Dealing with Picky Eaters at the Holidays

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Chef Gigi’s Top Tips for Peaceful Mealtimes

When children arrive in our lives, it’s an exciting time; however,they don’t come with an instruction manual. Congratulations….here’s the baby… oh, and here’s the book!

Dealing with Picky Eaters at the HolidaysEverything we do as parents comes to us inherently. We are also growing developmentally as parents at every age and stage as our children grow. Not to mention, every child is different. Seasoned parents will admit, it is quite an education.

Because we don’t have a base of education on how to raise another human, I believe most of our approaches comes from the parenting before us. Many of us use the cycles of how we were raised. Is this good or bad? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this: we seem to be repeating cycles that might not work, even less so for today’s busy parents.

Parenting today happens at a much faster pace. Do you really have an additional hour in your already busy life to sit at the table making sure your toddler eats that last bite of broccoli before getting up from the table? And if that is the case, the child is still in control. I’d make you sit and wait for me, too, just to have all your attention. Whether it is a negative or positive experience, the child still has your focus. It is also good to keep in mind: the picky eater might not be the only family member in the household.

Lifelong health begins in infancy, yet all too soon our kids are barraged by messages that thwart their parents’ efforts. Between peer pressure and television commercials advertising junk foods, getting children to eat well might seem more futile than fruitful. So, what exactly can parents do to instill healthy eating habits in their kids?

How to Get Your Child to Eat Healthy

You can make a huge impression on your child’s lifelong relationship with food through simple things like getting kids involved in food preparation, focusing on the food, and sharing time with family.

Parents should always model positive actions around food and nutrition with their own healthy choices and gestures. A really great mealtime strategy is simply turning off the television and engaging in a conversation about the day. I would begin these conversations by asking my child, “What was the best thing that happened to you today?” Followed by, “What was the worst?”You would be surprised what you can learn. And this is what the family mealtime table should be doing: engaging everyone in positive, feel-good participation.Your child will feel an added benefit of expression, accompanied by some relief that you’re not so focused on the policy of food choices.

The challenge facing the parent of a picky eater is to make healthy choices appealing. And it is work. No matter how good your intentions are, trying to convince your 8-year-old that an apple is as sweet a treat as a chocolate-dipped cookie won’t work. Be transparent and honest. And remember,it’s perfectly okay to not talk about the chocolate-dipped cookie. You are in control (or aspiring to be).

Ensure that your child’s diet is as nutritious and wholesome as possible, even while allowing for some of his favorite treats. You can please both your child’s palate and your sense of parental responsibility by using positive parenting campaigns. One that worked for my family over and over was offering a closed-ended choice.

Picky eating is about power and control – so give them the power to choose, and you as the parent decide what they choose from. Allowing children to feel empowered is part of raising strong, confident adults.

Example:                                                         

You can choose an apricot or a pear for today’s mid-morning snack.” Then wait. Ask again, but with different content. “And did you want it peeled or cut into sections?”                                              

Expected Outcome:                                     

This technique of closed-ended choices can be very empowering for the both of you. When my children were little, I had difficulties with bathing time. Offering a bath with or without bubbles solved our power struggles, and fast. You can use this tactic with food and gain the same success — it just takes some practice.

When using closed-ended choices, offer a choice between two items only, and suggest the child choose one. These examples work with a few other components found in my book. Lose the bribing – and the threats. Create a positive relationship between your child, yourself, and food.

Creating Positive Family Mealtimes

Of course, it won’t be possible to sit together as a family for every meal, but make an effort to eat together for at least one meal a day. Toddlers and preschoolers learn by imitating, and the best way to develop healthy eating habits is from watching you. If you are eating oodles of vegetables and healthy foods, this will seem normal and familiar to your child, and he is more likely to eat them also. Toddlers and young children are copycats! This can also be a wonderful time to be together as a family and give your child the attention she craves. If you have successfully eliminated the pressure and nagging with regard to food, eating together can actually be a wonderful experience.

