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How to Keep Your Holidays Happy: Helping Families with Picky Eaters

Author: Shannon A. Garcia
Mom and daughter grating cheese

By: Shannon A. Garcia, Registered Dietitian, Owner of Lone Star Nutrition, LLC

Happy holidays! The holidays should be a happy and peaceful time, but for those of us with “picky eaters”, there’s often additional stress and pressure associated with meal-time. As a registered dietitian and owner of a pediatric private practice, I help families year-round with kiddos who tend to be picky, finicky or restrictive eaters. Some are truly picky, some may have developmental or sensory issues and some may not have enough exposure, structure, ideal feeding environments or a combination of many factors.

Regardless of the reason behind picky eating, the holidays are often an especially feared time by both parents and kids. Parents dread one more unpleasant meal, especially one in the presence of other family and friends, while children fear one more overwhelming situation with multiple new foods put on their plate. Tackling picky feeding is a long and laborious (but well worth it!) process that ideally should include help from a pediatric dietitian, but integrating some of these simple tips can help you both at the holidays and year-round. Here are five ways you can start helping your child be less selective and a more adventurous eater!

  • Family Making Salad Expose your children to new foods - at stores, restaurants and at home. Offering a new food once or twice and arriving at the conclusion “they didn’t like it” without offering them adequate exposure, is not truly providing an opportunity for a child to determine if they like something. You might have heard it can take 15 times before a child decides they like a food- sorry parents, that’s true. However, a child is more likely to accept a new food when they are exposed to that food on multiple occasions. Additionally, exposing them to ONE new food at a time is ideal. Bombarding a plate with 3 completely unfamiliar foods is rejection waiting to happen. Instead, offering broccoli with familiar and loved chicken nuggets and mac and cheese is a much “safer” plate from a child’s perspective.

Holiday tip- Make sure your child has at least one or two foods familiar to them at the holiday meal THEN let them choose what new food(s) they want to try. Give them some power and control by saying “You have two of your favorite foods, now you GET to choose at least one new food to put on your plate”.

  • Get them involved. Ideally, from start to finish, kids should have some level of involvement. Take them to the grocery store to expose them to a multitude of new foods, and let them choose one or two new foods- reassuring them that it’s ok if they don’t like it as long as they try it. Continue their involvement in the kitchen - kids of all ages can participate in preparation and cleanup (see Kids in The Kitchen). Participation and ownership often leads to increased interest in trying and liking new foods.

Holiday tip: Another benefit to taking your kids to the grocery store during the holidays is the extra samples available during this time of year. If we’re honest, we know most parents are hesitant to make new foods when it may result in wasted time and food- but let them sample at the store for zero prep and cleanup on your part!

  • Structure and routine are key components to creating a healthy relationship with food. Kids need a predictable routine and sticking fairly close to this routine will help them understand expectations. For example, if your kiddo refuses lunch after adequate time to eat (~20 minutes), the meal/snack should be removed in a kind manner with a message of “Lunch-time is over. Snack is in 3 hours and the kitchen will re-open then”. Using the phrase “kitchen is closed” may feel silly, but kids benefit greatly from a predictable routine. If meals and snacks aren’t predictable, many children “graze” throughout the day leading to never truly feeling hungry. Do you want to try a new food if you’re not hungry? I sure don’t!

Holiday tip: Structure and routine are even harder to establish and maintain during the holidays. During the hustle and bustle, focus on having at least ONE meal every day around the table as family. Taking a realistic approach is important year-round, but especially during the holidays.

Mom and daughter grating cheese

  • Provide a positive feeding environment. Kids can easily detect parental frustration and pressure. Show your kids it’s ok if they don’t immediately love a new food. Keep a smile on your face, and praise them for trying. Furthermore, avoid statements like “if you try that vegetable you can eat dessert”- this teaches kids some foods (sweets) are better than a healthier choice like a vegetable, whole grain or protein. Instead reply with “That’s ok you didn’t like it this time- we’ll try it again another time, maybe with a fun sauce or cooked differently”.

Holiday tipThe holidays provide a unique opportunity to try foods many of us don’t have year-round. Although parents of picky-eaters are often quick to think “my kid would never try any of these foods!”- give them the opportunity, but remember how overwhelmed they may feel. Present this opportunity to your kids in a positive manner by saying, “Look at all these special foods we get to enjoy!”

  • Make new foods fun! As a child, would your rather have chopped broccoli OR broccoli trees with crazy cheese dip? I’ll take the trees with dip, please! It’s ok to “dress” foods up with fun dips and sauces. Maintaining the same positive attitude and smiling face previously mentioned, get your kids excited to try a new food by showing them food is fun! Make meals bright and colorful, use cookie cutters for neat shapes and give new fruits and vegetables clever kid-friendly names.

Holiday tip: Kids are naturally excited and ready for fun during the holidays so take that fun-filled attitude to the dinner table. Santa snap peas and Grinch green beans anyone? Capitalize on the sauces and dips available to pair with a new vegetable. Purchase cookie cutters as stocking stuffers and kid-friendly cookbooks they can start using during holiday break from school. Make sure your kids remember the holidays as a fun-filled time and carry that fun-filled attitude into the New Year! Cheers!