Although the festive season brings many culinary reasons to be joyful (personally I am all about the roast potatoes, garlic fried sprouts, mince pies and custard, and a strong gin and tonic), for some of us navigating the season’s family meals with their children can be challenging. From well-meaning family who load your children up with chocolate, to friends who don’t give dessert until plates are cleared, to relatives who make comments about the lack of vegetables on your child’s plate, it’s easy to see why celebratory mealtimes can be a source of stress as well as joy.
I spoke to registered nutritional therapist, podcaster, and mother of two Alison Barker about how parents can approach food and the festive season when they have young children:
“During the festive period, food may, for some, become a source of stress for parents which then projects onto children. Stress may arise because kids are eating foods that are normally ‘off limits’ (e.g. higher in sugar and more processed), or we have less control over what/when our children are eating in circumstances where meals are shared at the houses of friends and family, or well meaning family/friends may have meal etiquette which doesn’t align with our values like suggesting kids need to finish all of the food on their plate etc.
“Stress is so detrimental to our wellbeing so we really do not want to be stressing over food during a season which should inspire joy and cheer. I believe we can use this time of disrupted food rhythms to good effect. Food for our children can be a familiar constant. Perhaps we can ensure we pack some of our children’s favourite foods so they have an anchor point to the foods that they enjoy. Some basic food planning may also benefit the whole family. Ahead of a family gathering, we may wish to include a high protein breakfast to include essential fatty acids to increase satiety (our children may be less inclined to reach for other foods if they feel fully satisfied beforehand) and balance blood sugar levels (particularly important if there is a lot of high sugar foods on offer). Examples include eggs or sardines on rye bread or chia pudding with live yoghurt and berries. Keeping some crudités of carrot and apple in our bags may be useful, too, if we have periods of travelling between places.
“I see the festive period as a great time to connect with your children. We can ask them to note how they feel after eating a certain food. If my daughter has had hot chocolate before bed she now recognises she struggles to fall to sleep easily. Chocolate contains caffeine so we explained it was better to have this earlier in the day. If our children can tune into their bodies and how foods make them feel, they can be empowered to make food choices that are right for their bodies.
“My approach as a nutritional therapist is to work with each person’s innate wisdom through intuitive eating. One aspect of this involves tuning into what our body needs by how it feels in the moment. I believe kids are instinctively in tune with this way of eating, if they been given space to honour this. We may need to be our child’s ally when in the company of others so we can affirm our child’s wishes in a gentle and positive way.
“I believe creating foods that are off limits only creates an emotional attachment to those foods which can have a greater detrimental impact on our wellbeing later in life. Eating foods that we may deem not as healthful for a few days can be balanced with the foods offered at home on a daily basis. Food is more than just the sum of nutrients on the plate and can form the foundation of fond childhood memories which our children cherish as they grow. My main message is try to enjoy the food – worrying and stress takes us out of the present moment – and to enjoy it with no side serving of guilt or judgment.”
Such wise words! Alison works with women through their fertility journeys, pregnancies, and postpartum period, and you can find out more about her and listen to her podcast here.
I’d like to leave you with a final tip of my own for the festive season. If your child is going through a ‘fussy’ stage, consider briefing your friends and relations ahead of time: “Johnny is finding trying new foods challenging at the moment, and we choose not to force him to try. We will bring snacks to make sure that he doesn’t go hungry, so please support us in giving him choice over what he eats over lunch. It’s a special day, and we don’t mind if he ends up just eating cake for once.” Just a short conversation in advance can make the world of difference to everyone’s enjoyment of the day. Oh, and pack all the snacks. And then pack more…
If you want to read more about how to support your child at mealtimes then this post is full of tips to help you navigate meals and food peacefully.