Acing special occasions with a picky eater
Often parties and special occasions are a real challenge with a child that does not eat widely. The biggest of these is coming up soon! It is one of the places where a spotlight can be shined on a limited diet and where both parent and child feel uncomfortable.
As special occasions are supposed to be ‘special’ for everyone, I am always looking for ways that we can be inclusive and make them joyful for the whole family. Using a bit of creativity, we can create menus that appeal to all. If we are catering it ourselves, or it is at the house of a relative or friend who is open to being flexible, some of the following ideas can work well.
The beauty of these, is that they are a crowd pleaser no matter who is on the guest list. Many of the things that challenge our child can also be points of discomfort for others. There are many adults who have dietary restrictions and so having flexibility provides ease for both host and visitors.
If we are hosting a lunch, a dinner, or providing food for guests it is worth considering:
A pasta bar
Many fussy eaters are okay with pasta, but often only if it is plain, or with just a favoured topping on it. Involving our child in a meal and still catering to others is super simple with a pasta bar.
Having a selection of pasta options (or just one, that happens to be a child’s favourite) with a range of sauces to add can be a big win. We can also have garlic bread, rolls or slices of bread which will often be within our child’s comfort zone too. If we have guests who are gluten free this is easy to cater too.
We can provide bowls with additional options to add to the pasta, like olives, bacon, ham, mushrooms, chicken, prawns, and grated cheese. A big salad or some roasted vegetables create the perfect side dish. This also means that people are able to opt in for the foods that tick boxes for them so keto, for example, is also covered.
Being able to build your own pasta is fun, it is empowering, it is inclusive, and it is a great way to cater to all tastes. Showing our child in pictures that they are able to join in what could be a very challenging social event, is also a great way to make them feel more confident. It is amazing what a few positive experiences can do to help them feel differently about communal occasions.
A sandwich bar
Most picky eaters are okay with sandwiches and it is a simple and low-cost way to feed guests too. Having a selection of different breads can cater to tastes and intolerances. For a more upmarket meal using specialty loaves can create a gourmet feast.
We can serve a whole range of foods as main fillings, everything from smoked salmon, sliced meat, and chicken slices to grated cheese. If our child is more of a peanut butter or honey fan these can of course be served too, perhaps in fancy little bowls. On the side having everything from sliced tomatoes to baby spinach leaves enables people to create a personalised sandwich or to skip the bread and eat other favourites.
A grazing table
All the rage at the moment and of course, it does not have to be directly onto a table, you can have an anti-pasto platter. This is often a great fit for a more hesitant eater as we can make sure there are options that tick boxes for them.
Crackers, cheese, mini toasts, slices of ham or salami, sausages, boiled eggs. If they have a super restrictive range of foods then again, it is not an issue to have bowls with peanut butter and jam too, for example.
A salad bar
This does not sound like it is a fun thing for a picky eater but there are lots of ways we can make this rock for anyone. Bowls with individual salad components as a base but then to be more inclusive we can have all sorts of additions, grated cheese, bacon pieces, slices of sausage, eggs, ham, and pieces of chicken, for example.
We can also have dressings to add and there is no reason not to have, for example, ketchup or honey and some bread on the side.
A potato bar
If our child loves potato, we can offer everything from fries to wedges to jackets. This can create a meal that is also appropriate for adults. Having a salad and a series of protein sides creates an inclusive feast for everyone.
Often children are fine with corn chips so basing a meal around these plus tacos, can work. Or, if wraps are within the comfort zone then building a burrito or organising some simple quesadillas can be a win. Mince, chicken, pork, cheese, sour cream, salsa, guacamole, salads, there is something for everyone.
If all our child takes is a bowl of corn chips the first time we offer food like this, it is still a great way for them to participate and not be the centre of attention in a negative way. Similarly, it may be an anxiety inducing situation so the volume they eat may be small, but they are also learning and building the ability to cope better. It will get easier as time goes on.
A word of caution: having well-meaning friends or relatives who try to ‘help’ our child eat, or who have advice we must take, can be a real challenge. If this is a concern perhaps we are able to talk to them in advance about how we are wanting to include our child in a new way and that leaving our child to make decisions without input works best.
Choosing food and eating communally is a really positive way to build up comfort levels in a social setting for our child.
For a lighter meal we can offer fruit, yoghurt, ice cream and desserts. Again, having choices that work for both adults and our child is absolutely manageable, and helps to include our child, but without compromising food for others, a win-win!
The low-pressure situation, where food can be taken or left, can also lead to surprising choices.
When there is no obligation to eat anything specific it can be where things like peer pressure and the desire to keep up with the cousins, for example, often leads to more adventurous eating.
I hope this has given you a different and more positive perspective on social occasions and navigating these with a food anxious child. There are often simple solutions that take stress away from us, as parents, as they enable our child to participate and to enjoy parties and gatherings.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently doing post graduate studies in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/