The Festivity of Foods: Not for Kids with Anxious Moods

For many kids, holiday meals are nothing to celebrate.

Maddie refuses to sit at grandma’s dinner table on Christmas Day. Although she worries about many things in life, she has a very specific fear of vomiting. She is reluctant to eat because if someone at the table coughs, they may be sick and later vomit. Maddie believes this will make her vomit and she does not want to be embarrassed at the table.

Anthony is irritated that Aunt Christine is cooking holiday dinner instead of his mother. He prefers to control his environment through routine and structure to feel safe. If his Aunt prepares untraditional foods and fancy delicacies, he won’t eat. He doesn’t like her preference for buffet style serving and casual seating instead of a sit down dinner. The randomness of this gathering is quite uncomfortable because he doesn’t know what to expect.

At their traditional family brunch, Patty will lead the meal blessing and then eat alone in her room. She does not like to chew food in front of friends or family. Her anxieties are further complicated because she restricts her diet to carbohydrates, and people often comment about her unhealthy food choices. When forced to eat with others, Patty just moves food around on her plate, pretending to eat. She avoids peoples insistence that she “just try” to eat a vegetable.

Strategies to Decrease Anxiety at Meal Time
These children have anxieties and specific phobias that make eating difficult every single day. It is especially challenging when seasonal gatherings lend to emerging discomfort as these events are approaching. Parents, don’t skip the holiday event altogether. Try these strategies to minimize discomfort!

  1. Plan Ahead. For kids with all types of anxiety, weeks before your holiday meal, sit with your child and create a detailed timeline of events and actions, as they are most likely to occur during the event. This works well if you traditionally visit the same relatives’ home each year. With your child, describe the home, discuss food preparation, the menu, and describe the seating arrangements. Younger kids will enjoy drawing pictures of the planned event.
  2. Prepare the Host. If possible, explain to your host before hand that your child has anxieties surrounding the event or meals. This can alleviate comments or pressure to get your child to eat. Your child will feel much more comfortable sitting down to eat knowing that no one will question what they are eating and why they don’t like certain foods.
  3. The More The Merrier. Often larger gatherings are better because your child may not be the focal point at the table. The socializing and diversity of lively guests makes your child’s eating preferences less obvious.
  4. Small Gathering, Small Plate. If the dining is more intimate, suggest your child use a smaller plate. This way it appears they are tasting, snacking or pacing themselves, and their selectiveness is less apparent.
  5. Allow Choices. Children will appreciate meals allowing them to “create their own dish,” For instance, if serving salad, have it ready to make so your child can pick what goes on it. Your host may prepare potatoes or pasta, but leave off cheese or sauce so your child can see what he is eating.
  6. Break The Rules. It’s a celebration so let your child eat whatever they want. This is not the time to enforce the “no deserts until you eat your veggies” rule. In the spirit of the holidays, let your child indulge in a few sweets, regardless of what entrée is being served.
  7. Bring Food. Holiday meals often involve sharing. Take advantage of Pot Luck dining in which everyone brings a dish to share. This way you can at least ensure that your child will eat your dish while being social around the holiday table.
  8. Can’t Eat, Don’t Eat. If your child is distressed, let them leave the table. A holiday gathering may not be the best place to practice food exposures. Set a predetermine time limit, such as after blessings, or for just 5 or 10 minutes; what ever your child can handle. It’s OK to give your child permission not to eat; they can always do so later.
  9. Be Your Child’s Advocate. There’s no need to invent sickness, allergies or feign dieting. Don’t apologize for your child’s food choices. You may explain to the hostess you’d like to keep your child’s eating preferences low-key. Be prepared, and willing to back your child up when he says “no thank you” to certain dishes. Politely dissuade friends from using guilt to force your child to eat.

Holiday meal gatherings are greatly anticipated by many, but for anxious children it can be an aversive experience. This season, help decrease your child’s fearful anticipation by planning ahead and joining forces with your host to make it a positive and memorable experience for all.

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Kimberly S. Williams, Psy.D. About Kimberly S. Williams, Psy.D.

Dr. Kimberly Williams is a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adults with psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and disruptive behaviors, as well as learning disorders, developmental delays, executive functioning issues and social deficits. When Dr. Williams isn't in her Great Neck and Brooklyn, NY offices helping kids get ahead in their academic and social development, she is consulting and providing workshops and training in issues related to Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Special Education and Parent Advocacy. Visit her site at Dr. Kimberly Williams.