The Scoop on Food

How to Handle Holiday Party Food With Your Kids

Here's a radical suggestion for holiday parties: Let your kids have free reign!

Boy eating entire gingerbread house Henglein and Steets/Getty Images
I have a radical suggestion for the upcoming Christmas and New Year's parties and holiday gatherings: Let your kids have free reign at the festivities. Don't police their plates. Don't stand over them telling them to eat their carrots. Don't follow them around the party like a fool saying, "Eat two bites of pizza, and then you can have the cookie!"

For starters, trailing your kids around and monitoring their food intake doesn't make you a very fun holiday party guest (or host), to say the least. More importantly, it doesn't teach your kids anything except that they can't be trusted at a holiday party.

As a dietitian, I've talked to a lot of grown-ups who let one evening of overindulgence spiral into a guilt-laden free-for-all that lasts weeks. But kids seem to have no problem eating pizza and cupcakes and candy at a party and then getting on with their lives—and the healthy eating habits you encourage at home. Unlike adults, many kids are also amazing self-regulators. I can't tell you how many times my kids have asked for a second cookie, brownie, or piece of cake only to take just one bite of it and announce that they're full.

One thing I see parents struggling with is the party buffet, since buffets usually include both "dinner food" and dessert. But I suggest you let your kids put them BOTH on their plate at the same time (read: Got Dessert-Obsessed Kids? This Solution Sounds Crazy But It Works!). I once attended a party where a mom stood over her daughter's plate, demanding that she eat her hot dog before taking a cupcake from the buffet. They argued back and forth, tears were shed, and the daughter eventually took a few bites of the hot dog and was granted the cupcake. Meanwhile, I had allowed my kids to put both a hot dog and a cupcake on their plates. They ate some of each and went off to play, no drama involved.

This plan for parties will work better if you also do the following:

  • Keep your child's diet pretty healthy on the day of the party. If she asks for dessert earlier in the day, remind her that you're going to a party later and she'll be eating those kinds of foods there.
  • Check in with your child during the party. If he's on his third helping of fudge, ask him what his tummy is telling him—is he still hungry or is he full (or maybe even overfull)? If you suspect he's eating out of boredom, redirect him to a toy or round up the kids for a game.
  • Go light on goodies at home in general during the holidays. While occasionally overdoing it on junk food is okay, most families attend multiple holiday gatherings. Save those special foods for parties and avoid keeping little dishes of candy and containers of cookies around your house.

How do YOU handle the food at holiday parties with your kids?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.