Updated November 17, 2022
Holiday Meals with Kids Can Be Fun (We Promise!)
It is (somehow, already) the winter holiday season, and for many families that means gathering with friends and relatives, posing for group pictures, and a whole lot of delicious food. Maybe you look forward to your mom’s stuffing all year long, or your family gets together for a full day of steaming tamales. Whatever it is, most of us have holiday foods we love.
But what about your kid? Whether they are constantly asking for snacks or refuse everything you serve them, food and nutrition can be a complicated part of raising kids. And it can feel even more complicated once you add family dynamics, travel, and the excitement of kids seeing their cousins or your coolest aunt.
We’re here to help with some tips from Suzanne Porter-Bolton, who is a registered dietician and senior program educator at Ideas for Cooking and Nutrition (ICAN), a nutrition training program based at New Mexico State University.
Some kids are open-minded, joyful eaters who like to try new things. At least, so we’ve heard. But many kids are skeptical of new foods, and that’s a normal part of development. When young children start out in the world, all foods are unfamiliar and they need time to get used to them. At home, on a normal day, experts advise families to offer small servings of new food repeatedly. If a child turns up their nose at your enchiladas the first time, don’t give up. Offer it again in a week or two. You may have to offer the food 10 times or more before your child accepts it as familiar. And there may be foods they never accept, especially if your child is particularly sensitive to smells and textures. But keep trying.
If that sounds like a lot of wasted food, it can be. Suzanne said one way to address this is to offer very small servings each time. “Start with teeny tiny little servings that don’t touch, and if they want more they can have more,” she said. She said for a toddler, that could mean four or five teaspoon-sized servings of different things on their plate.
Experts don’t recommend trying to force or pressure young children to eat things they don’t want to. For one thing, you can’t. Fundamentally, you can’t make your child eat if they’d decided not to. But also, getting into standoffs with your child or requiring them to “clean their plate” can interfere with their natural ability to listen to their body and stop eating when they’re full. Children are born knowing how to do this, but can lose the ability over time if they aren’t allowed to practice.
“Toddlers don’t eat until they’re stuffed and sick and then have to loosen their belts. They don’t do that,” said Suzanne. Good for them, especially this time of year.
OK, that’s all well and good on a normal day. But what about at a big holiday meal? Now you’re playing on hard mode. You have a good system at home, but now your toddler is being picky in front of your in-laws and you can feel yourself getting defensive. Then your three-year-old loudly announces that Uncle Louis’ prized green bean casserole “looks like worms” and suddenly all your holiday chill is out the window. What to do?
Big family gatherings aren’t the time to work on long-term nutrition goals with your kid. A lot of the food served at holiday gatherings will be unfamiliar to kids, who may already be feeling overstimulated by all the activity and new people. If they just want to eat some rolls, that’s OK.
If your kid has been cornered by your aunt (not the cool one) insisting that they have to try her posole or else Santa won’t come, politely intervene and change the subject. The last thing you want to do is get into a standoff with your child that ends with them spitting posole dramatically back into their bowl. One day of eating mostly carbs and cookies won’t harm your child, and this frees you both up to enjoy the day.
Suzanne said you can also help certain holiday gatherings go smoother by planning ahead. If it’s a potluck where there will be a lot of unfamiliar food, consider bringing something your child will eat. You know your kid best, and you can help make sure you both have a good experience. “I just think that when you’re dealing with food, you need to err on the side of kindness,” she said.
Sweets and Treats
OK, but what about getting them not to eat the things you don’t want them to? From Halloween on, candy and cookies and pies (oh, my!) are everywhere. What should you do?
Experts recommend letting your kids have some sweets. Research has found that treating certain foods as “forbidden” and strictly limiting them leads kids to sneak them or eat as much as they can when they are available. Remember, your main goal isn’t controlling your kids’ eating today, it’s helping them build a lifelong, healthy relationship with food. People who want sweets or chips but severely restrict themselves will eventually give in to cravings, eat a bunch, and then feel bad. The same is true for kids.
That doesn’t mean leaving out a candy bowl and letting your kids subsist entirely on fun-size Milky Ways. Filling up all day on sweets can mean kids aren’t hungry later for more nutritious foods. But you can offer treats at structured times, and let your child enjoy them. Some experts recommend periodically (not every day!) giving kids a chance to eat sweets without limit, so they can practice noticing and stopping when they feel full and satisfied. You won’t always be there to tell them that 10 peanut butter cups is probably enough.
Make it Fun
Sometimes, the fun can be all about presentation. Suzanne said the simple addition of toothpicks made her kids more interested in healthy foods. “I put them on a platter and stuck a toothpick in a couple of them, and then they could use their toothpicks to eat,” she said. “You know, they became an hors d’oeuvre.”
And don’t forget, cooking together is a great way to spend time with your child. You can share family traditions, tell stories, introduce them to foods you like, and teach important skills like how to measure ingredients. If you’re not sure where to begin, Suzanne even shared some recipes!
Suzanne’s Choice Recipes:
For a main dish, consider making chicken shish kebabs (we’re big on making food more fun by poking it with a stick). This version calls for red, orange, and green bell peppers, but you can substitute other vegetables your kid enjoys if peppers are a no-go. If your kid has never tried bell peppers, the brightly colored ones have a natural sweetness that can make them a kid-friendly veggie, and shish kebabs can be a fun way to introduce them.
Just want to make a snack or side dish? Try roasted squash hummus. Hummus is tasty as a dip for just about anything, and it dresses up other nutritious foods like carrot sticks, pea pods, or bell peppers (we’ll assume your kids are into bell peppers now, after the shish kebabs). Bring this to your neighborhood holiday potluck, and your kids might at least eat some veggies, even if they say all the main dishes “smell weird.”
Don’t forget dessert! Consider this festive recipe for pumpkin pie parfait cups, which have the pumpkin spice flavor of the season and are light on added sugar. There’s no baking involved and the recipe has tips and ideas for how kids can help and participate.
Food is a joyful part of the holidays, and having a kid who’s a picky eater doesn’t have to sap that joy. If you are relaxed and supportive about food, you can spend less time trying to bribe your kid into taking another bite of ham, and more time enjoying whatever tastes and smells bring your family together this time of year.