Family holidays and social gatherings provide some of the toughest situations for parents with limited eaters. It may seem that almost every well-meaning family member or friend has some opinion or piece of advice concerning the child’s eating. The host may be offended or stressed if a child at the event does not eat anything. The parents may feel embarrassed or judged by their child’s lack of eating. These events may leave the child who eats little feeling left out, hungry and self-conscious. However, there are ways to navigate holiday dinners and actually use them as learning tools to help motivate a child to improve their eating and social skills.
Educate Family and Friends
Problem eaters eliminate entire food groups and become extremely stressed when faced with the idea of trying new foods. Discuss your child’s struggles honestly with the family and friends you will see over the holidays.
Firmly tell family and friends that you are working on your child’s eating but social occasions are not for lessons. Tell them you appreciate their advice, but you won’t be trying any new strategies or encouraging your child to eat something they are not comfortable with in a public setting.
Explain some of the things you are working on at home.
Make sure the host knows beforehand that your child may not eat what is prepared. It has nothing to do with their cooking or choice of foods.
Remind everyone that you are going to focus on enjoying the company and not how much and what is eaten by your child.
Offer to bring something or even a few things for everyone to share and make these items something your child will likely eat. Include something everyone may enjoy even if it is just freshly baked bread or rolls.
Ask the host ahead of time what they plan on making. Ask if you can bring something and run the item past the host first.
Have your child practice eating these items at home first.
Ask your child for input on what you should bring. Offer a few suggestions that may go with the rest of the offerings.
Practice at Home
Social gatherings can be extremely stressful for a selective eater. Fear of the unknown can often worsen the anxiety. Take some time out to discuss the family dinner. Talk about who will be there and what foods are going to be served.
Make foods that will be at the event at home beforehand and offer them as part of the family meal. Do not expect your child to eat them. Your goal is to simply get them comfortable with having the foods near them.
Have your child simply smell the foods so that these aromas become familiar to them when the walk into the holiday dinner. This is particularly important for children who become nauseous with new smells.
Allow your child to touch them if interested and ask questions about what is in each item and how it is made.
Use this time to figure out which foods seem to cause your child the most anxiety. Are there any foods that cause your child to gag just having to smell or see? Make a mental note of these foods and try, if possible, to keep these foods away from your child’s seat at the family dinner.
Set Them Up for Success
Children need to be able to face their fears in a loving, safe environment. Always having a special meal or snack brought to social gatherings is not allowing them to address these fears over food. They will never get to experience the pride of overcoming anxiety. Bring a few items your child will eat to share with all the guests and nothing more. This will then show your child that you trust them to eat enough and enjoy the event. It may be difficult to watch your child sit in front of an empty plate, but it will show your child that you are treating them just like all the other children.
Have your child go into the event hungry. Feeding them ahead of time will not set them up to successfully sit and eat with the rest of the guests.
Allow them to eat just one or two items they feel comfortable with. Do not encourage them to put something on their plate that they do not want.
If possible, have your child pick the seat they feel most comfortable in.
Talk to the host and discuss ahead of time where you think your child will be most comfortable sitting.
Set Small Goals
Talk to your child about your expectations for their behavior at the holiday dinner. Be firm in setting these expectations. Make these goals attainable and realistic.
Tell your child that they are not expected to eat anything but they are expected to sit at the table with the other guests until other children have been excused.
Teach your child that they must be gracious and not complain about the food out loud for the host to hear.
It is okay for them to sit and eat nothing during the meal and hold out for dessert as long as they do not complain or be disruptive at the table.
Practice your expectations at home.
Decide on a small reward for attaining these behavioral goals at the family dinner.
Build on these goals at each future event. Try and take it one step further each time.
Set Aside Insecurities
It is easy to feel judged when other people are giving harsh looks and calling attention to your child’s eating. Be confident that you are doing the best you can for you child.
Focus on your own food and your own enjoyment of the evening.
Try not to watch your child too closely. Show your child you trust them.
Make sure your child sees you not stressing over how much gets eaten.
Holiday dinners with a selective eater can be a time of great learning and progress. Keep expectations low and be grateful for each small step. Even the simple act of sitting nicely with friends and family can pave the way for huge changes.