Sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, stuffing — Thanksgiving is the one day a year you get to eat so many family recipes and favorite dishes that are a little too elaborate to make it to the table on any old weeknight. Many of the foods we eat on Turkey Day have special stories behind them, having been eaten in your family for generations. But for kids you might consider picky eaters, a massive spread of food (and a lot of pressure to taste it because Grandma spent all day in the kitchen) would be less of a holiday, and more of a nightmare. So, here’s how to help your picky eater enjoy Thanksgiving. Spoiler alert: it’s not about preparing kid-friendly recipes or pushing them to taste something; it’s all in taking the focus off of food and putting it on fun.
While it might seem like everyone else’s child is eating their peas and lean proteins, picky eating is incredibly common, especially from ages 2 to 6. Studies have concluded that it’s a “protective mechanism” to keep kids from eating something toxic, one that most children outgrow and that doesn’t affect them long-term. But on a holiday with so much emphasis on food, it’s easy to see why Thanksgiving puts the pressure on your picky eater. So, how can you take the pressure off your kid (and off yourself) this year? It starts with remembering the reason for the season.
When you talk about Thanksgiving, focus on family instead of food.
“It has so much to do with the way that Thanksgiving is talked about in the home,” says Ann McKitrick, M.S., parenting coach and founder of Nurtured Noggins. “Is it talked about as this is a time when we get to be with our family and it's going to be so much fun or is it all about the food? And so if the focus is primarily on the food, then I think it's probably going to make a picky eater feel a little bit more anxious than any other gathering with your family and friends.”
Prep your kids about what to expect.
If you’re not typically a dinner-at-3-p.m. family, and you’re not usually gathered in a large group at a relative’s house, a little heads up might help kids have a better time overall. “Go through the steps of preparing your child as much as you can,” says Amy Palanjian, author of Dinnertime SOS. “‘We’re going to have dinner at a really funny time today, and then we’ll have a snack later. There might be a lot of foods you’ve never seen before. I’ll tell you what everything is and you can let me know what you want to try.’ The goal is to make them comfortable enough that they can enjoy what is going to be a very unusual day to them, because their routine will likely be completely off and naps might be disrupted.”
If you’ll be in the kitchen, pull out some ingredients before they get all sauced up.
“Oftentimes our Thanksgiving menu includes a lot of casserole-type dishes, and if you could just pull out some plain foods from those casseroles, like maybe some plain green beans or potatoes before they’re mixed with all of the saucy stuff that goes with it,” McKitrick advises. As parents of picky eaters know, simplicity is key.
If family comments on your child’s eating habits, change the subject.
We’ve all had a well-meaning grandmother who fusses over whether we’ve had enough to eat, or a not-so-well-meaning relative who just can’t keep their parenting opinions to themselves.
“If during a meal someone is pressuring a child to eat something or to try something, I like to say, ‘We trust them, it’s OK.’ And then to sort of change the subject,” Palanjian says. If there’s a special family dish Grandma would really love your kid to try, you can actually please everyone in that scenario. “In that particular case, you could ask, ‘When did you start making this? Was it something your mom made? Where did you learn recipe?’ Get them to talk about it so that you’re learning the story of the food and you’re taking the focus away from the child particularly.”
Kids can also learn about cherished recipes by making them with you or a loved one, instead of staring down a big, intimidating dollop on their plate. You could also ask to take some of the food home with you for your child to try later, she says, which can be meaningful to older relatives. Whether your kid actually is more likely to try the dish at home later or you enjoy the leftovers yourself is entirely your business.
Pack food you know they’ll eat.
For toddlers and kids who only reliably eat a few foods, McKitrick is a fan of packing their own little meal. She’d frame it like this: “We’re going to see what Grandma has, and if you don't like anything there, here’s your lunch. We’ll just pull it out and put it on the nice plate and you can have what you like.”
Or, bring a dish to share that you know your child enjoys.
On the other hand, packing your child their own meal can backfire depending on how many other kids will be at dinner, Palanjian says. “I wouldn’t bring a meal just for one child because it could make a cousin feel like, ‘Well, I want that food.’ But I would bring something with you to contribute.”
By bringing a dish to add to the meal that everyone can enjoy (including your child), you can ensure they have something to eat without feeling singled out. “If you bring only food that you know that they will eat, I think there might be more attention on that child than if you just let them eat crackers and a roll and some applesauce,” says Palanjian.
Ultimately, what your child does or doesn’t eat on Thanksgiving shouldn’t stress anyone out — you, your kid, or your great aunt a few seats down. Focus on creating happy holiday memories together instead.
“Even though there’s a lot of food prep that goes into winter holidays, it’s not actually all about the food. The food is a vehicle for being together and enjoying time with family,” says Palanjian. “Keep in mind how many times you have been exposed to this holiday and what it means to you, and that’s cumulative over your lifetime. We need to give the kids the same opportunity to have that build up as they grow. I’m much more interested in making a positive experience that they will remember, the feeling of it being fun and happy and exciting rather than focusing on whether they liked the green bean casserole.”
Lam, J. (2015, May 6). Picky Eating in Children. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fped.2015.00041
Ann McKitrick, M.S., parenting coach and founder of Nurtured Noggins