Whether your child has an aversion to many foods due to sensory processing disorder (SPD) or is just plain picky, getting through those big holiday meals can be more stressful than joyful. I recently tuned into a picky eaters webinar by the SPD Foundation, and Kay Toomey, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist with more than 30 years experience working with children with feeding problems, provided some great ways to help kids she categorizes as picky eaters (children who will only eat a limited number of foods) and problem feeders (kids who suffer from SPD and are extremely selective about what they will eat). Here are some of her excellent tips for getting through—and enjoying!—the holidays, as well as special occasions all year round.
1. Talk about the holiday plans. Unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations can be overwhelming for kids and ultimately decrease their appetites. Before you travel or have extended family over, pull out the family photo album, have your child draw pictures of what she thinks the holiday meal will look like this year, or chat about the upcoming plans—anything that will give her a better idea of what to expect.
2. Mask the scent. The smell of food can be too much for problem feeders, so it's best to lessen it as much as possible. Try placing an isolating fan in the room where you're having the main holiday meal. Or ask family members if they can open some windows while they cook so the smell isn't completely permeating the house.
3. Feed her before the main meal. You can't expect picky eaters or problem feeders to mind their manners and try new foods during a holiday meal. They realistically will only be able to do one or the other, so you'll have to decide which is more important to you. It's helpful to put something in their bellies beforehand so they're not starving at the dinner table and so there's less pressure for them to eat what is offered. This way they'll be able to concentrate more on participating in the conversation and bonding with family, less on stressing over the fact that they're hungry and have to eat unfamiliar foods. Remember: it's more important they're at the table and a part of the celebration than whether they're eating what everyone else is.
4. Add one food they are sure to eat to the table. Even if children eat beforehand as recommended, you still want them to come to the table and take part in the meal as much as possible. To help them feel included, bring one food you know they'll nibble on—even if it's as simple as a roll, apple slices, or crackers. If they do happen to try something new on their own, don't make a big deal out of it. You can mention something to them afterward or quietly at the table, but you don't want to embarrass them in front of the family. And if they don't eat at all, that's also okay since they did eat a bit beforehand.
5. Bring something familiar from home he's used to eating with or on. His favorite utensil, placemat, or cup can serve as a reminder of how he normally eats at home and cue the same eating habits in an unfamiliar place.
6. Create a secret signal. It's a good idea to come up with a way for your child to let you know if she is getting overwhelmed during the meal and needs a break. You can give her a small card to hold up or establish a simple tap on the arm or leg to signal it's time for a breather. This can also go the other way and you can signal to let her know she's excused before a pleasant situation turns sour.
7. Control and limit the sweets. This can be difficult because those Christmas cookies and Hanukkah chocolates are a large part of the holiday, but it's important to stand your ground. Not only does sugar cut down kids' 20-minute appetite window to only 10 minutes, it also suppresses their appetite for substantial food and leads to cravings for more sweets. Aim for one sugary treat a day, and make sure they know to ask permission beforehand—they can't just raid grandma's cookie jar at their leisure.
8. Start making unfamiliar foods throughout the year. Most family traditions are about eating specific foods (ham, latkes, turkeys, yams, elaborate desserts, etc.), many of which children may not encounter during any other time of the year. If an unfamiliar food appears in front them, chances are they're not going to eat it and even seeing it on their plate can cause a great amount of stress, especially for problem feeders. After the holidays, consider making some of these foods throughout the year so by the time the next festive family dinner comes around, your child will know what they are and how they taste, making him more likely to eat them during special occasions.
Image: Ham dinner via Shutterstock