Written by: Regina De Canto, M.S CCC-SLP, Nicole Moes, M.S OTR/L, and Margie Avila, M.S CCC-SLP
With holidays, like Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, right around the corner, you might be finding yourself excited to eat your favorite traditional foods. However, this may also be a stressful time for some of our pickiest eaters! Find out what tips and tricks our feeding therapists recommend when it comes to dining with our kids during these exciting festivities.
First and Foremost, Don’t Beat Yourself Up!
The holidays can be stressful, so remember to be lenient with tradition: meaning without taking away traditional foods or activities, think about adding everyday comforts that will make the day easier for your child like a favorite toy or stuffed animal! With that said, it is ok if your child only eats their picky food today. During the holidays, it is typically a total change in your child’s routine. They may have cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents visiting which, as fun as it may be, could also be overwhelming! Therefore, this may be too big of a change to try something new. With all the commotion, the last thing your child may want to do is try a new food, but to prepare for this, consider a few things:
- Try making one of the new foods in the weeks leading up to the holiday meal. This will help prepare your child in seeing this new food and possibly trying it!
- If you pack a Bento box typically for your child when you go out, start unpacking it onto a plate. This will help your child feel more included. It will also raise the mealtime expectation for your child to be apart of the family tradition.
- Remind family members that your child is eating their picky food today because it is a special occasion. Advocate for your child and educate high-strong family members that due to this change in routine, you are allowing your child to have their choice in food today. You don’t want any added pressure to your child (or yourself for that matter!).
When Trying to Get Your Child to Try Something New
Where to start? Start with things they already like and make food connections. Many holiday foods may be new to your child, so find similar properties that link these new foods to your child’s favorites. For example, show that mashed potatoes may be smooth and creamy, just like their favorite yogurt! Some dishes may have cinnamon, just like their favorite applesauce. These connections make unfamiliar foods seem more comfortable. The same goes for smells and flavors. Introduce foods in a fun way like, “This cranberry kind of smells like your Paw Patrol yogurt, I betcha it’s Paw Patrol jelly!” Present these ideas in an exciting way, leading them to the exciting new discovery you both made!
Encourage messy play. Messy play is beneficial to your child. Messy play gives your little one the opportunity to receive feedback from their food regarding different textures, temperatures, colors, and quantities. This sensory play promotes exploration and helps build a positive environment around their food. But, don’t worry if your child is reluctant to engage in messy play with foods at first- this may take some time! Here is how you can help:
- Have your child try touching to food with utensils or a toy and work your way up to touching with their hands. This can help desensitize your child to something new by first looking at it, being close to it, touching, smelling, and so on. The more exposure they have to different sensory properties of food, the less anxiety they will have!
- Invite your child to help with meal planning. Ask them to help make some of the holiday menu decisions by giving them choices you can make together, such as “Would you prefer sweet potatoes mashed or roasted?” A child that helps with menu and meal preparation is more likely to eat.
- Invite your child to cook. Engage younger children to help stir, open packages, clean fruits and vegetables, or clear or move food from one surface to another . Older children can be taught to chop foods or assist with using the stove or oven with supervision. Also encourage sampling during the preparations phases!
Make food fun. We want our child to be interested in the food. Pair it with something they enjoy like music or a toy they only get at the dinner table. Remember to be positive with feelings and language surrounding foods with words such as “Yummy” and “That smells great”. When your child tries something new, get excited about it! “That was a brave taste!” Be proud of the small accomplishments which will make them more likely to repeat the behavior!
Start slow. A heaping spoonful may be too much. First try having your child lick or “kiss” the food on the spoon. Too much at once may be very overwhelming for your child. So remember to keep it small and take your child’s cues as to whether or not they can handle a little more.
Try giving it to them in a different way. You can try feeding your child, or let your child feed themselves; you can try using a different spoon or a fun, colorful plate. You could make it a game, and have them feed a doll or toy, or even the family pet….as long as it is safe! This new way may be the little boost your child needs to reduce anxiety on trying new foods!