Whether you are gearing up for Christmas dinner, your Hanukkah Friday night meal or a Kwanzaa feast, if you are the parent of a picky eater, you may have more than gift wrapping and festive preparations on your mind. Across cultures, a big, communal meal is so often a central focus of family celebrations.
The anticipation of The Big Meal can be really tough, and eating with family and friends who are not part of your everyday routine throws up multiple challenges. First, you might worry about feeling judged when your child reaches for a slice of bread just as everyone else is piling their plates high with seasonal delicacies.
Secondly, you might worry about how your child will feel; the social pressures of festive meals along with being out of routine and surrounded by unusual sights, sounds and smells, can make eating especially hard.
Finally, you might be concerned about well meaning interventions from family members who are just convinced they can (and should) get your little one to eat that roasted carrot. Do you let it go and risk exposing your child to unhelpful pressure? Do you step in and risk a mid-meal confrontation which could be awkward and upsetting for everyone?
What should be a happy time can quickly become stressful and fraught with hidden tension, for both you and your child. Although it may feel like you are not in control of the situation, there is actually a lot you can do in terms of damage limitation. My three tips will help you make your festive meal a positive occasion for everyone:
The winning formula for happy family meals:
1) Don’t worry about what your child eats – this is not the day to be trying to push their boundaries with new or disliked foods. It’s much more important that they have a positive experience and enjoy the social aspects of the meal. If you can’t arrange in advance for one or two of their safe foods to be on the menu, then bring them with you. It’s essential for your child to relax in the knowledge that there will be something on the table that they can easily eat.
2) Rise above other people’s need to judge you – okay, this can be really tough because it hurts when we suspect that other people are thinking negative thoughts about our parenting or our child. But you know best when it comes to handling your child’s eating. Picky eating and food anxiety have many complex causes (some of which are genetic) and a family member looking on, with theories and opinions about why your child doesn’t eat ‘better,’ is likely to be unaware of any of these complexities. Know this: judgment comes from ignorance. Or put more directly: they don’t know what they’re talking about.
3) Get in there in advance – to ensure that the big day itself runs smoothly and is a happy time for everyone, send out a friendly preemptive email to all the guests. Explain that you understand that they might be tempted to comment on your child’s eating and they might want to help. Explain that your child’s relationship with food is complex (you don’t need to get into specifics) and that you have a clear strategy in terms of how you deal with it. Tell them what you need from them:
- · Please don’t comment on my child’s eating
- · Please don’t try to get my child to eat or even try foods
- · Please help me help everyone have a lovely day by concentrating on how great it is to be together and not on what my child is (or isn’t) eating.
Celebratory meals can be a source of joy and togetherness, but sometimes that doesn't happen without a little behind-the-scenes work on your part. Come on over to parenting picky eaters (on facebook) where we'd love to hear about your festive meal highs and lows.