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Four Ways to Navigate the Holidays with a Picky Eater, by Ginny Kochis

Updated: May 9, 2020

If only it were just politics, because that you could handle that like a champ.

You could sidestep. Change the subject. And while yes, you could conceivably find yourself gripping that wine glass a little tighter than you meant to, it’s just a handful of steps to the cool air of the front porch. 

Your kids, though, are another matter entirely. You have that tendency to go mama bear. And when you come face to face with an outsider’s view of the reality you’ve lived with daily, it hits a little harder than a lack of bipartisanship.

It hits a lot harder, actually, and you spend the whole gathering on tenterhooks.

Friend, I’m gonna let you in on a secret, one I hope will radically change you and your children’s lives. 

You do not have to dread holiday meals with a picky eater. 

That’s right. 

You do not have to dread holiday meals with a picky eater. 

Because it’s not your fault, and there are strategies that will help you and your children actually enjoy that time together. 

Here’s how to navigate holiday gatherings with a selective eater at your side.

The Truth About Picky Eating

My eldest child changed her eating habits right around the time she turned two. It was awful - not because she dropped to five or so foods she would eat reliably, but because I took it personally. 

Somehow, her dwindling list of acceptable food choices was all my fault. 

I beat myself up - mercilessly. I was hypersensitive in large groups, especially when eating was involved. If anyone even glanced in my daughter’s plate’s direction I was awash in shame, guilt, and anxiety. 

I was the poster child for how not to parent a highly selective eater. 

My ignorance kept me wrapped in regret.

You know that old adage about knowledge being power? In this case, it really is true. Once I learned I’d not caused my daughter’s food aversions I was better able to help her. She didn’t need a mom who was embarrassed. 

She needed a mom who understood: 

That so-called picky eating is a developmental stage. For most kids, it levels off around the ages of six or seven: the fear or anxiety around new foods lessens, and the palate begins to expand. 

That in some kids, neurological and physiological differences matter. These are the children who remain selective far longer than their peers. 

That high sensitivity, sensory concerns, and autism spectrum disorders can result in anxiety around food. For my daughter, it is a matter of sensory preferences combined with a razor-sharp memory. She is twice-exceptional: gifted and on the autism spectrum. 

That selective eating can have its roots in acid reflux, tongue and lip ties, or even expressive language delays. 

While knowing this information didn’t alleviate my daughter’s struggles, it did make it so much easier to navigate her needs. I was able to let go of the guilt and focus not on my perceived failure as a mother, but on strategies we could use to gently broaden her horizons and help other people understand. 

Involve your kiddo in preparation

The more exposure a child has to new foods and their smells and textures, the more likely a child will come around to it - in time. Encourage your selective eater to help you knead dough, chop onions, or even baste the turkey. She doesn’t have to eat or taste the food to become more comfortable with it. Sometimes, just being in the room is enough. 

Practice division of responsibility and offer plenty of safe foods 

Division of responsibility takes the pressure off every one. It distributes the ownership of food and its consumption equally: parents provide healthy, edible choices; children choose what they are comfortable to eat. For holiday gatherings, division of responsibility works well if there are a number of safe foods (items your child will eat on a regular basis) as part of the holiday spread. 

Take the focus off food

Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t so much about the food as they are about gratitude and the birth of Christ, respectively. Keep the meal as just one part of your family gathering and focus on opportunities for fellowship. Boardgames, card games, a favorite movie, or even a family walk will do. 

Don’t anticipate trouble. It will probably work out just fine. 

If other kids will be there, rest in the knowledge that they probably won’t much of what’s offered, either. If someone inquires about your child’s choices, just smile and say, “Thanks for asking. She’s good. She knows what she likes.”

I know there are days and moments where you wish for politics. You wish for anything other than attention to your daughter’s plate. But in the long run, rest in the knowledge that your child’s preferences and aversions are not an act of the will or a matter of defiance. And with a little effort, you can make it work. 

Ginny Kochis is a Catholic wife and homeschooling mom to three Twice-Exceptional kids. Ginny believes that God gives curious, creative, intense children the exact mother they need to thrive. She offers practical support and prayerful encouragement to Catholic moms raising differently-wired kids at Not So Formulaic.

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