When it comes to holiday traditions, sitting down with your loved ones for a fabulous holiday dinner with all the trimmings is one of the very best.
But it's not always such a joyous affair when some of the smallest eaters in your family are also among the pickiest. Here's how to serve a variety of healthy holiday foods and keep your festive meal from morphing into a stressful ordeal.
For starters, "If you're serving a new food or dish to your child for the first time, it's best to do so at a time when there's minimal stress—and that usually isn't the case at a holiday meal," says Annette Bartz, R.D., a clinical dietitian at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. So a week or so before the big day, try serving that roasted butternut squash or green beans with almonds dish at a regular dinner, when there is less pressure and chaos.
"You want to make the child's first experience trying a new food as positive as possible, so you're not setting up negative associations right from the start," says Bartz.
When you want to introduce a new food, it can be helpful to prepare it in a variety of different ways and have your child rate each dish. Take cranberries, for instance, which are one of those foods that are mainly served at the holidays. "You can serve them as a juice, in Jell-O, in dried form, as well as in a sauce," says Bartz. Your child can take a small taste of each dish, rate it on a scale of one to five and then say why he did or didn't like it, such as "Too tart" or "I like how it feels in my mouth."
"The whole idea is to make it a low-pressure situation that's also fun for your child," says Bartz. If a child is especially afraid trying a new food, Bartz says she recommends allowing him to chew it and spit it out if he doesn't want to swallow. "Of course, I'm not suggesting you do this at a holiday meal," she adds.
Nothing grabs kids' attention better than a good story, so when you're preparing for Thanksgiving tell the story about how the meal came about, suggests Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, R.D., a pediatric dietitian at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "Play up the 'harvest' angle of the meal by talking about the foods that are served being available at the winter months such as potatoes and squash," she says.
Experts say children are much more likely to try a food if they've helped to prepare it, and many moms have found this to be true. "Whenever I have my daughter and her friends help me test a new recipe, that's when they try new things," says Susan McQuillan, a New York City mom of a 12-year-old.
And no, we're not talking about Merlot. Lots of kids are crazy about ketchup and will be a lot more willing to try the dark meat turkey, butternut squash, or Aunt Kathy's stuffing if it's adorned with a few squirts of ketchup, says dietitian Bartz. "The idea is to pair a flavor that you know they like with something you'd like them to try," says Bartz. It may not look very appetizing to you, she says, but then again, you're not the one who's gonna eat it.
"Many kids are labeled as picky if they are not hungry at mealtime, so you want to avoid loading them up with too many snacks at least one or two hours before the meal," says Sarah Krieger, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and founder of Dining Cents, a nutrition consulting firm based in St. Petersburg, Florida. "A child is more likely to try a new food if he's truly hungry," she adds.
Another way to get your child more involved in meal preparation is to have her come up with a vegetable dish that she helps make, ideally with at least one new vegetable in the ingredients. The idea is that you're both creating a new tradition with a dish that she makes every year from then on.
Sounds gimmicky, but a recent study shows it really can work. Cornell University researchers found that when 4-year-olds were served "X-Ray Vision Carrots," they ate nearly twice as much as when the food was simply labeled "Carrots." Anyone for some "Acorn Superpower Squash"?
Many children are turned off by big portion sizes, so serve just a few bites of something so it's easy for the child to feel like she has accomplished something. Plus, she will be more likely to ask for seconds!
Similarly, lots of kids have a problem when different foods touch each other on the plate, and Thanksgiving is quite possibly the touchiest meal ever. If your child is particularly picky about foods touching, you can serve his or her food in one of those divided "TV dinner" type plates.
Charlie Brown and his friends may have had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal of toast and popcorn, but that's no reason to give in to your child's pleadings. "It's important to expose your child to your family's traditions, and food is a major part of that," says Krieger. "Many adults have memories of the foods they ate as children on holidays. This is the time to expose the little ones to foods they may have only a few times a year."
"Rather than preparing something especially for your child, you might try 'tasty-ing' something that's already on the menu," says Tanner-Blasiar. "An extra marshmallow on the sweet potatoes might make all the difference."
"Holidays are stressful for everybody, including kids, especially if you're going to a relative's house, where your child has to be on her best behavior," says Bartz, "so you don't want to add to that by making a big fuss over what your child will and won't eat."