Holidays are fun, relaxing and the perfect time to catch up with friends and family. Often as parents we’re just hanging on by our fingernails coming into a break from routines and the daily grind with that shining holiday keeping us vaguely sane!
But I know from talking to parents that having a picky eater can put a giant spanner in the plans. It can also turn a holiday into a potential minefield. Well-meaning relatives who are able to teach your child how to eat “properly”. Being away from home and on-hand accepted foods. Traveling and routines being disrupted. There are so many places where parents are suddenly finding an already challenging task has become even more difficult.
There is no magic bullet resolution to this but there are some strategies that may make things a little easier:
1. Relax – I know my stress levels go up planning to go away and working out what food to take and how best to manage everything. That definitely gets communicated to my boys. I know when they were little in the few days before a holiday their behaviour used to disintegrate. Hmm, cause and effect?
As we are the most important relationship our young child has, it’s important that we are as relaxed as possible – especially around food. If we are stressing, they will pick up on this. The more relaxed children are the more likely they are to want to eat. As parents we often set the atmosphere without even realising it. How can we create an environment that enables us all to relax?
2. Expectations – We’d all love for our picky eater to go away to relatives or friends and suddenly realise what they are missing out on so happily eat through a roast lamb dinner. Unfortunately, it’s not realistic to imagine that our food anxious child will magically change all their previously held beliefs and eat whatever is put in front of them.
Understanding this and not having it on our radar is very important. Wishing something is not going to make it happen, and in doing so we set ourselves up for failure. We can also inadvertently communicate this to our child.
3. Enjoyment – Holidays are about fun, they are about relaxing and they are about enjoyment. For a fussy eater they can become stressful and miserable if they are worrying about food and what they may “have” to eat. Or whether they are going to feel hungry as there is nothing within their comfort zone to fill up on.
As we are not suddenly going to see our child eating a range of new foods just because they are away or surrounded by new people then we can relax and ensure they are catered to. If we’re having a big family meal then providing some favourites for them is important. It’s also kind and respectful. Having food to look forward to is a pleasure for all of us.
If this means some peanut butter crackers next to the lamb then that’s OK for the day. No one comes to the table happily if there is nothing they like to eat being served.
4. Pre-empt – Friends and especially relatives can be very well-meaning in their efforts to resolve picky eating issues. They have raised competent eaters themselves so “know” how to do this. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Having children that eat well does not mean that we have the magic formula for helping another parent to do the same (shall I repeat that?!)
Easter is not the time to “teach” a child to eat. It’s a time for family and fun and so should be viewed as such. The less input from others often the better. Our child can be overwhelmed by additional attention. Placing them in the eating spotlight is unlikely to get them eating more widely. In fact, additional pressure is more likely to have the opposite effect.
Imagine going out to dinner and everyone is focused on your plate, what you’re eating, how you’re eating and then offering advice!
If it’s possible to speak to relatives and explain this prior to arriving that’s great. If we know that it will fall on deaf ears perhaps it’s possible to talk to our child and reassure them beforehand.
5. Explain – Knowing what is going to be happening when and where can be very comforting for some children. As can being reassured that there will be food that they enjoy.
6. Routines – Although things do change on holidays – and that’s a good thing – keeping some structure in the day can be really grounding for children. For example, on a day when you know you will be out and about all day, having a family breakfast with familiar foods can start things off well. If you can keep certain things constant it gives structure to the day.
Often when we’re traveling or even having guests over normal timing goes out of the window. This can be especially challenging for young children who are used to eating at regular intervals. Having plan B in case dinner is not going to be served until too late or making sure that you can make unscheduled stops if necessary can prevent a meltdown.
7. Familiarity – Being away from home can be disorientating especially for young children. I know that my 14 year old is still not excited about change and does not look forward to holidays and a break from the familiar. If we can take some of that familiarity with us, especially around food it can be really comforting.
Are we able to take a favourite plate or cup? Would our child feel comforted if their favourite snack was included somewhere in each day? Is a liked cereal a great way to start the day with ease?
8. Boundaries – We do want our child to feel comfortable and secure over holidays and around food. But it’s still important to set boundaries. Having family expectations can smooth otherwise potentially challenging meals. For example, we all sit at the table for x amount of time even if it’s not our favourite food. Finding a compromise that works for both our child and others is a win win.
9. Autonomy – Giving our child some choice can be really positive. Enabling them to have some say as to what goes on the plate and in what quantities can be very comforting. Allowing them to choose what to eat, within parameters, can also reduce anxiety.
10. Opportunity – Holidays and new situations can also be a great opportunity for our child to expand their diet. I know of many very selective eaters who have been able to add a new food on holiday. They have eaten a different flavour of ice block or picked up a new piece of fruit as all the cousins are. They have been able to accept a new brand of sausage roll as that was all that was available.
As parents it’s our job as principal supporter and cheerleader to provide opportunities for our child to eat more variety and then not inadvertently get in the way of that process. Leaving our child to make the decision about what to choose, what to try and what to like is very important. We can find ourselves impeding this by saying for example, “oh don’t give them an olive, it’s a waste of time”. Allowing them the chance to make that choice themselves can lead to them eating something unexpected.
Holidays can be relaxing and fun even with a picky eater. What can we do to smooth the waters?
Judith is passionate about good food and is even more passionate about enabling other people to enjoy the wide variety of fresh food available today.