Managing Holiday Meals with Picky Eaters


First, what is a picky eater? A picky eater is NOT someone who eats less than 20 food items. This is a problem eater, to which the following may not apply. A picky eater is someone who eats more than 20 different types of food, but may, for example, exhibit behaviors when straying from their favorite food group, “brown and round”.

This may make holiday meals difficult when what is being offered for dinner is something colorful and asymmetrical.

With that said, how do we make sure that everyone is having the best experience at the family table?

First: Identify your priorities/goals for you and your child.

For example: “I want my child to be able to tolerate sitting at the table with the family during holiday meal time.” This implies that your child may sometimes not be able to be in the same environment as their aversive foods.

Then: Try out these recommendations.

  1. In the time leading up to your special occasion encourage your child to explore the foods that they see as unfriendly. This may include visually exploring the object by talking about what the food looks like, or maybe talking about who in the family really loves to eat this type of food. This may also include touching the food by encouraging the child through play. Yes, you may end up with mashed sweet potato on your counter, but your child is now tolerating being in the same environment with the food and is making the connection that being around the food doesn’t mean they will be forced to eat it.

  2. Provide preferred food items during the holiday meal. For some picky eaters, simply sitting at the table where there are non-preferred food items (without crying) is a huge accomplishment. Taking this further and pushing them to eat the non-preferred food item(s) may provide you with less success. It is unlikely that a kiddo will be fully successful in overcoming food aversion in the short amount of time that is left before the holidays. Therefore, pressuring them to engage in eating the item before they are ready may result in higher intensity aversion and a much more stressful environment for all involved. 

  3. Set a timer! This is more of a behavioral approach that I have learned to love while working at ABC. This way the kiddo knows that even though there is a beginning to their non-preferred activity, there is also a definite end where they will likely receive praise and something that they really like as a reward.

  4. Encourage your child to participate in creating something for the family table. This may include helping with making the food on the table or making a craft to decorate the table with.

If you feel it is appropriate, an upgraded goal may be: “I would like my child to tolerate trying a new food.”

  1. Attempt the recommendations listed above.

  2. Trial the new food beforehand with a sectioned plate and a separate “all done bowl”. Provide the child with their preferred food in the larger sections of the plate and the new item in the smaller sections. If your child is visibly not tolerating the new food then prompt them to move it to the “all done bowl”. If your child seems to be tolerating the new food then praise them through eating their preferred food. Then prompt them through the following levels to interact with their new food item:

    • Look at the food

    • Touch the food

    • Smell the food

    • Kiss the food

    • Lick the food

    • Take a bite

    • Eat the food

  3. With each successful level give your child praise. An element of play is also a good thing. Once your child demonstrates that they are uncomfortable, prompt them to move the food to the “all done bowl”.

Don’t forget, every child is different and experiences meal time differently depending on their sensory or behavioral tendencies. The above is a guideline that can be trialed with your child for a more enjoyable meal time experience during the holiday season.

It is not recommended to wait until the day of your special occasion to present these strategies to your child for the first time. It is something to be gradually introduced for the greatest success and most enjoyable holiday meal time.

For more resources please visit:

Samantha Asencio and Amber Hensley
Occupational Therapists

If your child isn’t currently a patient at the Applied Behavior Center for Autism and you’re interested in finding out more information, contact us today at 317-849-5437 or go to