How to Have Happy Kids at the Thanksgiving Table

As we approach the winter holidays and festivities there may be a lot on your mind. It’s a great time for gratitude and reflection about family, friends, and the food before us.

Thanksgiving celebrations can be tricky for little ones, especially our very selective eaters. So many new foods. So many people at the table. So much pressure to eat. As parents, you probably want your kids to be on good behavior and that might include eating well. 

Ultimately, we all want smiles instead of whines when it comes time to be at the table. But gathering together at the table should be a time to connect, without pressure.

Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt/uncle, or friend, these tips can help make the table a happy place, instead of a stressed one.

  • Let go of expectations. We often put so much pressure on ourselves and our kids for everything to go smoothly that it ends up detracting from the enjoyment of it all. There’s a lot of stimulation for kids and some can experience sensory overload and/or anxiety, which can translate to more eating challenges. Kids may be less inclined to try new foods or even eat ones they typically like. Being aware of this can help you adjust your expectations and everyone can enjoy a happier time. 
  • Be prepared with sides. Have a more selective eater in the family? Don’t like the traditional sides served at your relative’s table? Bring or serve (if you’re hosting) something simple that you know your family or the choosiest eater enjoys. There’s no need to prepare a separate meal, but aim to incorporate a couple things you know they can fill up on that are also things everyone else at the table loves. Bread and butter is usually a win for most. You can also prepare more plain veggies, such as steamed green beans with lemon and butter. It’s OK if all they eat is bread and butter for one meal, promise!

  • Avoid commenting on what kids, or anyone else, is eating. Just as you wouldn’t pressure your grandmother, or your sister to “eat a another bite of mashed potatoes” no one should ask your kids to do so, either. Pressure to eat isn’t helpful and it can harm the child’s experience with the meal, and with food. It most certainly will take something away from focusing on the other good stuff to be grateful for. If you’ve got a particularly picky eater, give family/friends a heads up ahead of time that you’ve been working on strategies to make progress and this includes not pressuring your child to eat or making their intake conditional on whether or not they’re offered dessert. It’s best to keep this talk away from the table and your child. However, if someone comments on what your child is eating, either calmly change the subject, or if you need to address it, say something short but firm such as “our plan is that she chooses what and how much she eats from what is offered”.

  • Serve breakfast and lunch before the big meal. Hangry kids and adults are a recipe for an unhappy meal time experience. Make sure to serve something balanced for breakfast and lunch (or breakfast and a large snack if you eat dinner extra early that day.) Try to minimize grazing all day, which can make it more likely kids won’t be hungry when dinner rolls around. 

  • Prioritize gratitude and thankfulness. Sure, Thanksgiving centers around a big meal and that piece of it can be so joyful. But taking a moment to talk to your kids about things they’re grateful for, and doing this yourself, can change the course of the day and remove pressure around food for all the joy. Research also shows that the act of saying it outloud or writing it down can make it feel more real, and actually change your brain, too! 

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