Helping Your Picky Eater Enjoy Holiday Meals

The holidays are some of the busiest times of year for most families. The routine changes and excitement are enough to throw off most young children and throw in big family gatherings … you’ve got a recipe for a kid who’s so overwhelmed that sitting down to eat is out of the question. For picky eaters, it’s an even bigger stretch to expect that they’ll eat anything at all.

You see, we look at all the choices of appetizers, sides, entrees, and desserts and we think “Wow! Look at all this delicious food! Let me eat my way through this holiday!” Picky eaters look at all those choices and can easily become so overwhelmed that even safe foods become too overwhelming. There are too many choices, too much activity, and mealtime can become really stressful.

With a very picky and very active two-year-old, here are some strategies that have worked for us to help make busy holidays a little easier on us and him.

Picky Eating 101: Before the Big Meal

We figure out the menu ahead of time. If there are foods our toddler hasn’t seen before or has seen very little of, we start introducing him to these foods a few days before the meal. This works best if you can start early, but who are we kidding, everything at Christmastime is last minute.

So we introduce these new foods in a few ways, like: 

  • Talking about the food
  • Showing him pictures of the food online, in the store, and in magazines
  • Making the food at home

When we have time to make the food at home, there are different ways to encourage our picky eater to interact with this new food. We can let him help make it, if it’s safe and we have the time and patience to do so. We serve the food family-style so everyone is taking the food out of the same bowl or pot at the table, and so that he can choose if he even wants to try it. We let him play with the food, too. Letting young picky eaters play with their food may sound counter-intuitive and yes, it can get messy. But the important thing is to get the kid interacting with the food in a playful, non-stressful way – and in a non-stressful, calm environment. 

The more times and ways you can introduce new or non-preferred foods before the big holiday dinner, the better.

Picky Eating 101: During the Big Meal

On the day-of, it’s helpful to serve Mr. or Miss Picky Eater dinner first, before everyone else is seated and the table really gets loud and hectic. Or before they get hangry. A hangry child is no fun for anyone, and a hangry child who’s also a picky eater may not eat well.

During dinner, sometimes it’s helpful to serve just one or two foods at a time. Start with the favorite or preferred foods. Then, you can introduce some of the other foods on the table. And it also helps to stash some safe and healthy snacks in the diaper bag. We know as moms that those “just in case” snacks are almost always in the bag anyway!  

But perhaps our biggest stress reliever during the holidays is this:  SET LOW EXPECTATIONS.  Not even kidding.  If we don’t expect him to eat anything, and he eats a piece of bread, then it’s a win. We will also let him graze as he runs by the table or couch during busy family gatherings. Another option is to put a clean blanket on the floor and supervise a “picnic dinner.” I wouldn’t recommend a picnic dinner for mashed potatoes or casseroles, though.

At the end of the day, the goal is to be as stress-free as possible. Picky eaters do best when they don’t feel forced to eat, and they have some level of choice in their food.

Hopefully these tips will help you out next week as you enjoy Christmas with family and friends. If you have other strategies to help picky eaters during big family meals, I’d love to hear them in the comments!  

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Julia Germeyer
Julia is a lifelong writer, part-time adventurer, and lover of good wine and carbs. She lives in the South Hills with her family: a husband, two littles, and two cats, and the oldest child is in the Army. She owns a digital marketing consulting firm and was also an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. Julia has an MBA from Point Park University and a Bachelor's degree from Pitt. She enjoys hanging out with her family, traveling to new places, Wheel of Fortune, and sleep. If she had a superpower, it would be to fly: traffic jams would be a thing of the past.