Keep in mind that toddlers and preschoolers have short attention spans and they may not be willing or able to sit for a prolonged period of time;however, continue to encourage her to sit with the family, even if she says she isn’t hungry, and don’t pressure her to eat. This is a good time to have a conversation, ask questions about her day, and give her an opportunity to eat and relax with you in a calm and loving environment; this is especially true for older children. Ask open-ended questions to stimulate conversation.                                   

Very young children are distracted easily; if they are left alone to eat at the table, they can lose focus and end up leaving the table or just playing with their food. When the family sits together, you can focus on each other and your meal.

Be a good food advocate. Allow your child to see you eat the same desired food choices you want your child to eat. Don’t expect your little to eat greens while you snack on chips.

School-age children really need this parental down time. They are also navigating a large world during the day without you to guide them, and we all know there are things that could be going on with our kids that only conversation will reveal. Mealtime is a great time to share. It really is amazing what you may learn at the dinner table about your child and their surroundings. Besides the car, the dinner table could be one of the best places I’ve parented.

Suggestions to Promote Conversation with Your Child: 

  • What was the best thing that happened to you today?
  • What was the best of the best that happened to you today?
  • What was the hardest rule to follow today?
  • Who made you smile today?
  • What made your teacher smile today?
  • What made your teacher frown today?
  • What was the worst thing that happened to you today? Who did you sit with at lunch today?
  • Was anyone absent from your class today?
  • What kind of person were you today?
  • Did you do anything creative today?
  • If you could change anything about today, what would it be?

Instead of beginning a conversation with “How was your day today,” stimulate conversation and create a positive, bonding, family mealtime experience for everyone, including you.

How to Introduce Green Foods

I would definitely say to parents “just chill” (in more ways than one, but this way works faster). Foods that are colder temperatures won’t have as much of an impact on tiny tongues. Some kids’ taste receptors can be intensified at least 10 times more than adults – especially the bitter taste receptors. If you suspect this is what’s happening with your child, serve foods a bit colder than usual.                                                                       

This is how I introduced green peas to my children. They snacked on frozen peas because it was a novelty — and the cold food was a subtle introduction to the pungent green flavors. As my children became accustomed to the green flavor, I started to thaw them to a very cold temperature. At that point, I suggested how fun it was to hear the peas pop in our mouths when we chewed them. As time grew, their green repertoire grew.                        

Peas are a great start into the world of green foods because they are naturally sweet. Today, I think fresh peas are my children’s favorite vegetable. It’s possible that they associate the food with fun times. If it is, I’m glad they emotionally associate with a green pea rather than an empty calorie food. Always think to create a positive association around food choices. Peas are also found at just about any holiday table.

If you are planning on traveling this holiday, start introducing peas at home so there will be no surprises later. Remember, picky eating is about power and control. Be transparent with your child, and offer a “no surprise zone” when introducing new foods. You are the person they trust the most. Keep it that way.                                                                          

How do you handle a picky eater at holiday meals?

This is a great question, and one that certainly needs to be discussed. Food sharing is one of the most basic social constants in human culture. We use food as our social binding. When a group shares food, we are saying we are a community. Many cultural traditions and religious rituals involve the sharing of food. Some psychologists agree that humans also use food as a way of increasing status within the group.

We use food as a way of connecting with one another. So, what is the significance when an individual cannot participate in these basic social interfaces? Asking this question can help us understand the social stigma of food allergies, picky eaters, or food intolerances.

I call these scenarios, “food traps.” A wonderful social experience for one parent might be a nightmare for another.  We all have been tangled up in a food trap atone time or another. They’re situations that make it difficult for us to eat healthily or feed our families healthily (especially picky eaters). Some examples of food traps are road trips, holidays, playgroup meetups, and family vacations.

