For most of us, the holiday season is full of the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of our family’s treasured traditions and fond memories. However, these traditions may not yet hold deep meaning or sentiment for kids impacted by adoption, foster care, or kinship care. For others, the sensory input might be triggering or overwhelming – even painful for them to process. Handling picky eaters during the holidays feels like an additional mental load for many parents and caregivers. Food issues are challenging for us, but they are just as stressful for our kids.
We all hold expectations for our holiday celebrations, but how do we navigate those expectations when preparing for an event that features food as central to the tradition or celebration? While we adults might be anticipating the nostalgia of cookie decorating or the once-a-year treat of Grandma Ruth’s secret recipe for latkes, it’s crucial that we not place those expectations on our kids.
Children impacted by trauma, prenatal exposure, attachment struggles, or other similar issues thrive on routine and predictability. Once-a-year holiday meals or messy ventures like rolling out cookie dough do not feel safe or predictable to them. Instead, these holiday activities can trigger challenging behaviors or meltdowns.
Before introducing practical tips for managing a picky eater during the holiday season, we encourage you to recognize that your expectations of gum drops, sweet, sloppy kisses, and other memory-making moments might be unreasonable this time of year. We aren’t saying that your child will never be able to handle their food issues around the holidays. Instead, we are saying to evaluate what your child can handle and what might still be troubling for them.
Food Isn’t Always Love to a Picky Eater
Many of us grew up with some version of “food is love” as a cultural touchpoint. That mantra can feel magnified during the holiday season, and it’s especially true if many of your traditions revolve around eating together, preparing special dishes, or creating goodies unique to your family’s celebration.
We get it: feeding our children is the most basic form of nurturing. It feels almost instinctual – the planning, preparing, and sharing of food is something we do to care for them, show love, and share life experiences. How often have you shared a story of making cookies with Grandma or kneading bread with your mother? Your picky eater might be throwing a kink into your preferred expressions of nurturance.
Children who join your family past infancy have had time to become accustomed to a way of eating that is often different from yours. We expect it when we adopt internationally. However, we often forget that bringing home a foster or kinship child means a set of significant food and eating differences. Neglect, parental substance abuse, food scarcity, poverty, or a regular diet of processed food all impact a child’s eating preferences and ideas of comfort or care. The impact is often a narrow set of food and eating preferences.
Practical Tips for Managing Your Picky Eater
Several years ago, we invited Dr. Katja Rowell, The Feeding Doctor, to share practical advice that would apply to most picky eating situations that families like yours encounter. She is the author of Love Me, Feed Me: The Foster and Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Responsive Feeding*, and the co-author of Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide for Overcoming Selective Eating, Food Aversion, and Feeding Disorders.* She’s appeared as a guest on the CreatingaFamily.org podcast several times, and we are grateful for the support she offers for adoptive, foster, and kinship families.
We’ve adapted her original list to focus on holiday celebrations and traditions your family might anticipate in the coming weeks or months.
1. Offer food and drink reliably and predictably.
Please keep following your family’s regular schedule for fueling and hydrating. Consistently offer the same things at the same time when holiday events and activities don’t interfere. Maintain their nighttime snacks or weekday breakfasts as much as possible. This consistency will be an anchor for the picky eater.
For example, if pizza rolls and carrots are a regular afternoon snack, continue offering them during Winter Break in the afternoons.
2. Offer new foods but keep reliable options available.
Your family enjoys the tradition of Gingerbread Waffles on Christmas morning, but your picky eater prefers plain pancakes each morning. Be sure to offer a few plain pancakes on a separate platter if your child wants to choose. Having one or two familiar favorites at special events and meals relieves added pressure on the child to eat something new while offering you a way to meet their needs thoughtfully.
3. Try not to pressure anyone over food.
Your motto with new foods may typically be “many ways, many times!” but holiday meals are not the time to press this issue. Put out the food and enjoy each other’s company. Pressuring your picky eater to eat – or try new foods – will likely end in arguments and stress, making them eat less well.
4. Offer choices to a picky eater.
The last thing you need during a holiday meal or other special family dinner is a power struggle. Again, that will add stress and anxiety for you all. Instead, allow your child to choose what goes on the plate. Serving family or buffet style can facilitate this nicely for everyone without calling your picky eater out for their choices. When you allow young people a choice, respecting their autonomy, they will likely branch out more quickly than if it becomes a battle.
5. Empower your picky eater.
If your child can read, consider writing out the weekly menu – including special events like dinner at Grandma’s. You can do it on the family wall calendar or a dry-erase menu on the fridge. Please encourage them to check it as often as they need reassurance that they will get what they need.
When your children feel safe at the table, knowing they can find something to eat, they are more likely to be open and able to embrace the other parts of your family’s celebrations.
6. Try not to prioritize nutrition over connection.
Occasional treats and straying from your family’s regular, wholesome favorites will not ruin the healthy habits you’ve established together thus far. It might be helpful for holiday meals or special occasions that you offer a mix of favorites, new foods, and sides or condiments to help create a sense of familiarity and safety. But it’s also helpful to be willing to let go of your expectations of a well-rounded dinner plate when they are eating with twelve cousins who are all laughing, shouting, and excited about family time.
The extra sensory challenges of family time, holiday dinners, and other celebrations can make it easy for your child to ignore their plates entirely or only eat what is quickest and easiest to shovel in. You can always return to your family’s regular eating style after everyone goes home.
7. Invite your picky eater into the preparations.
Your child might not tolerate eating new or unusual food at holiday meals. But inviting them into your preparations – grocery list making, shopping, washing vegetables, mixing dough, etc. – can ease their anxiety about the changes and spark their curiosity. And you know what? Even if they don’t try the peppermint gumdrop cookies, you will make memories by making them together.
8. Think about your child’s safe foods.
For kids who have a “safe food” like ketchup or white rice, pack a serving size of that food to bring with you to food-centered celebrations. The familiarity will increase their sense of safety and ease anxiety.
Does your picky eater need to crunch? Are they comforted by the smell of apples and cinnamon? Again, consider inviting your picky eater to help you pick a side dish or dessert that includes their safe foods. Focus on the flavors, smells, and textures you know they already tolerate or enjoy. Volunteer to bring side dishes to family dinners that you know will provide the comfort and familiarity they need.
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Be Patient with Your Picky Eater This Holiday Season
The holiday season is long – from Halloween to New Year’s Day, and with all the unusual events in between, your kids may feel bombarded with unfamiliar or uncomfortable sounds, flavors, and scents. The changes to routine can shut down their growing curiosity about food, even when they’ve made significant progress with their food issues or picky eating. Be patient, consistent, and gracious as they figure it all out. Increasing their sense of safety by providing predictability and even tiny doses of familiarity will go a long way toward allowing you all to enjoy the holiday season.
Image Credits: Shohei Ohara; Greta Hoffman; cottonbro studio
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