We’ve all been there, at a relative or friends house and our children are refusing to eat what is being served. It can be a stressful time, often causing us to second guess our parenting decisions, especially if we are with opinionated people who like to share how they handled those situations with their kids!

How to Support Picky Eaters During the Holidays

Parenting has shifted from “children are meant to be seen and not heard” to raising children who have voices and are being taught to display self-discipline. Whether your child has autism, displays sensory processing differences, or has a strong preference for what he/she likes and does not like, this can be one of those challenging moments as a parent, one that causes you to feel anxious, doubt yourself, and feel pressured to parent in a way you would prefer not to. While all parents struggle with children’s eating habits at some time during their child’s development, this is particularly concerning for parents of children with autism.

According to Ledford & Gast 2006, 46 to 89 percent of children with autism have some level of food selectivity.  In this article you will find strategies for supporting yourself and your child during holiday meals.

The first piece of advice I can give you is prepare yourself ahead of time. Read this article. Talk to your support system and your child’s professional support staff. Make sure you receive the reassurance and support you need so that you are not tempted or pressured to make parenting decisions you don’t want to make. By being predictable in your responses to your child, you will be helping ease their anxiety in a stressful situation.

In addition, the more pleasant the holiday meal is the more positive memories your child will have of the situation. Positive memories in situations and environments have been linked to higher levels of regulation in those situations and environments in the future while negative memories during situations and environments have been linked to more dysregulation within the situations/events. Planning for success will help ensure future success.

Furthermore, you will feel better about yourself if you trust your gut and follow your plan versus being persuaded to do something you don’t believe in.

Ways to Desensitizing Your Child to Specific Foods

If it’s important for you that your child tolerates the food served at the holiday meal, be prepared. With time, you may be able to gradually desensitize your child to the specific foods being served (Wheeler, 2019). The following strategies can be helpful:

  • Reach out to family and friends to find out the menu for the occasion.
  • Begin working on slowly desensitizing your child to the foods that will be served.
  • All children do best when food is presented as a choice and in a calm manner.
  • Do not force your child to try the food. Begin small and celebrate small successes.
  • Knowing where to start will be very individualized to your child.
    • Begin with foods that are the best sensory fit for your child. For instance, if he/she prefers crunchy foods, start with a crunchy option.
    • Slowly work on desensitizing one food at a time in a manner that works for your child.
      • For example, you may want to begin with looking at pictures of the selected food, or having the food in a separate plate, in the same room as the child, so he/she can become desensitized to the smell and look of the food first.
      • Other children may be able to tolerate the food on a separate plate within close proximity or on their plate with the understanding that there is no obligation to try the food.
      • A technique I’ve found helpful to desensitize children to the feel of food is to offer the food to the child at a proximity that’s comfortable to the child while providing a “no thank you” mat next to the child. The only expectation for the child is to move the food to the mat if he/she does not want to try the food. This is a simple support that can be provided at holiday meals as well, no matter where your meal is!
    • Repeated exposure of the selected food should be provided once or twice a day, with no expectations attached (Wheeler, 2019).
    • Pairing the exposure with music, people, or movies the child already has a positive association to may be helpful.

How to Help Your Child Tolerate the Social Setting

Some children with autism may be able to tolerate the food at a holiday meal but unable to tolerate the social setting. Sitting at a formal table and eating with people they don’t see often, may be difficult for many reasons. The new situation and less familiar people may increase their anxiety. The social demands of conversation at the table may prove difficult as well as the sensory challenges of sitting still for an entire meal. The following supports may be helpful for these children:

  • Frequent review of family photos to increase familiarity and predictability at holiday gatherings.
  • Watch past family videos to increase familiarity and predictable of family members.
  • Provide social scripts or conversation starters to use during mealtime.
  • Provide an alternative, less overwhelming area for your child to eat. My daughter, who is typically developing, has needed this type of support at holiday meals in the past.

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Alternative Meals Are Okay

Lastly, some children may need an alternative meal for the holidays, and that is okay! If an alternative meal makes the entire situation and event less stressful for you and your child, it’s an acceptable support. Remember the more positive and less stressful the holidays are the more regulated your child will be at the next gathering. We have to meet our children where they are and provide the supports they need to experience success.

Throwing them in the deep end and watching them drown will not make the situation easier the next time around. With that being said, it’s equally important we don’t avoid the situation entirely. It’s better to go for a small portion of the gathering and allow your family to experience success than to avoid it completely.

Avoidance tricks the brain that the situation is scary and reinforces the fear. Arm yourself with knowledge and reassurance to make the most out of your holiday gatherings. Hopefully this article can decrease the dread and stress you may feel regarding holiday mealtime.

This article was featured in Issue 94 – Daily Strategies Families Need


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