15 Holiday Eating Tips that can Help your Child with Special Needs

Cooked turkey

The holiday season is here and that means kitchens across the world are firing up with delectable dishes and scrumptious sweets. Traditional family dishes and specialties that tend to be more vibrant in flavor and texture are often whipped up for everyone’s enjoyment. Some of these dishes may prove to be very difficult for children to eat because of picky-eating tendencies or oral tactile defensiveness.

In addition, it’s important to remember that the hustle and bustle of the holiday season can place additional stress on children and affect their ability to eat. Schedules are altered to take part in busy holiday traditions and to allow visits with family and friends both nearby and far away. Often, bright holiday lights and sounds flood the visual and auditory environment. The combined effect may put children on edge, increasing their difficulty with eating as their sensory systems become increasingly stressed, fatigued, and disorganized.

These challenges don’t have to add holiday stress. There are many strategies that parents can employ to help their children successfully try new foods. Here are

1. Be patient.

2. Stick to your regular routine as much as possible. Children who get off-schedule can often become overwhelmed and have a difficult time calming.

3. Minimize changes as much as possible. Try to include at least one food you are sure the child will eat that fits the holiday theme.

4. Prepare your child in advance. Discuss holiday plans and traditional holiday foods 2-4 weeks in advance.

5. Allow extra time at the table. Avoid rushing children to try new foods or forcing them to finish the food on their plate.

6. Avoid making holiday events or activities contingent on what they eat. (e.g. “If you eat this you can open a present or have a cookie”.)

7. Allow children to eat before the adults, as the dinner table may be too busy and loud for a child.

8. Try not to make children wait for the holiday mealtime. Keeping them on their normal eating schedule will help decrease the chances of them becoming cranky, upset, or frustrated.

9. Have children sit with the rest of the family at the main mealtime, but don’t expect them to eat much more than what they ate prior to joining the adults at the table.

10. Offer preferred foods when it’s their usual time to eat.

11. Place small amounts of new food on the child’s plate.

12. Use as many familiar eating utensils, plates, cups, placemats as possible to help decrease anxiety when trying new foods.

13. Limit sweets, which suppress appetite.

14. Encourage and praise children for trying new foods.

15. Have children assist with preparing the food to increase their interest in trying what they helped to make. Practice making holiday food prior to the holiday for familiarity.

A little patience and planning can make mealtime much easier every day, but it’s particularly important on special days when there’s a lot more going on for the child to contend with. Have a fantastic holiday season!

By Jason Ferrise, MOT/OTRL & Chris Purgatori, MOT/OTRL. Jason and Chris are Occupational Therapists at the Kaufman Children’s Center for Speech, Language, Sensory-Motor & Social Connections, Inc.

Chris
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  • Struggling with food Issues

    Our family has difficulties having holiday meals with friends or family. We try to tell family that our child may not eat one single thing but it seems to make them crazy to find a dish our child will eat. Not only is the place not familiar for our child, but our child is a veritable “germ a phobe”. He worries that the food was prepared without proper hand washing, etc. His concerns were only exacerbated when a family member tore off a huge piece of turkey with his bare (unwashed) hands and proceeded to walk through the house licking his fingers noisily and then brushing hands on his pants. Our child now refuses to eat any food at that person’s house. The family members know that this is an issue with our child but in their house I really don’t feel that I can say anything to help the situation. Our child went over 5 hours without food without a single complaint but I felt horrible. Anyone have suggestions?

    • Mel-DVM

      That would gross me out too! Maybe bringing food he likes and letting him eat it (with an adult keeping him company) in the car?
      My son refuses to eat in the school cafeteria. He goes from 8AM to 4PM without a single bite. I feel your pain.

    • ASC

      Bring a plate for him. There is no reason for him to go hungry. If the people give you shit, then leave. He is not hurting anyone by not eating their food and they already know of his issues. They can grow up and deal with it or they do not deserve your company.