Helping a Picky (or Problem) Eater Manage the Holidays

LLA Therapy feeding specialist, Mallory Hawley M.A., CCC-SLP, discusses how to manage the holiday season for picky eaters. 


The holidays can be a difficult time for picky eaters and problem eaters. There are several reasons for this. First, holidays are about eating specific, traditional foods, which the child may only see at this time of year (i.e., the only time they may see a whole turkey is at Thanksgiving). Many holidays are about sweets, which suppress your appetite faster than any other foods. We see a lot of people at the holidays and the children may or may not know them. Children have certain expectations about how they should behave during the holidays. Holiday food means love to many people (i.e., if you don’t eat grandma’s special cranberry sauce what is that telling her?). Holidays are all about fun, excitement, anticipation, and loud noises which may disorganize a child with sensory processing difficulties. They are also typically allowed to be off schedule (eating a Thanksgiving meal at 3pm, later bedtime, etc.) and many times include traveling to a place outside the usual comfortable environment.
 There are several ways that we can make this busy time of year easier for children who are picky or problem eaters. These include minimizing or limiting the changes, preparing your child in advance, feeding the child before the main meal, and limiting the sweets. 
Minimizing the changes that your child will have to deal with may be difficult but is possible. During Halloween try to limit the number of events that they child will attend. One way to do this is based on age. For many preschoolers try to limit it to one Trick or Treating event and one family activity beyond that. For kids grades Kindergarten through 2nd grade there will typically be an event at school and Trick or Treating. If you wish to attend a Halloween party consider not doing traditional Trick or Treating. During Thanksgiving and Christmas try to keep your child on their usual eating schedule (even if it means they will be off-schedule for the main meal), try to include them in the main meal (one food they will eat that still fits the holiday theme such as having apple slices in addition to cranberry sauce), have them join the family for the main meal but don’t set any expectations on what they eat,  consider trying to stay within your time zone if you will be traveling out of town for less than 3 days or if you are traveling for more than 3 days and shifting time zones try to only shift their schedule by one hour per day. Other helpful tips include bringing your own utensils, plates, cups and placemats if possible and that on days that are not the actual special holiday celebration maintain your usual expectations and routines for mealtime.
Preparing your child in advance is a key to success. Begin with talking about holiday plays 2-4 weeks in advance so that they know what will be happening. If you will be traveling or seeing relatives the child is unfamiliar with begin showing them pictures and talking about those they will be meeting. During Halloween, it may be important to explain to young children that people dress up in costumes and stress that they are not real and explain what Halloween celebrations include. You can draw pictures with the child to show what you may be doing during each holiday. Tell children that at the main meal during the holidays it is more important to work on their manners than their eating (i.e., politely saying no thank you to a food instead of gross!), and try some traditional foods at home before making the family trip (i.e., include cranberry sauce in a dinner).
Feeding children before the main event may help them significantly manage the rest of the day’s events. Offer a simple meal or snack of preferred foods and try to make it protein heavy but still balanced (1-2 proteins, 1 starch, 1 fruit or vegetable, and milk). Challenging foods may start a power struggles as the child may already be over-excited and unable to handle more demands. Do not make participation in holiday events continent on eating (that makes their food the evil thing standing between them and fun)!
Finally, limit the sweets as they suppress appetites more than nutritious foods and lead to craving more sugary sweets. During Halloween try to limit it to one sweet treat for a day for no more than one week after Halloween (there are many places you can donate unwanted candy) and consider tying it to age (i.e., they are three so they get treats for 3 days in a row). Let them pick what treat they want and put it in a special place. This is also useful following other holiday traditions that include sweets (i.e., Christmas cookies). Do NOT make getting the treat contingent on eating, select a meal after which they get their treat. Make sure kids ask first before getting the treat.
I hope these tips will make for a more successful and pleasant holiday season! Bon appétit!
Questions for Mallory? Email her at mhawley@llatherapy.org 

All information gathered is from Dr. Kay Toomey’s presentation titled Surviving the Holidays with a Picky Eater.