Stop Stressing: Here's How To Deal With Picky Eaters At Your Holiday Dinner

by Steph Montgomery

I've reached a point where I would kind of like to skip holiday meals. Holiday foods like pie and mashed potatoes used to be my favorite part of the season. Now, as a mom, I just don't know how to deal with picky eating during the holidays. I know my kids will refuse to eat new foods, get hungry (and understandably crabby), and then at least one well-meaning relative will give me unsolicited advice. All of this will make me feel like I just can't win.

I know I'm not alone, but I'm not sure what to do. Like, should I make my picky kids clean their plates or at least try a "polite bite" of everything? Or should I let them eat whatever they want (or are willing to), and make it through what are bound to be stressful holiday meals with my sanity intact? It turns out, the best answer is probably "none of the above." To find out some science-based strategies for addressing picky eating, Romper corresponded via email with Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist, author of Adventures in Veggieland, and mom of picky eaters.

She recommends some easy, straightforward tips for helping even the pickiest eaters navigate meal time during the holidays (and the rest of the year). Namely, staying calm, sticking to a routine, and being easy on yourself. The holidays are hard enough for moms, without also stressing about what your kids will (and won't) eat at the dinner table.

For helpful holiday mealtime tips, read on:

Be Easy On Yourself

Despite what your mother or mother-in-law might say about your kids not cleaning their plate or refusing to try even a single bite of something new, Potock says having a picky eater during the holidays is completely normal and not generally a sign of something more serious.

She tells Romper, "It’s not a sign of a problem unless food refusals occur away from the holiday events." It's important to differentiate whether your child is being picky on a daily basis or having "no 'good eating days' here and there."

Create Mealtime Routines

For mealtime success, Potock notes it's important to create mealtime routines and stick to them as best you can during the holidays. Kids do their best when they know what's happening and when they will eat next. Also, try your hardest not to stress about it.

She tells Romper, "Holidays are so much fun, but also a bit stressful. Kids pick up on the excitement and the stress and that can impact appetite." She adds, "Plus, holiday meals are different for kids because relatives are often at the table, the food is often unfamiliar, and the entire day is out of their normal routine."

Limit Snacks

While it can be easy at the holidays to let your kids munch on Christmas cookies or snack mix all day, try to resit the urge, which Potock says might backfire. Instead, she notes, "When kids are on a regular meal and snack time schedule, they are more likely to try new foods, because they are truly hungry."

Offer New Foods

This is not to say you shouldn't encourage your kids to try new foods. You should. The trick is not forcing them to eat. Potock writes, "parent proactively by continuing to offer small (just a tablespoon) portions of new foods." She adds, "Research shows that repeated exposure helps kids crawl out of the picky eater trap, as long as we don’t put pressure on our kids to eat."

Serve Familiar Favorites

You might want to bring a few foods along or ask your host what's on the menu to make sure there are foods your kid can (and will) eat. After all, "the best strategies for inspiring healthier dining habits are often the most subtle," according to Parents. Potock tells Romper, "Be sure there is a familiar food on a child’s plate, so that they have something to eat, along with small portions of the new food."

Take A Breath

Potock recommends slowing the heck down. As she told Romper, "First, take a breath. Holidays can be so frantic with excitement. Frankly, in our daily lives, we can all get a bit rushed too. Take a breath before calling everyone to the table."

She further explains that it's helpful to establish meal time as a family event every night, writing, "Once everyone arrives at the table, mark the beginning of the meal with a song, a prayer or simply help your child light a candle." She adds, "When we take just a moment to communicate that this is family time, kids know it’s a special time for all of us to be together."

Stay Positive

Remember, you aren't alone. "A toddler is naturally a picky eater," according to Ask Dr. Sears, and Potock seconds this, "All kids go through stages of pickiness, especially kids from 18 months to 3 years of age."

To navigate dealing with a picky eater at the dinner table wither once in a blue moon or on the regular, Potock advises, "Try your best to stay positive. As a parent of very picky eater, I know that’s hard, and if meal times seem too stressful, be sure to talk to your pediatrician."

This first-time mom wants to have a home birth, but is she ready? Watch how a doula supports a military mom who's determined to have a home birth in Episode One of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below. Visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for the next three episodes, launching Mondays in December.