Ten Tips for Reducing Stress and Managing Picky Eaters During Holiday Meals

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on November 23, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Now that food-focused holidays are fast approaching, here are some tips for helping picky eaters and reducing mealtime stress. With a little planning, a day focused on food can be fun, not frustrating!

  • Emphasize to your child that these holidays are about family, not food. Reinforce that no food requirements or expectations will be placed on the child. This allows your child to enjoy the family celebration, instead of worrying about the meal.
  • Be sure there are one or two items on the table that your child will enjoy, but do not cater to the picky eater (this could be bread and butter, milk, corn, etc.). If you will be a guest, offer to bring a side you know your child will eat.
  • If family members frequently comment on your child's eating habits, gently explain, "We are working on expanding Jane's food repertoire and therefore we are not making food-focused comments during meals. We would really appreciate it if you could follow our lead!"  (This includes all iterations of "just try this," "eat more,"  "clean your plate," and "you are wasting food" comments.)  Along this line, be sure you let your child enjoy the holiday and avoid pressuring or commenting on food to your child.
  • If the thought of eating with all the grownups overwhelms your child, consider a kiddie table, but do not feed children before the big meal or serve them different food.
  • Let your child fill his/her own plate, if old enough. This gives your child control and reduces food anxiety.
  • Children learn a lot from parents. If the holidays stress you, it will stress them. Relax and set a good example.
  • A great way to encourage children to enjoy the meal is to have them help prepare for the meal. This could be help with meal planning, cooking, setting the table, or shopping.
  • A child that comes to the holiday table hungry (but not starving) is more likely to eat, so don't overdo the appitizers.
  • If you have not already, teach your child to say "no thank you," instead of "YUCK" to avoid a critical eye cast on your child by family members! 
  • While we normally recommend that children take one bite of all new foods served, avoid this at holiday meals. (This "one bite rule" allows children to decretely put any food they don't like into a napkin. It is best to avoid this around guests that may not be aware of this rule and be offended.)

Teach your child that at mealtime it is socially acceptable to:

● Pick and choose from what is offered that meal or snack.
● Decline certain foods, once a bite is sampled.
● Choose to eat only one or two food items.
● Leave uneaten food on the plate.
● Take more of one food even if other food is left uneaten.

It is not acceptable for your child to:

● Make an issue or scene around food refusal.
● Request food that is not on the table.
● Fidget or fuss during meals.

It is not acceptable for you to:

● Bribe, guilt, force, or cajole your child to eat.
Discuss what your child is eating (or not eating!) or focus the topic of food at meals. (This one is hard at holiday meals, when everyone comments on the food.)
● Withhold dessert based on not eating a proper amount (whatever you think this is).


(Many of these are based on The Division of Responsibility by Ellyn Satter, MS, RDN, LCSW, BCD )

➤ See our Pinterest Board, Blog, Blog, Blog for a visual index of our blogs.

➤ For more information on the Division of Responsibility see our blog: Tired of Food Fights?  Here’s a Simple, Fool Proof Approach to Feeding Your Kids!

➤ Need to brush up on feeding mistakes parents often make? See our blog: Think You Know the Top Feeding Mistakes Nearly All Parents Make?

And finally, Ten Fool Proof Tips For Successfully Feeding Your Kids pulls it all together!

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