It's hard to imagine anyone — child or adult — resisting the temptation to dig into a plate of turkey with all the trimmings: cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie... But leave it to your toddler or small child to turn Thanksgiving into a nightmare battle of wills thanks to picky eating.
A picky eater in your family almost always means you'll be spending some portion of an otherwise fun day planning different versions of foods he or she will eat or possibly even packing a bag of snacks before you set off for a relative's house — anything to avoid fighting in front of 50 of your closest family members.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. Your first defense against the picky eater taking over your holiday is to allow him or her to help prepare your Thanksgiving meal — a move that will make children feel more in control of what they're putting into their bodies.
"Getting your picky eater involved in some of the easy food preparation is a great way to engage them enough to eat a few of the 'fruits of their labors' — whether that’s peeling potatoes, preparing the turkey or snapping green beans," says Dr. Christina Johns, pediatrician and senior medical advisor at PM Pediatrics. "If the picky eater is an older child, having an honest discussion in advance about expectations and 'what’s reasonable' is a smart thing to do so that there are no surprises on the big day. Work it out with your child beforehand what the game plan for eating will be so that your child has minimal anxiety. Thanksgiving isn’t the day for food drama. If your child doesn’t eat and misses one meal, that’s OK, even if it drives you crazy (spoken from experience!)"
Let's say you are intent on getting your child to at least try some of the traditional foods served on Thanksgiving — there are ways to work with a picky eater to help make the meal more palatable for them. Johns says picky eaters typically don't like it when foods are saucy or are mixed together. Avoid unnecessary drama by keeping their plates as uncomplicated as possible.
"Simple flavors are generally the most well tolerated; so plain turkey (and often the white meat), simple mashed potatoes, bread rolls and butter and plain vegetables are your best bets," Johns says. "Allow your child the treat of using the pepper shaker herself to add her own little bit of herbed spin on the turkey. While you supervise, let your child spread butter on the bread/rolls. This may sound basic, but for picky eaters and their parents, it’s a big deal."
Olivia Munger, registered dietitian at Children’s Health who works with families in their Get Up & Go program, agrees that less is more on Thanksgiving for picky eaters and suggests serving foods with multiple components separately and letting each child assemble their own version of the dish (for example: if string beans are served with almonds on top, scoop the nuts to the side and let your child try them separately). And never underestimate the power of making a meal fun.
"One way to do this is by giving dishes catchy names like 'X-Ray Vision Carrots' or 'Dinosaur Broccoli Trees,'" Munger says. "Another idea is to introduce children to each dish before the meal and have a contest to see which child can come up with the craziest name. This will allow them to get familiar with the foods being served and adds some excitement to the meal."
Another great idea: Start serving unfamiliar Thanksgiving foods at home in the weeks before the meal, Munger says, something that could help them feel more in control when these foods are served on the big day. If you're traveling for the holiday and feel more comfortable packing foods you know your child will eat, it's fine to do so — within reason. Just be aware that this can sometimes backfire on parents.
"It is important that children learn to be flexible eaters, and catering to their likes and dislikes all the time doesn’t help them grow," Munger says.
And besides, the last thing you want to do is make food any bigger of an issue than it already is, especially on a holiday, Johns says. "It’s reasonable to bring one or two healthy, filling food items that you know your child will eat so that they don’t have a meltdown from being so hungry, but it’s also important to let your child know that they can’t control every food situation with refusal," Johns says. "For younger children, place the 1 or 2 items you know your child likes on the plate with 1 or 2 holiday foods, and keep the portions small. Whatever they eat, they eat. Today’s the day you let it go."
If your older child is a picky eater, Johns says she suggests the same approach, but with a bit of advanced conversation about expectations — eat the turkey first, then they can have whatever food you brought.
"Don’t negotiate endlessly, but if they refuse their meal, they shouldn’t be permitted to fill up on candy and sweets," Johns says. "Most of the time picky eating is about control, and not giving very much energy to the entire situation ensures that the child doesn’t get to control the whole scenario while also not adding anxiety to their list of 'dislikes' on a day that should be fun and delicious!"
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