10 steps to Christmas with a Fussy Eater
We’re all looking forward to Christmas, aren’t we? Or are we?
Often Christmas with a fussy eater can be stressful. Especially if we’re celebrating with friends and relatives where 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 food for trips away like a military campaign, 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.
10 ways to support a fussy eater
1. 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.
The more relaxed a child is, the more likely they are to eat, so creating an atmosphere of calm is key. This is also a great way to communicate why intervening by friends or relatives may be counter productive. Imagine having different people commenting on your eating!
If the atmosphere causes any sort of anxiety or discomfort a child is less likely to eat (is food top of mind when you are anxious?!).
2. PREEMPT – we all have well-meaning friends and relatives who like to “help” us parent.
If we are able, can we make 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.
Unsolicited advice is rarely heeded or welcomed! Plus, see point 1, it usually hinders rather than helps.
3. EXPECTATIONS – if we have a child who 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.
Reframing how we view things can also be helpful. Although we may love Christmas food and feel our child is missing out, I bet that is not what they are thinking.
Letting go of our thoughts for them and setting out to enjoy ourselves sets a better example. Watching other people eat foods and eat them pleasurably has an important long-term influence on how picky eaters see food.
4. 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’re going to eat.
If that means that some cheese and crackers or plain rolls 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?
Again, we may love the special foods served at Christmas, but a food hesitant child may think they look awful. For them, eating a piece of bread is far more pleasurable. Isn’t that okay too for a special day?
Also, knowing they have accessible food enables them to be comfortable and it just may lead to them deciding to taste something else – especially if they are not in the spotlight.
5. EXPLAIN – knowing what to expect can be very comforting for a child who is anxious around food.
Taking time to explain what’s going to happen and how you are going to support them can enable them to relax.
6. 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 allows us to relax a little during the day too.
Or, have a chat at the beginning of each day so they know what is going to happen.
7. 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 doesn’t arrive until 9.00pm – eek!
It’s always good to make provision for those times when food isn’t going to be served in time or where the menu doesn’t tick boxes for our children.
A low-pressure way to do this is 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.
We can also pre, or post-load so the food at the event becomes less important.
8. FAMILIARITY – we are always more comfortable when we’re around things that we’re familiar with. This applies to both objects and food.
If our child has a favourite plate or cutlery, why not bring them along? 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. Coming to a table and not seeing anything that is manageable is not a nice feeling for anyone.
9. 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 they don’t 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’s a challenging food.
10. 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”.
Opportunities holidays provide
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:
a) Being around friends or relatives who are happily chomping on something different and doing it with pleasure can be a catalyst for our child to attempt something new.
b) 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?
c) Some children do feel more relaxed as they are on holidays and so are able to do things that they would not normally consider.
d) 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.
e) Having new foods on offer may give our child the opportunity to try a food that is not part of their normal repertoire.
f) 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 who prefers chips to broccoli or one who only eats one brand of crackers and nuggets, there are strategies that enable everyone to have a relaxed and enjoyable holiday.
Is there a friend or relative that would benefit from this advice?
Please feel free to share.
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and 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.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/