Christmas tables are laden with lots yummy festive foods – turkey and cranberry sauce, ham on the bone, roast vegetables, fruit cake, pavolova, freshly picked strawberries. While this has many of us salivating, it’s enough to send shivers down the spine of those families with a fussy eater says Paediatric Occupational Therapist, Miriam Belsham.
Families might be struggling with mealtimes or getting their child to eat a range of foods. And this can be heightened even more over the holiday season when families come together to share a meal. “We’re asking children who are already struggling to eat a variety of foods, to go outside of their comfort zone and eat traditional festive foods that are only presented to them once a year, and that’s a lot to ask,” she says.
There are many terms used to describe a child with feeding challenges: fussy eater, selective eater, faddy eater, picky eater, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) … just to name a few. It’s estimated that 40% of children are at some time described as a picky or fussy eater. And 5% of those will exhibit an unwillingness to try new foods or have strong food preferences. For children aged 1 – 5 years there are frequently other factors influencing feeding challenges other than “behaviour”, including gut issues, medical, sensory, developmental or interaction difficulties.
“The good news is that these families aren’t alone and there are steps we can take to help reduce the anxiety and frustration around food, especially over the holiday period,” says Miriam.
1. Stay relaxed around mealtimes
It’s ok if your child doesn’t enjoy all the festive foods, especially if it is a once a year food. Don’t put any pressure on your child to eat the special foods offered. They will try it if they feel safe and ready.
2. Provide “safe foods”
Ensure that your child has some safe foods offered at each mealtime, even if the rest of the table are eating other foods. This is also a great time for food exposure to new foods, but remember to place no expectations on your child to eat these new foods.
3. Eat together
Use this time to eat meals together and demonstrate positive food experiences to your child.
4. Involve your child
Involve your child in preparing the special foods for your family and friends, but let them tell you if it’s too much for them to cope with.
5. Set expectations of family and friends
Inform your guests or people you may visit that your child is challenged by eating a range of foods and that it’s best that no one puts pressure on them. It’s best to set the expectations on how you would like your child treated prior to the event. We all know that family and friends are well meaning, but their “help” isn’t always that helpful.
Miriam Belsham is an experienced Paediatric Occupational Therapist from Sprouts OT and the New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic who works with children who need feeding therapy to support ongoing development with their eating skills.