Managing Holiday Meals with Picky Eaters


I am a healthy adult who was a picky eater as a child. I wanted things to be plain, separate, and definitely not mushy. At every holiday meal, my grandma used to remind me that my grandfather survived on potatoes for months as a POW.  I still remember her saying, “Oh Jessica, they are delicious… how can you not like mashed potatoes?!” With a shrug, I would grab my plate piled high with only turkey, rice, and corn and go find a place at the table next to my mashed-potato-loving cousins. I love my grandmother endlessly, but this yearly dance between us wasn’t very fun.  Holiday meals can be stressful, especially for picky eaters and their parents as they navigate new foods and company. 

Holiday Meal - Managing Picky Eaters

If we think about it, traditional holiday meals are kind of strange. I don’t make a turkey dinner any other time of the year, nor are my kids exposed to green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, or other typical sides. Yet, we put these items out at holiday time and expect kids to gobble them up. I imagine this is confusing for many kids. Sure, some will put almost anything in their mouths, but many kids won’t. As adults, we are permitted to move some turnips around on our plate and keep passing the bowl without anyone breathing down our necks about it. Why don’t we let kids do the same? Why do we expect them to eat foods they’ve hardly seen let alone tasted? 

Prioritizing Time with Friends and Family

Truth be told, I don’t really care what my kids eat at holiday meals. For me, it is important to prioritize their sitting at the table with everyone for a few minutes. What I really want is for them to enjoy the experience of a large gathering with people we love.  However, something seems to happen on the day of holiday gatherings. I find myself saying, “Try this!”, “You’ll like this,”, “It’s yummy.”, or “Your Oma made this!”. I’m not sure what changes; whatever the reason might be, my thought is let’s set kids up for some success at holiday meals.  I have a few suggestions to help holiday meals be more enjoyable for kids with pickier palettes and their caregivers.

Keep the Pressure Low

One option is to feed kids before the meal, and if appropriate, let the host know that your kids ate at home so they probably won’t eat much. This way they aren’t hangry and there is less pressure for them to perform. With serious hunger thwarted and social pressure low, you might even be able to facilitate an environment in which your kids will experiment a bit with new smells and tastes.  

Provide Something Familiar

Table with foods kids will eat

Another approach is to bring or provide some foods you know the kids will eat. When children arrive to a table full of food with which they aren’t familiar, their anxiety increases and the appetite decreases. However, if they see some foods they enjoy (say bread and strawberries), anxiety decreases and they will be more apt to sit at the table and put food on their plate. Maybe that means your family contributes a fruit platter, some rolls, cut up veggies, or some PB and J sandwiches cut into pumpkin shapes. A bonus is other little ones in attendance will thank you. 

Change Up Your Recipe

A third strategy is to  modify a traditional recipe so that it becomes something you think your kiddo will eat. For example, my uncle makes a lovely sausage rice stuffing. Never one to eat traditional bread stuffing, I love my uncle’s dish.  So, I often bring this to share at holiday meals. If I’m telling the truth, I still pick out the cooked apples. 

I do believe holiday meals are a great time to introduce kids to new smells, new sights and new tastes. The key is to tread lightly and set expectations low. If they are interested in a new food, let them explore it by smelling it, touching it and licking it. If they don’t eat it, it should be no big deal.  Just because they don’t eat something this year doesn’t mean they won’t eat it next year. After all, I now enjoy mashed potatoes.