7 Holiday Feeding Struggles and How to Handle Them

Learn 7 Holiday Feeding Struggles and How to Handle Them

Written by: Ashley Smith, a pediatric registered dietitian.

The holidays can be a particularly stressful time for parents, especially when it comes to feeding our children around family and friends. Even if we know that our schedules will vary and our diets will be more lenient, little can prepare parents for the challenges that arise when we’re feeding our kids around company.

We, as parents, often feel added pressure this time of year to get our child to eat well from what’s offered. What’s worse is that relatives may see it as an opportunity to insert their ideas, past experiences, encouragement, and/or opinions about how to feed your child.

While usually well-intended, these unsolicited bits of advice, paired with the unpredictable nature of kids, can create a lot of stress around meals with family and friends. By addressing some of the most common feeding scenarios and struggles that happen around the holidays, we can begin to brainstorm how to best feed our families during the holidays and at festive, food-related gatherings.

Struggle 1: The Child Who Won’t Eat

Solution: Meal Walk-Through

Sometimes a child’s choice to not eat is from apprehension towards what food is offered. Other times, however, he or she may opt to pass for other reasons out of our control. That’s why, instead of catering to our child excessively in that awkward moment of meal refusal, we can prepare him or her in advance for how to handle this potential scenario (as well as yourselves).

To do this, play “Thanksgiving Dinner” (or whatever the potentially problematic event is) before the actual event. Talk about what will be offered, including both the items they do and don’t (yet) prefer. Help them to identify at least one food they love from the meal or get their buy-in on one of their favorite holidays dishes and have them help make it. A few areas to focus on during your meal walk-through:

    • Teach your child about what to say when they politely decline foods and how to give thanks for what’s offered.
    • Show them how to pass dishes around the table—even if they pass up the chance to eat them—and how to still participate in the meal.
    • Remind them that they can still enjoy the meal, even if they don’t eat anything.

Set yourself up for success: For both parents and children alike, an underlying message to remember is that these holiday meals are about so much more than the food. From an early age, we can train up our children to politely engage in and embrace time of togetherness, even if nothing is eaten.

Struggle 2: The Child Who Doesn’t Like What’s Offered

Solution: Plan for Foods They Do Like

Let’s address the facts: while it may feel like you alone have the world’s pickiest kid, you aren’t. There are many kids who don’t like the most common offerings at a holiday meal, are averse to any kind of animal protein, uncomfortable with the mixed textures of casseroles and unfamiliar with the flavors used to spice up seasonal favorites.

Considering so many of the foods offered over the holidays aren’t commonplace during the rest of the year, it’s no surprise that these meals are often outside of our children’s comfort zones. That’s why it is important for parents to help their children feel comfortable with these holiday meals and the food at gatherings.

In addition practicing the meal ahead of time, you can also plan meals, including elements you know your child loves, likes, and is still learning to enjoy. While I don’t suggest trying a new approach to “get your child to eat” at a holiday meal itself, your family might benefit from adopting a simple framework such as Love it, Like it, Learning it in the weeks leading up to a family gathering.

By doing this, you begin to set a precedence for your child about what to expect from family meals. You make them aware that there will be elements offered that they love, like, and are “still learning” at any holiday meal. You help them to recognize that a separate meal will not be made for them outside of these choices. Then, you begin to work on what this might look like at actual holidays events and how they can handle such a framework in situations when eating in the company of others.

You may want to make simple additions to a meal that include your child’s preferred foods, like bread and butter or cooked peas. You can also bring the appetizer or dessert that you know your child will eat. While ideally we want them to eat more than just that one preferred food, this is one of the first steps to take as they learn to like, and eat, what’s offered, rather than expecting something else.

Set yourself up for success: The aim here is for both you and your child to rest assured that there will always be something at the table they enjoy. While he or she may not prefer the meal in its entirety, we can help our children adapt to and accept what is offered. Prepare them for a variety of foods that are to be expected, including those they love, like, and are still learning.

Struggle 3: The Child Who’s Hungry Right After the Meal

Solution: Be Clear About Snack and Eating Times

We’ve all been there: 15 minutes after a meal, many of the adults are still clearing the table and cleaning up all the dishes only for your child to come tug on your leg, complaining of hunger. “We literally just ate,” tends to be the common response, but that doesn’t curb your kiddo’s craving for “something else.”

Instead of allowing this to become commonplace, that they can eat whatever they want, whenever they want, keep expectations clear about when meals and snacks are offered. While grazing is common around the holidays, we can do our best to direct this type of dilemma to the next eating opportunity—just as we would if we were at home and this happened.

Instead of scrambling to make your child something else to eat, share with them what and when they can expect something else offered. Saying something like, “We just finished the family meal and aren’t going to make anything else right now. I’ll be setting out some fruit and cheese (food) in an hour (set amount of time) for anyone who is still hungry.”

You might choose to be more liberal timing wise, rather than keeping the traditional 2 to 3 hours between feeding opportunities, which I recommend here. But the point is less on the time that lapses and more on you continuing to control your role of what, when, and where food is offered.

Set yourself up for success: Evaluate your days during the holidays, especially the one when your eating schedule will be different from norm. This can help you to plan ahead for when you want meals and snacks to be offered. In this way, you can prevent excessive hunger (i.e. meltdowns) and be able to tell your child when another snack might need to be offered.

Struggle 4: The Child Who’s Too Distracted to Eat

Solution: Adjust Your Expectations of What “Should Be”

We all love the idea and imagery of having a large table where everyone sits together. The reality is that meals often go over better when we adjust and take action to make the family meal more appropriate and enjoyable for everyone. As discussed in this article on how to keep your child seated at the table, it’s unrealistic to assume a young child can sit still and behave appropriately for the entirety of a long, holiday meal.

