Updated: Mar 30, 2021
Christmas is just around the corner, Santa is appearing, and often so are the stresses associated with having a picky eater. This is especially true if we are celebrating with friends and relatives. Even well-meaning family can inadvertently add enormous pressure onto us, and our children. As much as we want to enjoy the holiday, worry about food often clouds even the sunniest of destinations.
I have spoken to parents who plan the food for trips away like a military campaign as they are so worried that acceptable menu items may be few and far between. Experience has shown them that all nuggets are not created equal!
However, there are some great ways to support our child that avoid some of the flash points that can dampen our Christmas cheer.
RELAX – we are our child’s most important relationship so how we feel around food and feeding greatly influences how our child behaves. As challenging as it is to not worry about food around Christmas, the more we stress the more likely our child will too.
PREEMPT – we all have well-meaning friends and relatives who like to ‘help’ us parent. If we are able, can we organise a quick phone call or e-mail to explain that as much as you are working on supporting your child to eat more widely, Christmas is not the time to do this?
EXPECTATIONS – if we have a child that eats no meat, no sauces, and no vegetables the chances of them looking forward to a full turkey meal with all the trimmings is slim. Rather than hoping that Santa gifts us a magic eating wand, if we go into meals with realistic expectations it helps to avoid disappointment and frustration.
ENJOYMENT – holidays are for the enjoyment of everyone. This is especially true of Christmas Day. Our child has the right to come to the table and be excited about what they are going to eat. If that means that some cheese and crackers are available alongside the turkey this enables them to celebrate too. I know this may seem controversial but honestly, is Christmas Day the appropriate time to be teaching a child a lesson?
EXPLAIN – knowing what to expect can be very comforting for a child who is anxious around food. Explain what is going to happen and how you are going to support them. This can enable them to relax. The more relaxed they are the more likely they are to eat.
ROUTINES – having routines, even on holidays, is very comforting for children. If lunches and evening meals are going to be more ad hoc, then plan for a familiar and predictable breakfast. For a lot of picky eaters this is an easier meal. Making sure they are eating well first thing also allows us to relax a little during the day.
PLAN – travelling or spending time with friends and relatives can send timing and menus totally off to left field. We have all been to a dinner where food does not arrive until 9.00pm – eek! Making provision for those times when food may not be served on time or where the menu does not tick boxes for our children is always a good policy. A low-pressure way to do this can be to bring a share plate to social events. It enables our child to eat without inconveniencing anyone else or drawing attention to their eating habits.
FAMILIARITY – we are always more comfortable when we are around things that we are familiar with. This applies to both objects and food. If our child has a favourite plate or cutlery, bring them along, much as we do with the teddy for sleeping. This can help bridge a discomfort gap. With food we can do this by ensuring there are always things at the table that they recognise.
AUTONOMY – our child is more likely to eat if they feel they have some control. Allow them to choose which foods to put onto their plate. We can set some boundaries, so it does not come back with just a pile of cookies! If we are serving, then small portions are always less overwhelming than big piles – especially if it is a challenging food.
BOUNDARIES – set some firm guidelines around mealtimes to create certainty for the whole family. For example, everyone stays at the table for 15 minutes and participates in the celebrations even if they are not eating. Or stating ‘we won’t be having any more food for the next 2 hours so please make sure you’ve had enough to eat’.
Our child has the right to come to the table and be excited about what they are going to eat.
Holidays can be stressful in the food sphere. Just being away from home or out of routine can put children out of their comfort zone. However, they are often also a fabulous opportunity for children to eat foods they would not usually contemplate:
Being around friends or relatives who are happily chomping on something different and doing it happily can be a catalyst for our child to attempt something new.
Being presented with something new in conjunction with something familiar can bridge the gap for our child and enable them to eat something more challenging. Turkey crackers anyone?
Some children do feel more relaxed as they are on holidays and so are able to do things that they would not normally consider.
Not being the centre of attention when it comes to food can take a lot of pressure off a picky eater and give them the ability to try foods without the shine of the spotlight.
Having new foods on offer may give our child the opportunity to try a food that is not part of our normal repertoire.
People cook, serve and present foods differently. Sometimes a food that has been prepared in a new way is more appealing for our child.
Whether you have a child that prefers chips to broccoli or one who only eats one brand of crackers and toast, there are strategies that enable everyone to have a relaxed and enjoyable holiday.
Judith is mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
She delights in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. She graduated from Cambridge University and have internationally certified qualifications in picky eating. She is also schooled in nutrition, parent education and is a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. Judith is currently doing post graduate studies in Psychology as she would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and spearhead research in this area.
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