Silly Season: How to eat right and have fun

The holiday period can be a particularly challenging time for parents of fussy eaters. Shared meals outside of normal routines; different cooking techniques and menus combined with well-intended relatives making unwelcomed comments about what you child does (or doesn’t!) eat.

However, the holiday period can also be a helpful time to support your young child in exploring different foods.  For parents, it can also act as a time for them to observe their child’s preferences, tendencies and strengths particularly when less favoured items are available or when they might be eating among friends or relatives of a similar age

Helping the child to be comfortable and confident during the holiday period:

Start the conversation early – Explain, ask and answer

Explaining to kids what will happen during for meals during the holidays is important; especially if routine is different than normal.

Explain the what, when and where of mealtimes 1-2 days in advance. Ask if they have any questions, acknowledge and concerns and answer queries as best as possible.

Try to give yourself some flexibility in answering such as “there might be some salad, seafood and meat”  rather than saying “there will be tomatoes, prawns and ham”. This can be helpful if plans change.

Take “safe” food items  

Taking a food that is accepted by your reluctant eater can help them to feel calmer towards the mealtime. This should be met with one big and important condition…….. The safe food is not just for your child. If other food is shared, so too should their “safe” food. Ensure it’s served at a communal area and encourage your child to invite others to enjoy it too.

Check your language

A lot of reluctant eaters are cautious about many aspects of life. The words that adults use can help (and hinder) their confidence in eating. Aim to use words such as “you might like to try…” rather than “you don’t eat……”

Having a conversation with other family members before eating time can also be helpful. This might play out something along the lines of

Grandma, I’ve noticed that you’re a bit concerned about the food that Billy eats. We know that he’s not eating a wide range of foods but we’re working on helping him to try different foods and get more comfortable with exploring other things.

It’s really helpful to him when we don’t make too much of a fuss about what he does, or doesn’t eat. He might like to explore some foods today but if he doesn’t that’s fine; we’ll explore more at home later

Take a step-back and watch your child

Observe how your child interacts with food when they are in a different environment. This can be helpful in gauging whether they are curious about things you might not generally serve or when pressure of dinner time might be more relaxed.

Do they mimic other children eating different things? Do the subtlety look at, touch, smell or taste a less familiar food? 

Try not to make too much fuss about it at the time but remember it for a later date (and be sure to tell your child’s dietitian or feeding specialists!)

Take a breathe and remember there are lots of distractions

The holiday period can be so very joyful but it can also be a period of stress and angsts for some families. In most families it’s a short period. It can also be exhausting (never underestimate the effects of lost sleep caused by awaiting Santa’s arrival!) for little people.

A combination of adrenaline together with fatigue is not likely to put selective eaters in their best place for exploring new foods. What your child does or doesn’t eat on Christmas day is unlikely to have a large influence on their overall nutritional health.

Take a breathe, enjoy the day with your special people and re-set your goals (and food exploring!) when the festivity ends.

If mealtimes are stressful for your child and your family there are professionals who can help. Reach out to us at Ambrosia Dietetics for more information on how to support your child.

Renae Reid is the ToBeMe Early Learning Thought Leader for Nutrition and Dietetics. She is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD), Accredited Nutritionist (AN) and founder of Ambrosia Dietetics. She holds a Master’s of Nutrition and Dietetics and Bachelor of Applied Science (Nutrition and Food) and specialises in the care of infants, toddlers and Children. 

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