The holidays are a fun, but hectic time of year. We get to see extended family, travel to different locations, serve special food, and lose the routine of daily life. Even though they’re not the ones shopping, wrapping, cooking, or driving, children aren’t immune to the stresses of the holidays. To make your holiday season as enjoyable and relaxing as possible, try planning ahead for your child’s meals. This is especially important if your child is a picky eater or has a feeding disorder.
First things first: what are feeding disorders, and how do they develop?
Children with feeding difficulties or disorders do not consume enough food or liquid to grow properly, or have diets limited to only a few foods, food groups, or textures. Some children may eat a more varied diet, but they are unable to maintain attention long enough to sit at the table. Others never make it to the table at all, and instead they walk around during mealtime, or “graze” on snack foods throughout the day. A child with a feeding disorder may have difficulty chewing, swallowing, or tolerating different food groups or textures; chokes, gags or vomits when eating; throws tantrums around mealtime; and/or refuses all solid or liquid food.
There are many reasons why feeding disorders develop, including:
- Medical, anatomical or structural problems (e.g. cleft lip or palate)
- Sensory difficulties
- Oral-motor problems
- Behavior issues that often crop up around age two, or that can occur in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
How can I help make holiday mealtime less stressful for my child?
- Take the time to have a short, but frank talk with your extended family. Simply explain to them that you’re working on the behavior, and that you don’t want them to address it at this time. Grandparents, aunts and uncles all mean well when they bribe, cajole, or otherwise pressure children to eat – but often, they have no experience with feeding difficulties or disorders.
- Have fun “practicing” for holiday dinners beforehand. Help your child set the table (either your kitchen table, or better yet, a play table) with paper plates, cups, forks and spoons, and put their own favorite foods in the little bowls. Practice passing food, putting some on your plates, and sitting down to enjoy the “feast” of goldfish crackers, chips, chicken nuggets, or plain white noodles. Whatever your child likes best is what you should serve. Praise your child for sitting in his or her seat, and joyfully clean up when you’re done. This should be done outside of regular mealtime, not a breakfast, lunch or dinner.
- Explain to your child that there might be special, “new and delicious” food for the holiday dinner – but offer reassurance that no on will “make” him or her eat it.
- Pack your child’s favorite foods ahead of time, or be sure that you’ll have enough time to get to the store at your destination so that neither you or your child will have to worry about what he or she will be able too eat. No one likes having to be a short-order cook and prepare different variations of a meal, but the holidays is not a time to address feeding issues on your own.
- Pack any special cups, dishes, or utensils that you know your child must have in order to eat successfully and peacefully.
- At family mealtime, encourage your child to put a bite of the food that the family passes onto his or her plate – but do not pressure him or her to do so. Use language such as, “You can put some of that on your plate” in a matter-of-fact manner. Praise lavishly if your child allows a new food onto the plate, but don’t worry about it if he or she never touches or takes a bite of it. Just the act of allowing it onto the plate is praiseworthy.
- Never try to “sneak” food onto a child’s plate, in his or her mouth, or disguise food within a preferred food. Doing this will only make your child distrust you – and can almost guarantee a tantrum.
How can I help my child feeding issues, beyond holiday mealtimes?
If your child displays signs of a feeding disorder, discuss these problems with your family doctor or pediatrician, or contact a speech-language therapist. You can learn more about speech therapy for feeding disorders by visiting our website.