Mealtimes can be tricky on the best of days. It can be difficult to schedule around family extracurricular activities and trying to choose a meal that everyone will eat, let alone try to make something healthy. And, if you add in a picky or resistive eater in the family, the challenge can be even trickier.
Holidays can be even trickier when adding in foods that may not be familiar; visiting relatives with assorted beliefs and values; the extra noise of a football game, parade, or movie; or people in and out of the house trying to get the best deal possible for holiday gifts. It can be sensory overload for the average adult, let alone your child with sensory issues.
During a holiday that centers around food, what are some strategies that could make the day more enjoyable for everyone, including your child with sensory processing differences and/or food difficulties? Below are a few suggestions that could make the holiday more manageable.
It is almost guaranteed there will be some unfamiliar foods offered at Thanksgiving that your child will be hesitant to try. If you are worried about how your child will react to a food, consider sampling some of the foods prior to Thanksgiving at home so you will have an idea of what foods will work, will probably work, or absolutely won’t work.
Rethink your idea of “trying”
There are so many sights, sounds, and smells associated with Thanksgiving that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the holiday. Consider re-thinking what a successful meal could look like this holiday season. The goal could be to have your child experience a food, not necessarily eat it. Success may be having your child experience and/ or interact with the food using their other senses. Consider ways in which your child can help in the kitchen in age-appropriate ways. Have them tear lettuce leaves for a salad or use a food chopper to prepare food. Are they old enough to stir the gravy? At the end of the meal, consider asking them to help with washing the dishes. Helping in the kitchen allows them to see, smell, touch the foods, so they can experience them, even if they are not ready to try them yet. You can modify the experiences with a mask or gloves if it is too overwhelming.
Mealtimes, especially at the holidays, can be chaotic, with all the preparations, people moving about, and maybe the football game being left on. It is a lot of sensory input that can cause your child to feel dysregulated and overwhelmed. Consider how to provide a more relaxed atmosphere for a calming influence with less distractions during the meal. For example, classical or smooth jazz can provide a more relaxing input than pop or rock music. Consider lowering the lights. Also, consider turning the television off to decrease distractions.
Have a seat!
Consider your child’s chair at the table. Correct positioning is 90 degree angles at the hips, knees and angles. And, feet should always be supported by a solid surface to prevent discomfort and to provide grounding, so your child feels safe at the table. If your child needs to move, consider wiggle seats or a fidget for them to use.
Have at least one food everyone will eat
Traditionally, Thanksgiving incorporates a lot of soft or mushy texture, such as casseroles or creamed corn that can heighten the gag reflex and increase unexpected behaviors at the dinner table. Consider having at least one food option that everyone will eat, such as goldfish crackers, served in a nice, big serving bowl, like all the other foods being offered. It promotes a feeling of inclusion, which could make your child feel more welcomed at the table. Also, serving a meal family style can slow down the pace of the meal. It gives your child the option to say which foods they will or won’t try and to gauge how big or small of a portion they want.
These are just a few suggestions of ways to relieve the stress of mealtime at Thanksgiving or any holiday. Your therapist at Life Span Occupational Therapy can provide other suggestions that will be more specific to your child’s needs. Feel free to check out the resources on our website or our Pinterest board for more helpful ideas.
Remember pushing food on children can be traumatizing, do no harm, go at their own pace, make food experiences a safe and fun activity.
30+ Super Cute Thanksgiving Recipes for Kids - In the Kids' Kitchen (inthekidskitchen.com)