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  • Writer's pictureKate Killion

How to manage picky eating over the holidays

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Picture this: you’re sitting at the table for Christmas dinner, and your mother-in-law keeps talking about how your child won’t eat her famous ham. Your child is getting more anxious by the minute and looks like he’s about to bolt. Meanwhile, you’re starting to panic that he will be starving by the time you get home, which won’t make for a pleasant bedtime.

Sound familiar? Picky eating, no matter how severe, can make holidays complicated. Let’s break down why picky eating happens over the holidays, and what you can do about it.

Holiday gatherings are a sensory nightmare

Holidays come with a lot of sensory input. There are colorful lights, Christmas music playing at all times, and extended family members demanding a hug and conversation. Meanwhile, there is often a whole table of unfamiliar foods, all with new smells, tastes, and textures. And everybody is watching, wondering “will [child] finally eat something new?”

All this sensory input can send your child’s body into fight or flight mode. When your child is overwhelmed, their sympathetic nervous system is activated. And when their sympathetic nervous system is activated, chemical signals tell the body that it is not time to eat. GI function slows down, and hunger is inhibited.

In other words, your child is (1) overwhelmed, and unable to focus on food, and (2) feeling bodily signals that say to stop eating.

How to approach holiday meals with a "picky eater"

  1. Save food challenges for another day: Teach your child that holidays are about spending time with loved ones, not about performing the “right” way to eat. There are many other days of the year where your child can explore new foods in a safer, more relaxed environment.

  2. Set boundaries with “food pushers:” If your loved ones tend to comment on your child’s eating, it’s time to set boundaries. Communicate that, while you know they mean well, you are working on letting your child listen to his own body. Be clear, and state that if they cannot keep comments to themselves, you do not feel comfortable bringing your child to the holiday meal.

  3. Make sure that there is at least one “safe food” at the table: Ask the host what foods will be served at the meal, and what you can bring. If there is not already one food that your child typically enjoys, offer to bring it!

  4. Bring snacks: If you think your child will be hungry after the meal, you might bring a balanced snack for the car ride home. While we do not always recommend providing snacks when your child refuses a meal, it can be a helpful way to accommodate your child’s needs on a stressful holiday.

We are here to support you as you navigate the holiday season! Scheduling is supported by LWell. Call (833) 516-0454 or email to book your appointment with a registered dietitian!

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