eat, make it clear that it’s okay and that you will support them no matter what.
For your child, the most important thing is that they know you are there to help them if things are too much.
To shift the focus, you can tell them that we are going to practice our “big boy” or “big girl” manners … and make it as fun as you can.
It’s also a great way to set the stage that if your little one declines eating their holiday dinner, they can remain polite and you can avoid meltdowns.
Practice your holiday meal.
In the month leading up to your holiday dinner, add foods that are normally served for the occasion as part of your food rotation. This will get your little one used to new foods and new flavours.
Ss you introduce each food, Make it fun. Whatever you do, don’t force them to eat them. The exposure alone will go a long way. Explaining to your little one how a food will taste and how it will break down is one of the best things you can do to help them get more comfortable with any food.
Your goal is to create familiarity. Even if they don’t eat the holiday-specific foods, they are comfortable enough with the vision that there will be no tantrum when they see it at your holiday dinner.
Feed your child bigger meals the day of your holiday dinner.
Needless to say … frontload your meals as much as possible the day of your holiday dinner. Kids are excellent regulators. Studies show that no matter how many calories they start breakfast with, they will adjust their intake throughout the day to reach a scary similar amount of calories by the end of the day.
Even make their snacks hearthy by increating their calorie level. Pair nuts or seeds with fruits or spread nut or seed butter on toast to up the calories. More than any other day, think of making snacks mini-meals of their own.
Try to make the meal right before heading to your holiday dinner the biggest one in terms of foods offered. You can’t control the amount of food your child will eat, but stick to offering preferred foods to make it easier on them to choose to eat
Add more protein and healthy fats in their meals on the day of the holiday dinner.
Adding healthy proteins and healthy fats to your meals will automatically increase the number of calories your child intakes.
Paired with the strategy to front load their meals for the day, including foods that are richer in protein and fats will get them through their daily caloric needs faster.
Yes, we are essentially setting them up to not need that much food comes your holiday dinnertime. Because focusing on eating will be stressful enough, they will naturally eat less. Most children will want to take a few bites to quench their hunger not really fill up.
If we count on them only eating 5 to 10 bites for dinner, then setting them up to not need a lot in terms of calories is one way we can help them get through the meal faster and ensure they are full enough considering their intake of the day.
Make sure they know that they can participate in holiday activities regardless if they finish what’s on their plate (or no matter what other-well meaning relatives might tell them).
The only reason we want our kids to eat is because they are hungry and stop because they are full.
Not because we asked them to.
Not because they want us to be happy.
Not because they will get a reward if they eat well.
And certainly not because a fun activity will be withheld from them if they don’t eat well.
It’s a principle I stand strongly behind.
Make sure your child knows that having a great time during the holidays and being included in activities is not contingent on them eating well.
The last thing we want them to hear is that they have to “eat what’s on your plate before you can open your presents”.
That is a recipe for emotional disaster for your child. For some kids it’s extremely difficult to organize themselves amidst a sensory overload. It’s an unfair expectation to ask of them when they are already doing their best and struggling.
Don’t expect them to eat or try new foods during their holiday dinners.
It goes without saying that we do have to manage our own expectations. Given all the stimulus, excitement, and overwhelm your child will be going through, let’s cut them some slack.
We will build a much stronger mealtime relationship with them if we use this as an opportunity to build trust and show them we are on their side. That you are there to guide them through these more chaotic meals.
The more we prepare our kids by exposing them to holiday foods earlier …
The more we show our understanding when the holiday meal is tough …
The more we offer coping strategies at mealtimes …
… the more trust we build with them. They know you are there not to bark orders, but to help them problem solve whatever block they are experiencing.
Over time, the plus side is that they do also become better listeners and communicators the more that trust is built.
Do not allow free access to sweets during the holidays.
This is a tough one.
You might have heard that it takes 20 minutes for the brain to realize it’s full. Sweets cut off that time by half.
The bad news is that we send signals to shut down our appetite within 10 minutes when we eat sweets. That shortens the window we have to help our kids eat other healthier or healthier foods … and let’s be honest, getting your kids to fill their bellies properly in 10 minutes is like mission impossible.
Instead of having sweets be a free for all, pick your days and meals that you will be offering a sweet and no matter how much or little they ate, you’re going to make that sweet part of that meal.
During special holidays like Halloween, the winter holidays, Valentine’s day, or Easter offer sweets for one week straight after the big day. It’s enough time to enjoy the joys of the celebration.
After that, return to your normal routine for offering desserts.