Instead, set age-appropriate expectations and modify the timing and ways meals are offered based on the ages and feeding stages of the audience.

Set yourself up for success: Be flexible with where and how meals are offered, whenever possible. If it means that the children will eat more and behave better if they have a “kid’s table” or eat ahead of the adults, go with that. You can still teach good behavior and promote family togetherness, even if you all don’t gather around the same table at the same time.

Struggle 5: The Child Who Throws a Fit at a Family Meal

Solution: Prepare Ahead of Time

Remain confident in how your family feeds, even if it seemingly backfires. It may be totally unrelated to the meal itself, especially if your child is already accustomed to your family’s use of the Division of Responsibility.

Sometimes, the social pressures of the holidays can weigh heavily on little ones and result in big emotions. During these times, you and your child are experiencing:

  • More eyes on your child when they’re eating, and in general.
  • Opinions on how your child eats or doesn’t eat
  • Messed up sleep schedules from travel.
  • Missed naps from festivities.
  • With all these at play, it isn’t always worth evaluating why a meltdown is happening in the moment it happens, particularly if it is during a holiday meal. Instead, spring into action and politely execute your exit strategy. While it might be worthwhile to evaluate how to avoid a similar situation once the moment has passed, plan for how your family will politely remove yourself from the situation.

    To avoid picking up and leaving with a child that’s kicking and screaming, talk with your spouse and child about how such situations will be handled, should they occur. Matter of factly discuss who will remove themselves from the table or party with the child and the expectations that need to be met for the child to return.

    Set yourself up for success: As much as possible, prevent mealtime meltdowns with two simple tools: naps and snacks. If your child is still of napping age, in some cases, even if they aren’t, try to protect their sleep. They need it to be their best during the holidays. That paired with nutrient-dense snacks given before a party or gathering can help a child feel more able to regulate their emotions and attitude when it comes time to gather at the table.

    Struggle 6: The Child With Relatives That Eat Differently

    Solution: Provide Your Preferred Foods

    Hello, sticky subject. This is one of the most common complaints and concerns that come up when different family dynamics come into play around food—especially during the holidays, when sweets, treats, and foods are everywhere.

    For some families, there may be more relaxed and loose boundaries around what, when, and where cousins and fellow kids are allowed to eat such foods. Similar to how other candy-related holidays are handled, you may first want to think through how your family will handle treats on holidays and the days surrounding them. Then, as shared in this article, there are some ways you can maximize your role (what, when, and where food is offered) with such relatives.

    If being hosted in a relative’s home who eats different than your family, pack your family’s preferred snacks or volunteer to do a grocery run. Better yet, order them to be there when you arrive. This takes the pressure off of the host to have foods they think your family and kids “can” eat, while also giving you the chance to have them easily available without offending.

    When hosting gatherings in your own home, decide which menu items you would most like to make. This leaves openings for others to contribute food that is meaningful and enjoyable to them and their families. This balanced approach ensures that everyone has foods they prefer at the holiday table.

    Set yourself up for success: Differentiate what foods are being offered as an occasional holiday treat versus a more ongoing occurrence. Politely provide alternatives in place of or in addition to other choices when appropriate. You can respect everyone’s food preferences, while still making sure to provide nourishing options for your family as well.

    Struggle 7: The Child Who Has Relatives That Feed Differently

    Solution: Maintain Feeding Roles and Be Up Front

    We may know how we want to feed our child, but in the presence of others, it can quickly get called into question. That’s why it is important to be confident, yet casual, in your approach to feeding.

    Role model your job in feeding, respect your child’s job, then try to maintain these roles as much as you can during the holidays. While family and friends may feed their kids differently than you do, remember that feeding is no different than other hot topics in parenting like sleep, discipline, and education. Everyone has their own ideas and opinions about what works and doesn’t; some of which might be similar to yours and others that may differ greatly.

    Talking about how meals and snacks will be handled upfront before a holiday gathering can help everyone stay on the same page, even if opinions on how to feed one’s family differs. This allows all family members an equal opportunity to share preferences and be proactive to point out areas they see as potentially problematic.

    If you feel the need to make requests to relatives about how they feed your child, respectfully share details on how you do things and speak your main requests. Focus on the key things you hope they do or don’t, and if there’s pushback, respectfully address differences between their feeding approach and yours to find a compromise.

    If a meal doesn’t go exactly as you desire, remember that one meal, day, or week is not going to derail your child’s entire diet. Instead of being confrontational about it, handle it as you would a missed nap. Even if frustrating at the time, see this as a teachable moment to identify what went awry and if or how things could go according to plan next time.

    Set yourself up for success: The reality is that some relatives may never feed our children the way we wish they would. With many of us raised under different food and parenting approaches than what now adopt as our own, some of these tendencies at the table die hard. Try to be open and upfront about the ways you approach feeding, before a conflict occurs.

    Be Flexible With Feeding This Holiday Season

    The holiday season is a time for us to slow down and celebrate with family and friends, enjoying all the food that contributes to the nostalgia. Before diving into all of the holiday happenings, however, we need to evaluate which of the above scenarios are most likely to threaten our time together.

    We can then begin to set our families up for success by addressing these potential areas of concern in advance. In doing so, we equip ourselves, our children, and our loved ones at large, with the tools needed to enjoy all the food, family, friends, and festivities.

    By: Ashley

    Pediatric Registered Dietitian and Expert Behind @veggiesandvirtue

    Ashley's mission is to bring other families less meal time stress and more feeding success. Ashley does this each week through sharing simple approaches to meal planning and effective strategies for raising healthy eaters on her blog and social media. Follow her on Instagram @veggiesandvirtue or her blog.