Navigating Holiday Gatherings with a Picky Eater by Sarah Remmer

Now that Halloween has come and gone (how?!), we’ve made—what seems like—an abrupt transition into Holiday mode. Anyone else feel that way?! All of a sudden I feel as though I have to start buying presents, organize our holiday calendar of get the decorations out. Not that I’m complaining… I love the holidays – it’s my favorite time of year! And a big part of the joy for me (not surprisingly) is all of the delicious holiday food. 

As a registered dietitian and mom, it’s important to me that my kids learn to enjoy holiday foods without guilt, and are able to create amazing memories baking and cooking family recipes with me. Some of my fondest memories involve baking with my mom and grandma, and the delicious smells of gingerbread and shortbread coming from the oven. 

When you’re a parent of a child who is going through a picky eating stage, the holidays can present some challenges, and stress. In preparation for holiday gatherings and get-togethers, I want to share some strategies to help you navigate feeding your picky eater, and making sure that they (and you!) don’t miss out on the magic of the holidays. 


The Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) still applies, with some holiday flexibility

Remember that no matter what time of year, holiday or not, the sDOR should still apply. That means that you have specific roles as the feeder, and your child has specific roles as the eater. Your role first and foremost, is to help your child have a positive experience, whether they eat or not. You, as the parent, also decide what, when and where food happens. Sometimes, during the holidays, we have less control over these things because we’re at the whim of someone else—a host at a party, your sister or mom at a family gathering etc. But this is life – your child will be exposed to many different eating and food scenarios, and this is a great opportunity to help them to navigate these situations positively. Your child’s job is ALWAYS to decide if and how much they eat. I’ll touch on (below) how to navigate friends and family members who tend to micromanage this. 


Adjust your expectations

Really think about what your goals are for the gathering or celebration. Is it to ensure that your child eats enough of certain foods (to give you peace of mind), or is it to enjoy the time with friends or family and create a positive experience for your child? Consider arriving without a food agenda, and instead with the expectation that your child will have the opportunity to eat the foods that they’d like to eat and leave the other ones. It might be worth having a substantial and filling snack prior to going, if you feel that this will give you and your child more stress than it’s worth. 


Give your kids the heads up

New situations can be stressful (new smells, new people, different seating) for parents and children alike. Sit down with your child before going and chat about what the gathering will be like, what to expect in terms of food (even just saying “I’m not sure what will be served, but there will be several foods to choose from), and what your expectations are of them (“you can eat whichever foods you’d like from what is offered, until your tummy is done eating”). If it’s a sit-down meal, let your child know where they will be expected to sit for the meal (to visit) but that they don’t necessarily have to eat. We want to support a positive relationship with food and avoid pressured eating. So let’s switch gears to make the event more about building memories and connecting with family and friends. 


Offer to bring something

Consider offering to bring a dish that you know your child will accept and eat, but make it available to all as part of the potluck or overall food offerings. For example, if you know your child likes buns, or a specific brand of crackers and cheese, or raw veggies with dip, then offer to bring that item for everyone. No need to bring a separate meal (unless there are allergies) but having at least one safe food is appropriate and if they only eat buns with butter, that’s okay too! They’re overall nutrition will not be affected, and they’ll likely have another opportunity before bed to have a nutritious snack. 


Dealing with unsolicited comments

When a well-intentioned family member says something like “oh you didn’t touch your turkey,” or “you can’t have dessert unless you try your potatoes.” Consider responding with a simple phrase, “thanks for your concern, but we don’t follow those food rules in our family—he can eat what he wants” or share “we appreciate your concern—it’s ok though! We actually let her eat the foods and amounts that she wants, and allow dessert regardless.” You can even consider chatting with the well-intentioned family member before, to let them know about your family eating philosophy or routines. This can be tricky to navigate. Setting boundaries to protect your child’s relationship with food (with opinionated loved ones) is no easy task! But politely and compassionately sticking to your guns will make your child feel supported and maintain consistency for them. 


Dessert is not a reward

One of my pet peeves as a dietitian is watching a parent reward their child for eating a certain amount, with dessert. As well-intentioned as it is (and deeply baked into our psyches from our own diet-culture filled childhoods), it can create major issues. What it often does is it makes the dinner foods less appealing in the child’s mind, and the dessert foods WAY more appealing. It creates a hierarchy of “good” vs. “bad” foods and often encourages a child to overeat in order to get to dessert (so that they can then overeat again).  


Ideally, everyone should get a chance to be offered dessert or access the dessert table, regardless of how much they eat. Dessert is often one of the best parts (because it tastes SO good!), and it shouldn’t be used to reward eating performance. If there is a chance for your child to try a new food often dessert is a great place to build a child’s confidence and curiosity to try something new. 


Don’t worry about what other’s think

A lot of the stress of holiday gatherings stems from the opinions or criticism of others. Again, our role as parents is to protect our child and their relationship with food. There are many reasons behind the opinions of others, that we may not understand, agree with and most likely cannot shift. What we can do is model–without judgement–our own feeding philosophies and strategies and answer any questions if they come up. Actions speak louder than words, so stick to your feeding game plan, and remember to focus on connection, celebration and making memories, rather than getting your child to eat.