By Riley Broughton, BSE, Speech-Language Pathologist Graduate Student


Holiday Mealtimes with Picky Eaters

Mealtimes during the holidays can feel like a lot – not only for you, as the parent, but for your child too. As a parent, you want your child to be successful; integrating helpful steps to aid success is a great tool. Incorporating festive foods into structured, play-based mealtimes can foster a relaxed environment, encouraging exploration and acceptance of new textures and tastes. Emphasizing sensory engagement, modeling new steps to exploring foods can help children develop a comfortable relationship with food, which in turn promotes a joyful and inclusive holiday dining experience for the whole family.

Mealtimes can be stressful for your child. Every child is different, and specific needs vary, but your child can have a happy mealtime when individualized supports are put in place. If you have a picky eater at home, below are some things to consider when trying to set up a successful holiday meal.

Environmental modifications:
• Place a trashcan or a bye-bye/all done bowl near your child, showing them it’s okay to throw away food they are finished with.
• Allow the child to have flexible seating, either away from the primary food serving area, distanced from everyone eating food, or in a place that they feel comfortable exploring foods.
• Permit the child to leave the area if needed; their autonomy is important for trust, and future exploration.
• Try not to overload the child with a mix of new foods, all at once; instead, try introducing one food at a time, and always provide access to something preferred.

Ways to introduce new foods:
• Start with preferred and familiar foods.
• As they progress through various food items, introduce something similar in color, size, shape, or texture.
• Model the foods with the child and show them they DO NOT have to eat the food, but can explore the food by looking, touching, smelling, and using utensils. Picking up and throwing away the food is okay too!

Carefully watch out for signs of distress:
• Pushing away
• Facial grimaces
• Gagging
• Pulling away
• Trying to leave
• Crying
• Eye-gaze aversion

Other helpful tips:
• Try to avoid hiding new/non-preferred foods within preferred foods; instead, clearly label what is in front of them. Describe foods objectively (e.g., warm/cold, wet, soft, hard, bumpy, mushy) as the child explores them.
• Leaving food in the all done bowl, or trashcan, can increase trust in mealtime and the caregiver.
• If your child shows signs of distress, show them that it is okay to be finished with the mealtime. It’s also just fine to share the togetherness of family and friends at a holiday meal, without food exploring!

Family holidays are often based around food, new places and less familiar people, and can be stressful. The best way to encourage your child to explore foods and share enjoyment at meals is to allow them to explore without any pressure to eat what is provided. This idea may not be easily accepted by other family members, but remember that, by doing this, you are being a great parent by meeting your child where he/she is at this time. The best way to ensure a successful mealtime is to provide a no-pressure mealtime.

Happy Holidays!

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