Holiday dinners can be stressful, even for the most experienced parents. They are many times more stressful if you have a picky eater at your table. What you need is a foolproof plan that takes the stress out and puts the fun in.
Never is there a greater focus on food than at the holidays. And for parents of picky eaters, holiday meals can be immensely stressful family situations to navigate. If it wasn’t bad enough that you have to endure the never-ending playback of family stories from Great Aunt Bea, fate deals you a bum hand and you’re trapped at a linen-lined table with hot dogs hidden in your purse—poised to pounce when your toddler refuses everything on the table except the dinner rolls. Layering stress upon stress is a recipe for a meltdown, for both you and your child.
I know, because I’ve walked more than a mile in those shoes.
I’m here to tell you that there’s a simple solution to your picky eater problem. And it’s counter-intuitive. To get your kids to eat what’s good for them, you need to take a page from the junk food marketing playbook. Stop talking about “healthy.” Take the focus off the food and make it fun.
After years of testing, experimenting, tweaking, researching, gathering feedback from and cooking with thousands of parents of picky eaters across the country, I’ve distilled my experiences down to a few simple principles you can follow to take the stress out of mealtime and get your kids to actually eat the wholesome foods you make. And there’s more good news: what works for your standard, run-of-the-mill weeknight meals can be applied just as easily to your holiday meals, with a few small modifications.
Set Expectations Over Time
Holiday dinner isn’t the time to expect your kids to be healthy eating rock stars. It’s too much pressure—on everyone. Instead, think small steps, big changes. The key to creating a deep and lasting change in the way that your family eats is to take it slow and be consistent. Take the pressure off the big holiday meals and focus on your longer-term goal. No single meal is going to make the difference; it’s a series of consistent, positive experiences around food that will.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, plan to explore a few new foods together. Try one each week. You don’t want the first encounter with a new food to be at a high pressure holiday dinner. Holiday regulars that can be super fun to explore with kids include Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, butternut squash, pomegranate and persimmons. Instead of concentrating on eating, focus on fun adventures that the food inspires, like figuring out how to get the seeds out of a pomegranate, peeling Brussels sprouts (and finding the Fibonacci sequence inside—a fantastic math adventure), and scouting out a bunch of different varieties of pumpkins at a local farm. Let your kids lead your new food exploration. Prompt them with open-ended questions like, “I wonder if the color on the inside of a pumpkin changes depending on the color on the outside?” Follow their questions with more questions, like, “I’m not sure why Brussels sprouts grow on a stalk. Let’s explore together to find out.” Remember, it’s about the journey, not the food.
Reinstate the Kids’ Menu (With a Twist)
The more you can involve your kids in everything, from choosing food for your meals to preparing the dishes, the faster you’ll be able to make progress changing the way your picky eater eats. An easy way to do this during the holidays is to enlist your kids to help create the menu. It is even better if you cook the recipes together and then let them serve. Do not have a separate kids menu. It’s fine to prepare dishes in a way that allows everyone at the table to assemble to their preference—more or less onion, sauce on the side—but it’s important for everyone to be eating the same meal. Invite your kids to help make the menu, and create names for each dish featuring the person who voted for it: Mom’s Maple Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, Catherine’s Brussels Sprouts Chips, James’ Jumpin’ Green Beans, Gram’s Classic Roast Turkey, Dad’s Downhome Quinoa Stuffing, Papa’s Poppin’ Pomegranate Sauce. When you give thanks, invite each person to share why they added their dish to the menu. It’s an easy way to get everyone involved, and your kids will beam with pride when the time comes to serve (and eat) their signature dish.
Don’t Say the H Word
There is one word that parents should never utter. No matter how many battles there are over broccoli, if you want your kids to eat wholesome food, and build a lifetime of good eating habits, don’t dare say it’s “healthy.” When Great Aunt Bea pipes in with, “Eat your greens, James! They’ll help you grow big and strong,” you have my permission to tell her to zip it. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research confirms what junk food marketers have known for a long time: telling kids a food is healthy will make them eat less of it. In a study of preschool-aged children, researchers found that when you tell kids a food makes them strong, a perceived health benefit, they’ll conclude the food is not as tasty and consume less of it. It turns out you’d be better off if you said nothing at all. Instead, talk about the deeply delicious flavor of the Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon, or the sinfully savory flavor of the homemade butternut squash soup. When your kids see you thoroughly enjoying the food you’ve made together, they’ll be many times more inclined to give something new a try.
A mom of two, Jennifer Tyler Lee is the author of The 52 New Foods Challenge: A Family Cooking Adventure for Each Week of the Year and the creator of the award-winning series of healthy eating games, Crunch a Color®.