My child doesn’t eat most foods at holiday meals, and my relatives don’t understand. What can I do?

Q. My daughter has sensory processing challenges and doesn’t eat a lot of typical holiday foods. My relatives don’t understand, and my daughter is picking up on their feelings. 

How can I make holiday meals pleasant for my daughter — and maintain good relationships with relatives?

A. Mealtimes can be challenging for kids with trouble processing sensory information. The smells, sights, tastes, textures, and even the sounds of food can be overwhelming. Your child may have mealtime routines and habits that are different from what your extended family might expect. This can cause a lot of stress around holiday meals. You’re not alone in these concerns.

Since your daughter is picking up on your relatives’ feelings, I’d start by having a conversation with her. Let her know you understand how tough it is for her to try new foods.

Then, work together to come up with a plan and expectations for the next holiday meal. Make sure to give your daughter time to share ideas with you. You might be surprised at what she suggests on her own.

One idea is to make a list of foods she’d be willing to eat. Holiday meals are not the time to demand she clean her plate if it’s never been a rule before. But you might agree on taking a “tongue taste” of two new foods. Plan for your daughter to eat before you leave so she won’t be too hungry — and bring some snacks. 

You can also role-play situations like politely saying “no, thank you,” especially when others might not take “no” for an answer the first time. And come up with a secret signal or a code phrase that lets her communicate to you she’s feeling overwhelmed and needs you to step in.

It can be challenging to advocate for your daughter’s needs. But here are some suggestions.

Contact the host ahead of time. Ask about the menu, and offer to bring some of the things you know your daughter will eat. 

Find out what the host is planning for kids. For example, will kids sit with the adults or at their own table? Will there be a separate menu for kids? You can drop some subtle hints about your daughter’s challenges when it comes to eating. But what you share is entirely up to you and your daughter.

Based on the menu and your conversation with the host, you might not have to say anything at all. But just like you want your daughter to be prepared, you can come up with a few phrases to say at the meal, if needed. For example, “Thanks for your concern, but we’ve got this under control.” Or “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll give it some thought.” Then be ready to change the subject. Plan some topics ahead of time.

It can be hard to meet everyone’s needs at holiday meals. Take it one situation at a time. If your immediate family has similar expectations, you’re more likely to have a positive experience and lasting memories. 

Get more tips for kids with food sensitivities. Check out this podcast episode all about picky eating. And connect with other parents who are feeling the same way on Wunder, our free community app.


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