When you have a picky eater, a problem feeder, or a child with ARFID, Thanksgiving gatherings can be nerve-wracking. Your family can enjoy the Thanksgiving meal together, though, with these 6 simple ways to help your selective eater.
He stood at the kitchen counter, weathered hands laboring over piles of chopped onion and celery. He wore a goofy, lopsided grin as I poked around the kitchen, watching him cook and listening to him sing The Yellow Rose of Texas.
Dad was at home in the kitchen – it was a connection to his Southeast Texas roots. Every Thanksgiving, of course, featured his father’s recipe for cornbread dressing:
- two huge pans of sweet, yellow cornbread
- one roll of pork sausage, crumbled and cooked
- two thirds of the Cajun holy trinity (sautéed onion and celery)
- parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Dad’s been gone eleven years, but the recipe remains a staple of our Thanksgiving meals.
A staple my oldest daughter has never tried, and probably never will.
The trouble with sensory processing disorder
My oldest kiddo is afraid of food.
It began at age two as the first manifestation of her sensory processing disorder. Oblivious to the cause, we only knew that our previously well-adjusted eater had dropped several favorites from the table.
We were down to bread, cheese, bananas, milk and juice. It hasn’t gotten much better.
G is almost ten. She has never eaten a strawberry. Blueberries are terrifying; chicken makes her cry. Her list of safe foods has grown (we are probably up to twenty), but her sensory aversions and excellent memory make anything outside that realm a non starter.
I did not react well when her food aversions surfaced.
There was bargaining.
I harbor a great deal of guilt over this, and yet I still must fight the voice that whispers
She will never move beyond her fears.
She will never be happy if she doesn’t.
Truthfully, she is happy. I am the one who grieves. But I must not allow that grief to cast a pall over our household. She will move past this anxiety if we move past our own fears, providing a low-pressure atmosphere that encourages experimentation and keeps pressure at bay.
How to help your sensory child enjoy holiday meals
Put her in charge
If your holiday menu is mostly comprised of foods your child won’t eat, find opportunities for ownership over the items considered safe. Since G loves bread, she gets to choose what type we will serve at Thanksgiving. She also has a hand in determining our dessert choices; even though she’s not yet tried it, she always requests and helps to prepare a chocolate bourbon pecan pie (she knows it’s her dad’s favorite). Being a part of the decision process helps her feel less like Thanksgiving dinner is thrust upon her and more like she has control over the situation.
Experiment with non-safe foods
Involve your sensory child with the baking and cooking process to further advance her sensory acceptance. Let her get used to the slippery feel of egg white on her hands or the grit of flour beneath her feet. Let her knead and shape bread dough while you sautée carrots and onions. The exposure to sensations and smells helps break down the fear response prevalent in a sensory child’s meal time experiences.
Connect food to favorite subjects
Does your sensory kiddo love science? Explore the chemistry behind baking. History? Research the provenance of specific dishes. Reading? Find books about holiday foods. Building positive connections with food – even small ones – can make a big difference in your child’s comfort level.
Divide the Responsibility
In a Division of Responsibility household, a parent’s job is to provide the food. The child’s job is to eat it. This means there is no pressure or cajoling, only food served family style with an invitation to choose what you like. We serve our holiday meals buffet style, making sure to include a variety of safe options G will eat. Sometimes this means she eats three rolls, two baby carrots and several pieces of pumpkin pie (sans crust), but I’m okay with that. Calories are calories when you have a selective eater, and the pressure is off when food choices are hers alone.
If you go with division of responsibility techniques, make sure your extended family is on board. Ask them to respect your child’s right to choose her own foods, and have a response to well-meaning intervention at the ready. For instance, G knows how to respond when questioned or offered food she doesn’t like: “Thank you for thinking of me,” she’ll say. “I know what I like and can help myself.”
While I may grieve the loss of sharing food traditions with my daughter, it helps to remember that she will have the same memories of fellowship and love even if she doesn’t eat any of my favorites. She watches me putter in the kitchen in the same way I watched my father. She helps out with prep and joins us at the table. She takes ownership of her choices and spends quality time with family.
After all, that’s what I remember most about Thanksgiving. And that’s what I want her to remember, too.
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