By: Jessica Perkins
The holidays are right around the corner and while they are a time that should be filled with joy and family traditions, for families of children with feeding challenges this can also be a time of increased stress, worry, and frustration for parents and children alike. The good news is that the holidays offer endless opportunities to foster our children’s love of food and help them to learn about new foods in a non-threatening way. Here are some ideas for helping your child not only get through holiday meals but enjoy the experience and expand their interactions with new foods in the process.
Taking the Stress out of Family Gatherings
During the holidays many of us get together with family to share in special meals. Large family gatherings and meals can be especially challenging for children with sensory and feeding difficulties. The sensory experience can be overwhelming and may lead to meltdowns if their needs are not recognized and addressed. When our body is bombarded by sensory input without a way to accurately process that input, it goes into fight or flight mode and our digestive system takes a back seat while the body focuses on getting through the experience. It is important that we are aware of our children’s sensory arousal and are offering them strategies to make the experience more comfortable. Family gatherings are NOT the place to try to get your child to eat green bean casserole for the first time! Here are some strategies to decrease the stress and make gatherings a pleasant experience.
Social Stories: Social stories are a great way to talk to a child about activities that are coming up and prepare them for big events. Start reading a social story about your holiday plans a few weeks in advance to give them time to process what is coming.
If your child does not handle changes to routine or travel well, consider having family come to you.
If you do need to travel to a relative’s home, talk to them about having a quiet room where your child can retreat to if they need a break from all of the activity. Bring some favorite toys and activities with you to make your child feel more comfortable in the new environment.
Consider dimming the lighting to decrease the sensory input that your child is trying to process. Dimmed lighting can often help with calming an upset child (or an overwhelmed adult!).
Be aware that the smell of all of the various foods combined, while it may smell delicious to us, may be overpowering for our kids who are highly sensitive to smell, which in turn decreases their appetite
Likewise, the sight of all of those unfamiliar foods on the table may be visually over stimulating for your child. Consider serving the food in another room and having your child sit on one end of the table instead of in the middle so that they are not surrounded by foods that they are not yet ready for.
Depending on the severity of your child’s aversions, having them eat prior to the large family gathering can reduce the pressure of eating with so many new foods around
Often when we are with extended family or friends we have higher expectations of our children’s behavior than we do at home. Be mindful that children are not made to sit for long periods of time and engage in adult table talk. If your child has finished eating after 20-30 minutes and everyone wants to stay at the table to talk, allow your child to get up from the table and engage in a quiet play task while the grown-ups finish.
If it is going to result in a meltdown, do not use this time to encourage your child to try new foods. Make sure they have some of their preferred foods available and allow them to eat those at the family meal.
If your child is ready for it, they can take a small amount of the new foods and put them on their plate without the expectation that they will eat them all. If they are not ready for this step, don’t push it!
Making Memories with Food!
One of the best ways to get your kids to ultimately eat a wide variety of foods is to expose them to foods in a fun, no pressure way. The holidays afford so many opportunities to learn about new foods without any pressure to eat them, allowing children to build a positive relationship with food.
String popcorn: what a great tradition that seems to have gone by the wayside in recent years. Not only is your child learning to interact with food, they are getting to work on their fine motor skills as well! Add cranberries for increased exposure to new foods.
Photo credit: Parade.com
Make cookies: have your kids help by adding the dry ingredients, cutting out shapes with cookie cutters, rolling the dough into balls, decorating the final product, the possibilities are endless! Here are 19 Christmas cookie ideas for making with kids.
Create holiday themed art using foods: get your kids involved in making arts and crafts projects for teachers, grandparents and friends using foods in place of traditional art tools.
Make stovetop potpourri: this is such a fun activity that allows kids to work with aromatic dry ingredients. These make great gifts for teachers and therapists when packaged in individual plastic gift bags and smell so nice when you cook them on the stove in a pot of water.
Bring your kiddos into the kitchen and have them help with the meal preparation! If they are not ready to touch the foods being prepared, have them help by holding the bowl, reading the directions, or stirring the pot. Kids especially love when they get to use kitchen utensils. These kid safe knives are a great way to get them involved!
Give them some left over dough from cookies or pie crust, cookie cutters, nuts, or whatever other toppings you’d like and let them go to town building their own pies and cakes.
Have your kids help to arrange a veggie platter to take to a holiday party. Look at this cute Christmas tree veggie platter. Remember, they do NOT have to eat the veggies (but if they do want to try a bite we won’t stop them!)
Remember above all else, this is a time for building memories with your family. Focus on the activities that your children enjoy, there will always be time to work on the hard things later.