Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to see family and friends, enjoy family traditions, and enjoy cooking and eating together. But for some children, Thanksgiving presents unique challenges, like engaging with foods they might not usually eat, which can make the holiday more stressful for families. The following tips will help to make the Thanksgiving meal as successful and enjoyable for everyone!
- Involve your child in meal prep: Even before the meal begins, you can help your child engage with new foods and textures without putting pressure on them to eat. Giving them a task that does not involve eating, such as cutting up a vegetable or helping to lay the lattice on a pie, promotes tactile engagement to build comfort and confidence with new foods. Opportunities to help with meal prep give your child a sense of purpose and control with their foods, and provide a bonus opportunity to work on fine motor skills.
- Follow the routine: If there are certain things your family does before dinnertime to help prepare, try to stick to this routine as much as possible. Even routines as simple as washing hands, helping to set the table, or sitting next to a familiar family member, can keep consistency to prepare for the meal and know what to expect. The setting may be different, but maintaining consistent routines can help your child to self-regulate and set them up for success with the meal.
- Limit distractions: Try to redirect the focus of your Thanksgiving meal to the meal and food. Limit TV, other toys at the table, and other distractions, so that your child can focus on laying the brain pathways for eating. Thanksgiving and eating with a larger group of people can feel overwhelming, so think about other strategies you can use to help your child get the input they need to stay organized. For example, your child can sit on a wiggle cushion to get extra movement, or wear headphones if the environment is too loud.
- Encourage family-style dining: Every family has their own traditions around Thanksgiving foods, and encouraging family-style dining can promote engagement with new foods. Have other adults and children model putting new foods onto their plate, and help your child load up their plate from the options, so that their meal is not catered to only their preferred foods. Watching you and other loved ones enjoy new foods is the best model for your child!
- Cut it up small and mix it up: Some Thanksgiving foods, like turkey, are high-endurance foods that require a lot of chewing to safely swallow. If your child has difficulty with oral motor skills or chewing endurance, make sure to cut these types of foods into smaller pieces that are easier to handle without fatiguing. Presenting smaller pieces of food will also be less overwhelming for your child, and be less likely to lead to food refusal. If your child is feeling nervous about trying a new food, try mixing it with a preferred and familiar food. Ask your child to guess which food will have a “bigger taste,” then run your food experiment!
- Don’t give too much power to any type of food: Avoid giving one food power over another (for example: “eat all your turkey to earn dessert!”). We want children to learn that all foods are equal, and not force eating a certain type of food to earn a reward. Dessert can be served at the same time as the rest of the meal or on the same plate, so that your child is given the opportunity to interact with all the foods on their plate in a positive experience.
- Stay at the table: Set the mealtime expectations before starting the meal to help your child successfully stay at the table and engage for the duration of the meal. Even if your child is finished eating, remind them that the family meal isn’t over yet, and they need to stay at the table until the meal is over. This can be a great time to use other strategies to support engagement with foods. Having your child help clear the table can be a great cue that the meal is over as well!
- Redefine success at the meal: Success at Thanksgiving doesn’t have to mean your child has to eat everything on their plate! Tolerating non-preferred foods on their plate, moving non-preferred foods with their utensil, touching food with their fingers, or kissing food with their lips are all great steps to engagement with novel and non-preferred foods that support future successful feeding. Take the pressure off eating the food by encouraging or modeling another activity with the food for your child. Can they count the number of green beans? Can they build a volcano with their mashed potatoes and fill it with gravy? Success can look different for every child to have a great Thanksgiving and support progress toward successful mealtime engagement.
- Make it fun: Take the pressure off of eating by engaging with foods in other ways. Can your child make a turkey out of all the foods on their plate? Can they design a cornucopia and eat the foods to make it empty? Engaging with foods in a fun, play-based way reduces anxiety around foods and allows for your child to build positive experiences with feeding and new foods.