Even other family members can make things more difficult when it comes to feeding our own families. When parents are faced with a picky eater, every bite counts; getting ourselves and our family caught up in a food trap just creates another obstacle to providing healthy and nutritious choices. Once this happens, we begin to see changes such as not eating on time, skipping meals, or giving into fast food options.                

When it’s time for meet ups with friends and family, celebrations outside your immediate family, or an end-of-the-year holiday gathering, go ahead and celebrate — just don’t lose sight of what and when your child is eating. Make sure to educate and not send a feeling of negativity about eating a celebratory cookie or portion of cake you wouldn’t normally allow your child to indulge in, and then ensure your child eats a balanced meal. Soda during upcoming celebrations? Make sure you portion control. Not only because it is an empty calorie, but also because you should take into consideration whether your child is accustomed to consuming sugars, or artificial ingredients; she could have a slight reaction. Everything in moderation, right?

Involved in a playgroup? Worried about empty calorie foods there? I know that feeling! Bring a fruit or veggie tray to share. Make a closed-ended choice quietly with your child. Maybe she chooses to indulge and also eat a healthy snack. Don’t force it or announce it — simply gauge it, especially in a social setting. If there is another child eating healthy, place your child next to that child. A little positive peer pressure can be a good thing. Encourage your child to sit with a highly reinforcing peer who eats well. Your child will take note. If you think they are not watching or listening, they are.

Remember to not publicly point or call out. Your child will naturally observe. Sometimes during playtime, kids are so wound up they won’t eat — that’s okay, too. This just primes their evening appetite. Could be a win-win for us. Hungry children eat.

One the other side of the discussion, we all know the scenario: Every event based on food-sharing becomes a reminder of our child’s separateness. The offering he did not eat is to some a reminder of not being included. The situation could also draw too much attention to said child. I feel the same when I am on a chosen nutrition regime. Going out to dinner with friends or any group activity surrounded by food seems to illuminate my personal choice, and everyone seems to think they need to discuss it. It’s amazing. As an adult, I can compartmentalize and rationalize what is happening, but for children, things like this can leave an impression – good or bad (to be determined). Are you willing to wait and see which way it goes?

This is the first moment where the food-sharing ritual breaks down. In many cultures, refusing an offer of food is considered rude. Even though he gives the reason (food allergies, picky eating), this is often not accepted. People become defensive and don’t believe that the picky eating or food sensitivity is real or serious. They offer objections. To them, a rejection of the food feels like a rejection of the person offering it. Same conditions can apply if another parent or someone else in your extended family becomes too obsessive over your family’s mealtimes. It does happen. Identify the patterns in friends or family members, and have a discussion with your picky eater to teach them how to handle the adult. It’s always OK to teach your children to say: “I am not sure, you should go ask my parent.” And that means the discussion will be dropped, or it will at least give you the opportunity to head things off at the pass. It is surprising anyone would actually get involved in your family’s matters on any subject, but it does happen, and you should be prepared. Try to work on bringing these discussions to a minimum. Do not overdo it. Become more aware how we, as parents, can change the social landscape of our children by over-discussing within peer groups. Don’t make it a big deal, and you might have less of an issue to deal with down the road.

Keep in mind that some picky eaters are naturally picky because they are having a physical negative reaction that you may be unaware of. If your child is not able to verbally tell you, again, look for cues. There are all sorts of reasons your child is a picky eater. And quite frankly, other people outside of your immediate family are just that. Take care of yourself, and don’t allow outside influences to sway your family’s lifestyle choices.

Try surrendering to just enjoy the holiday season. Stress less and love more.

Raising your family goes by so fast. Don’t allow social stigmas to dilute your positive experience. Create your own family’s traditions as well as your family’s healthy food boundaries during the holiday season.

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1 thought on “Dealing with Picky Eaters at the Holidays”

  1. Great article! As a pediatric dietitian I agree with everything you said, especially creating a good meal schedule, family meals and getting them to cook with parents. I’ve never heard of serving green vegetables cold though, I’ll have to try that, thanks for the tip!

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