top holiday feeding challenges and how to fix them
Feeding kids can be challenging in the best of times, so this unusual holiday season may present added challenges and emotions that can affect feeding and eating. Remember always to do your best to keep things as positive as possible, even if there's mealtime refusal, meltdowns or all-day snack requests. Be flexible and compassionate, and take some preventative steps to facilitate a happy holiday family meal experience.
Read on as I share my Top Holiday Meal Challenges:
Challenge #1: A child who refuses to eat what is offered
For me, at least one of my kids will inevitably refuse to eat part of or all of a traditional Christmas turkey dinner. Even though it gives me anxiety every year thinking about how I’m going to handle the impending meal refusal, I now have a plan to manage it. First, it's important to recognize that toddlers and kids refuse to eat for many reasons; Here is a post explaining these reasons and what to do as some of these reasons are out of your control. Reasons range from being tentative about a new or unfamiliar food to being distracted by the excitement of the holidays to simply not being hungry. And sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason! Kids' eating is unpredictable and all over the place! During the holidays, a meal refusal can cause extra anxiety as you might be surrounded by family or friends and don’t want to cause a scene or deal with hangry kids.
Solution: Have a calm chat with your child before the holiday meal, preparing them for what is to come. Explain that it will be exciting and fun, and there will be lots of different foods to choose from—some that they’ve never seen or eaten before. There will be some foods that they love and some that they don’t and that's ok. Encourage them to be brave, try or explore new food, and teach them how to decline food politely but still be gracious.
Challenge #2: A child who is hungry right after a meal
Ah, the instant snack request minutes after a holiday meal is done (and not eaten). Here’s the thing… kids will ALWAYS hold out for a yummy snack of their choosing if it's an option. When a child doesn’t eat their meal (or enough of it), they will begin to feel hungry. This is part of learning how to self-regulate. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it's a good thing as it's a natural consequence of not filling their bellies at mealtime. It’s the most powerful lesson when it comes to learning to eat. As the parent, you can set a meal and snack timetable and remember to stick to it. Make sure to offer at least ONE food that your child will accept at mealtime.
Solution: Compassionately respond to food requests after the holiday meal with “we just finished our family meal, and the kitchen is closed for now. There will be another eating opportunity in a little bit for anyone who is still hungry." Although you might choose to be a little bit more flexible with timing during the holidays, you can still set boundaries around eating times so that eating isn’t a free-for-all.
Challenge #3: A child who has a meltdown during a holiday dinner
It’s important to stick to your guns regarding how you have chosen to feed your child, even during a holiday family meal. For example, suppose you've worked hard to establish the Division of Responsibility in Feeding in your house. In that case, your child is likely becoming accustomed to it and may become confused if you deviate from it too much. Try to remain consistent and confident, even if it means a meltdown. The thing is, it’s likely unrelated to the actual meal itself and more to do with the social pressures that the holidays tend to bring or the extra excitement and distraction. These can all result in big emotions for little ones! Think about it…you and your child are likely experiencing more eyes watching, some perceived judgement or scrutiny, changes in schedules and routines, missed naps and perhaps a bit of stress and overwhelm. This can easily translate into unusual and potentially problematic behaviours.
Solution: Do some mealtime meltdown prevention work ahead of time. Translation: balanced meals, snacks, and naps throughout the day. Nutrient-dense snacks (I like to pair Baby Gourmet's pouches with some cheese or Greek yogurt because they're nutritious and portable) can help a child feel more stable and comfortable to regulate their emotions. Plan a mealtime meltdown exit strategy. Should it happen, how will you politely excuse yourself and your child during the meal. Make sure that you’re sitting somewhere where you can make a quick exit without causing a stir. Be as compassionate as possible with your child, hug them and let them know that it’s ok for them not to eat, but that it’s important to be polite and use manners at the table. Ask them what they need to feel better, and if reasonable, proceed to help them. Once everyone is calm, return to the table and join the family meal again.
Challenge #4: A child who is too distracted at the table
It’s unrealistic to expect a toddler or young child will sit still for the entire duration of a holiday family meal. Little ones have a hard time sitting still for any length of time, even under controlled and normal circumstances, let alone an exciting and out-of-the-norm holiday meal.
Solution: Adjust your expectations. Set a realistic minimum time frame for your little one to sit at the table. My suggestion is for 10 minutes. Let family members know ahead of time so that it’s not disruptive or unexpected. Another idea is to be creative in how you serve the meal. Perhaps your little one might sit for longer and even eat more, if they’re sitting at a “kids table” where their siblings and or cousins are eating too. Or maybe you set up a fun holiday “picnic" on the floor for the kids, where they get to sit in a circle while they eat.
Sarah Remmer is a pediatric registered dietitian and mom of three. She is the founder and owner of The Centre for Family Nutrition, a Calgary-based nutrition counselling practice that specializes in prenatal, infant and child nutrition. She is also publishing her first book with Appetite by Random House in early 2021, entitled Food to Grow On, The Ultimate Guide to Childhood Nutrition—from Pregnancy to Packed Lunches. She devotes much of her time to writing and blogging, creating helpful and informative articles for parents, as well as developing easy, healthy recipes that she serves to her family too!