Mighty Blog

Avoiding picky eating during holiday meals

With Thanksgiving and many other holidays just around the corner, many parents are wondering how to ensure their kids are still eating balanced meals. This can be especially difficult with toddlers, who may be eating some of these holiday foods for the first time. We’re sharing some tips for parents to avoid a power struggle at the table this Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season.

Don’t Bargain for Bites

For some kids, dinner becomes a negotiation session from the very start, and parents have been using dessert as an incentive for decades. But this doesn’t encourage healthy eating. Instead it creates the impression that “treats” are more valuable than mealtime food. Foods like candy and cookies are not essential to a child’s diet and it’s not a deprivation to not serve them during the toddler years.

Threatening a punishment, much like bribing a child with dessert, ultimately isn’t effective either. It creates a power struggle. To encourage healthy eating, continue offering your child an array of nutritious choices — and keep the mealtime mood upbeat. Also try these tips:

Toddler girl sits at Thanksgiving meal table with dad, mom and grandma.

Serve right-sized portions

Parents often overestimate how much food a child should eat. Especially with foods that aren’t yet favorites, a couple of tablespoons is plenty to start with. Small portions are less overwhelming, while bigger portions may encourage overeating.

Don’t negotiate

It’s fine to encourage kids to “try one bite” but don’t fall into the negotiating trap. Prepare and serve healthy meals and let them decide what to eat.

Have family meals together

Set your toddler’s place at the family table — it’s good for kids of this age to see their parents and siblings eating together and eating healthy foods. Kids eat a more nutritious diet, with more fruits and vegetables, when they regularly have family meals.

Create positive peer pressure.

Toddlers are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they see their peers eating them, so look for opportunities where they can eat healthy with friends.

Let Kids Feed Themselves

Kids should start finger feeding around 9 months of age and try using utensils by 15-18 months. Provide many opportunities for this, but make sure your toddler eats enough so that the experience doesn’t lead to frustration.

Jump in to help when necessary, but pay attention to hunger cues and signs that your child is full. You can always offer more if your child still seems hungry, but you can’t take the food back if you overfeed. When you’re controlling the fork or spoon, resist the urge to slip in one more bite. And as your toddler gets the hang of eating, step back and let your child take over.

Some parents think that not letting kids feed themselves is for the best, but it takes away control that rightfully belongs to kids at this age. They need to decide whether to eat, what they will eat, and how much to eat — this is how they learn to recognize the internal cues that tell them when they’re hungry and when they’re full. Just as important, toddlers need to learn and practice the mechanics of feeding themselves.

Listen to Your Child

Be alert to what toddlers say through their actions. A child who is building a tower of crackers or dropping carrots on the floor may be telling you he or she is full. Pushing food on a child who’s not hungry may dull the internal cues that help kids know when they’ve eaten enough.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s practical or advisable for kids to eat on demand all day long. Those who eat all day may not learn what it is like to be hungry or full. That’s why structured meals and snack times are important.

Kids can manage their hunger when they come to expect that food will be available during certain times of the day. If a child chooses not to eat anything at all, simply offer food again at the next meal or snack time.

Can Kids Skip a Meal?

Many toddlers need to eat often — as much as six times a day, including three meals and two or three snacks. Keep this in mind as you establish a pattern of meal and snacks. But realize that a food schedule only sets the times that you will present food to your toddler. Your child may not take every opportunity to eat.

Allowing kids to skip a meal is a difficult concept because many of us were raised to clean our plates and not waste food. But kids should be allowed to respond to their own hunger cues, a vital skill when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight. That means eating when hungry — and sometimes not eating, even if it’s time for Thanksgiving dinner.

Set times for meals and snacks and try to stick to them. A child who skips a meal finds it reassuring to know when to expect the next one. Avoid offering snacks or pacifying hungry kids with cups of milk or juice right before a meal — this can diminish their appetite and decrease their willingness to try a new food being offered.

Avoid the Junk Food Trap

Toddlers need to eat healthy to get the nutrients their growing bodies need. Candy, potato chips, and other low-nutrient “junk foods” shouldn’t be part of their diet because they can crowd out the healthy foods needed. Also, food preferences are established early in life, so don’t miss opportunities to help your toddler develop a taste for nutritious foods.

Even if your child likes candy or chips, don’t feel like you must give in. Kids can’t run to the store to buy them, so just don’t keep them in the house.

If your toddler asks for candy, simply say, “We don’t have any candy.” Then present two healthy snack alternatives to choose from. Even a child who mourns the lack of candy will still enjoy the sense of control from deciding which healthy snack to eat.

For more tips on helping your children create long-term heathy eating habits, read Children’s education materials.

Kaitlyn Kamleiter