Arts & CultureKiddie Dope

Thanks but No Thanks: Picky Eaters on Thanksgiving

Forget the awkward relatives and political discussions with Aunt Ruby. One of the most trying parts of the holidays is getting your kid to eat something that’s not mashed potatoes.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day who said her 5-year-old will happily eat anything—kimchi, whatever—without even batting an eye. She will sometimes have to stop her from asking other people if she can try what they’re eating and sample it right off their plates. To me, this is a foreign concept. Ever since she was 3 years old, my daughter has turned up her nose at a dizzying array of foods, many of which she once liked, and it’s a constant battle.

Which is why, as we enter the period of the year known as “the holidays,” I brace myself for the battle that is about to ensue. One would think that, faced with a table of side dishes, there would be something for the child to eat. But every year, it’s the same thing: The choices are overwhelming, some of the colors look weird, and it doesn’t matter how many cousins are eating it—she doesn’t want any of it.

When the topic of picky eaters comes up among playground discussions, parents seem to fall into two general camps. On the one hand, you have the “you have to try it once” group, with a household rule that no matter how weird it looks, you must take a bite. This is a great idea if your child is rational and approaches decisions methodically. But if you’re like me, you’ve tried this approach (and envied those parents who pull it off), only to be rebuffed at every turn. There’s only so much you can cajole, threaten and plead with a 7-year-old. If they’re stubborn enough, they’ll sit for an hour, food stone-cold, and refuse to touch it.

The second camp of parents is the “let’s try this because it seemed to work last week” method. Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes, for some inexplicable reason, hot dogs are suddenly on the naughty list, and you’re back to macaroni and cheese. Or grilled cheese without crusts. Or a quesadilla. (I try to remind my daughter that a grilled cheese and a quesadilla are essentially the same thing, but she refuses to believe me.)

All of this is completely unhelpful, though, when you’re faced with a tableful of lima beans, sweet potatoes, funky-looking pie and cousins all grabbing for different things, which is why, with several Thanksgivings under my belt, I offer you this cheat sheet to surviving a picky eater during the holidays.

• Hone in on the one thing you know is a slam dunk. Yes, it’s probably mashed potatoes. But do a little reconnaissance work in advance. It would really suck to know that there’s one thing on the table your child will eat, only to find out that Aunt Mabel made it with home-grown rosemary and roasted garlic, and your child CAN’T STAND garlic.

• If you’re not hosting, be extra helpful—with an agenda. Sure, Aunt Mabel might arrive with the rosemary already mixed in, but if you know there are dishes being prepared on-site, offer to help and then work behind the scenes to separate out some unadorned dishes. This could mean putting some plain sweet potatoes in a bowl before putting the nuts and marshmallows on top, or pulling some stuffing out and making sure it doesn’t get mixed with the nuts. But it may mean a few more things your child will eat, knowing they won’t be surprised by a crunchy pecan in their smooth sweet potatoes.

• If you’re a guest, bring a dish you know your child eats. Corn? Peas? Black beans and rice? Who cares if it’s not traditional Thanksgiving food—you know that every other child there will eat it, too. Heck, you might even be the silent savior for other parents at the party.

• When all else fails, go for the pressure. It could be peer pressure—perhaps an older, wiser cousin could make eating lima beans fun because THEY are doing it—or it could be dessert pressure. (“Yes, that chocolate pie looks good, doesn’t it? If you want some, please eat more than the dinner roll.”)

Note that this is a last-ditch tactic, because the last thing you want is to get into an argument over food on the biggest food-focused holiday of the year. Then again, it might go over better than that political discussion you’re bound to have with grandpa.