Can you relate to this? You’re at a holiday family dinner. Your child hasn’t eaten since lunchtime, because you’ve been at various holiday events all day. (Not to mention she hasn’t napped in 4 days). You know she’s hungry and tired and you’re worried she won’t be able to sit at the table.
She fills up on the appetizers set out for everyone and then it’s time to sit down to dinner. An extended family member tells your child she needs to eat or she won’t get cookies later. You cringe inside and your child shrinks a bit in her chair. The family member then looks at you and says they can make your child something different since she isn’t eating. You’re thinking, “She just ate pretzels, cheese and crackers and mixed nuts. She’s full.” You want everyone to go back to eating and chatting and take the focus off of your child’s eating.
That pressure can feel overwhelming and sometimes feel like a judgment of your parenting, even if that’s not the intention at all. I know, I’ve been there!
Do you worry or feel stressed about your child’s eating around the holidays? If so, you’re not alone. Food is a big and important part of the holiday season. Feeding children can be challenging when we’re in a “normal routine”. However, traveling or having family come to visit can present added challenges with feeding, especially for pickier eaters. And, around the holidays, you add in irregular meal times, erratic sleep schedules, lots of exciting yummy foods, new challenging foods, and, for some, a man entering the house in the middle of the night and leaving presents! This can certainly be a recipe for lots of fun, but also can be the recipe for feeding challenges.
Parents receive all sorts of messages about how their children “should” eat all year round, but particularly during the holidays. So much of feeding advice is rooted in diet culture and perpetuates the idea that there’s such a thing as “perfect parenting”. That pressure, coming from the media, friends, family and medical providers, can be overwhelming and often can transfer as pressure to the child.
However, if you can feel grounded in how you want to approach food this holiday season, that may help you feel less stressed, which in turn will help your child. You can decide how you want to approach food this holiday season in a way that is right for you and your family.
I’ve pulled together some common questions I get from parents about feeding children during the holiday season. Can you relate to some of these questions? I hope this helps you feel a bit more confident and grounded this holiday season.
1. “On Thanksgiving, my children turn their noses up at the turkey and traditional side dishes and only eat the rolls and desserts. What should I do?”
Thanksgiving or any holiday meal can be the worst case scenario for a pickier eater. Many of the common Thanksgiving foods are only served once a year, and are, thus, essentially new foods to many children each year. For a child that is a more selective eater, they may need to be presented with a food many, many times before they are ready to try it.
Also, at meals like Thanksgiving, the inherent factors of excitement, lots of people, new noises and smells, and a big focus on food can all be experienced as pressure or “too much” for a child that is more sensitive, which is usually our pickier eaters. Also, I know I personally can feel more overwhelmed on these holidays and my own “overwhelm” can certainly be felt by my children, which can interfere with their eating.
The first step may be to change your expectations. If this all feels familiar, then, accepting the fact that your child may not eat very much at Thanksgiving can reduce the stress and pressure. Consider that sitting at the table and your child being exposed to the food and the event are wins!
Allow your child to decide what they put or don’t put on their plate. You may want to explain what new dishes are, without judgment or pressure for them to try it. Allow them to put items on their plate, without “having” to eat them. You may consider adding one item to the meal that is familiar to your child and you think they may eat. Seeing an item that is familiar may help lower their worry, which may make it easier to try something less familiar. Trust your child to know what they can handle.
This takes some planning ahead, but you may also consider offering a few Thanksgiving sides during the year, so they aren’t brand new when you sit down for the big event. I love making my family’s corn pudding recipe, because it’s very easy for a weeknight dinner.
2. “Candy and desserts are everywhere from Halloween to New Year’s. How can I prevent my children from eating so many sweets this time of year?”
Sweets and desserts are certainly a part of the holiday season. They are part of the experience, excitement and many family traditions. When we try to “prevent” our children from eating sweets, while at the same time they are more present and abundant, it can be confusing to children and may not get the results you’re looking for.
We know that restricting children from certain foods often leads to children seeking those foods out more and increases their risk of disordered eating behaviors, such as sneaking food. Instead of focusing on preventing them from eating sweets, consider what you’d like to actively do to support their eating during the holidays.
Some examples may be:
3. “During the holidays, inevitably, family members make comments about what my child is or isn’t eating. I try hard to avoid comments like this with my own children. What should I do?”
One reason the holidays can be hard for parents is the unsolicited comments or advice about food from well meaning family members or friends. Things can be hard enough for parents, and then a person says to your child, “You haven’t eaten anything!” or “Whoa you’re eating a lot.” These comments can put pressure on your child and also can feel like judgment of you as a parent. You have a few options when these scenarios present themselves.
If you are interested in listening to more diet-free thoughts about feeding children during the holidays, check out this episode of Sunny Side Up Podcast with Haley Goodrich.
As we enter into the holiday season, think through how you can take the stress and worry out of feeding. Things don’t need to be perfect and can be unique to each family. What do you need to feel more confident in how you are approaching food with your family? The more grounded and supported you feel, the smoother things will go.
I hope you have a happy holiday season!
Anna Lutz is a Registered Dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Associates Nutrition Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition. Anna practices from a Health at Every Size® approach and supports individuals in breaking free of diet culture for themselves and their families. Anna is a national speaker and delivers workshops and presentations on childhood feeding, eating disorders, and weight-inclusive healthcare. Anna writes about nutrition, cooking, and family feeding, free of diet culture, at Sunny Side Up Nutrition.
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