Picky eaters and preschoolers are basically the same thing in my book. And unless you’re one of those lucky parents who’ve managed to raise a magical being with an adventurous palate, you’ll feel my pain when it comes to figuring out how to feed said cracker-muncher and green-bean-refuser.
Throw a big family meal like Thanksgiving in the mix, with mushy cornbread dressing and gravy-laden turkey, and you might already be in full-blown “How do I get them to eat????” panic mode, especially if you’ll be dining at someone else’s house. Never fear – we have advice on how to deal, how to stay calm, and how to help your finicky eater navigate the holiday table.
- Offer to bring one or two dishes you know are a safe bet. If you have a guaranteed favorite for your picky eater to enjoy, everyone will be less stressed and hungry. While the meal may be all about the special food for you, if you let your kid eat from his limited wheelhouse, he may see the deeper meaning of the season and enjoy the together-time with family more.
- Practice trying bites of new food at home. Some kids have to be presented with a new food up to 20 times before they’ll try it or enjoy it, which isn’t an option for once-a-year spreads like Thanksgiving. But you can rehearse the idea of trying new foods. Offer one new food at each meal leading up to the holiday, and let your little one practice the art of politely tasting one bite.
- Talk about manners. Preschoolers are still learning that other people have feelings too, and you can use the setting of Thanksgiving dinner to talk about being polite and not hurting Grandma’s feelings if you don’t like her mashed potatoes. While you’re practicing trying new food, you can also practice saying things like “No thank you,” or “Thank you, but that’s not my favorite.” Even if your daughter won’t actually try the candied yams, a sweet refusal is definitely better than having food flung across the room in disgust.
- Eat before the meal. Whether your Thanksgiving is enjoyed at lunch or dinnertime, you’ll want to make sure your picky eater gets a good breakfast or breakfast and lunch the day of, so they don’t arrive hungry or “hangry” to a feast of unfamiliar foods. Full bellies and well-regulated blood sugar will help both of you stay happier during the event.
- Plan for last resorts. Bribing with dessert or favorites like bread aren’t the best way to raise kids to have healthy relationships with food, but if it keeps you sane and works for one day, the minimal damage might be worth it. You can also pack healthy snacks like fruit for your kid to enjoy while you dig into the turkey and cranberry sauce, if nothing else will work.
- Remember to breathe. Don’t stress yourself out if you can help it. Keeping a calm attitude yourself about what your little one does or doesn’t eat will help him or her stay more relaxed too. If your son wants to color with his cousins instead of eating. or your daughter would rather be showing grandpa how she can build a tall block tower, it’s okay. They won’t starve. And if all they eat is rolls and cheese cubes, that’s okay too.
- Relax, it’s just one day. No matter what happens, even if your toddler has a total food-related meltdown at your pickiest aunt’s house, Thanksgiving is just one day. Years from now your family can sit around and laugh about the time your kid squished squash into his hair rather than eat it. What’s important is that your family is together. Picky eaters usually grow out of it in time anyway.
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Emily Brown is a preschool teacher, freelance writer, and mom to two energetic, funny little girls with a flair for drama and a shared love of cheese and pickles. She’s also written a book on the history and food of restaurants in Birmingham, AL called Birmingham Food: A Magic City Menu.