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Tips for Picky Eaters at Thanksgiving

Tips for Picky Eaters at Thanksgiving

Ah, the holidays. There are things you love about the season and things you dread. Memories of last year’s Thanksgiving when your aunt commented on the food on your child’s plate come racing back.

You remember feeling your heart start to race and your protective mom instincts kick in. You weren’t sure how to respond in the moment. Yell at her, “WHY would you say that?!”; or lean over to your child and say, “You know what foods you like and don’t like.”, or ignore the comment altogether. You felt angry and caught off guard.

Families with 5 young kids preparing for Thanksgiving dinner.
We’re both dietitians and moms with over 20 years of experience helping parents navigate similar situations, and sometimes we don’t know how to respond in the moment. Why does everyone feel what your child eats is their business? You feel like people think you’re doing a bad job because your child is a picky eater

You and your family deserve to enjoy the holidays.

What’s your hope for the next holiday meal? Naturally, you’d like the event to go smoothly. There’s likely part of you that hopes this will be the year your child will eat the mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and even a bite of the turkey. And you just wish they’d eat some protein!

We hear you! It can feel hard to set those expectations aside. Yet, setting aside those hopes your child will eat certain foods will reduce your stress and worry, which will, in turn, reduce your child’s.

Table set for Thanksgiving dinner.

You and your family deserve to enjoy the holidays. Here are seven tips to help you and your picky eater turn those stressful holiday meals into opportunities to connect with friends and relatives, enjoy family traditions, and have some fun.

1. What to say before Thanksgiving.

  • You can talk to your family ahead of time which might prevent unhelpful comments. Talk to your family and friends before the holiday and ask that they try not to comment on what your child is or isn’t eating. Let them know that it’s completely ok if your child eats only rolls and dessert. Or just rolls. Or nothing. 
  • Remind family members that you don’t pressure your child to eat new foods or foods they don’t like.
  • Calmly tell the friend or family member that your child is able to manage their own eating.
  • If your child is within earshot of the comment, say to your child, “ You’ve got this. You decide what you’d like to eat.”
  • You can always ignore the comment if it feels too hard to say something in the moment.

3. What to say to your child before the holiday meal so they feel supported.

  • Assure your picky eater that you’ve talked to the family who’s hosting, and they’ll have foods your child will eat.
  • It can be especially helpful to picky eaters if parents volunteer to bring a dish for the holiday meal that can be shared with everyone. This prevents your child from being singled out as the only one eating the buttered noodles, the rolls (or whatever food it is your child will eat). 
  • Both you and your child will feel less stressed knowing there’s something they’ll eat.
Three adults and 3 kids who just finished eating a meal.

4. Tips for Thanksgiving Day.

  • Give your child (and yourself) regular meals and snacks leading up to the holiday meal. 
  • Diet culture wants us to believe we need to “save up” for the big meal. That’s false information. 
  • Arriving at the meal feeling fully nourished leaves everyone on more solid ground, thus better navigating the meal. If everyone arrives overly hungry and grumpy, it leaves you and your child in a vulnerable place. 
  • If your child doesn’t eat anything or only eats rolls and they want dessert, allow them to have dessert. 

5. What about kids who aren’t picky eaters?

  •  It can also be hard for kids who aren’t selective eaters to navigate the Thanksgiving meal. Young children have neophobia, and many of the foods are foods they only see once a year. So, it’s natural they may be leery of eating what’s available.
  • Kids need many opportunities around a new food before they try it. It’s going to be a LONG time before anyone tries the creamed onions or the green bean casserole!
  • Kids who aren’t picky eaters might also only eat rolls for Thanksgiving dinner.

6. Offer holiday foods year-round.

  • Offer some of those foods year-round. We’re not suggesting you cook a turkey and make an entire Thanksgiving meal. Definitely not! That’s way too much pressure! But what about making corned pudding as a side sometimes, or Brussels sprouts, or mashed potatoes in the instant pot? This will increase the number of opportunities your child has to be around foods you might only see once a year. 
A basket of rolls on a wooden board.

7. A few final reminders.

More tips to support you and your picky eater