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How to Handle Holiday Eating with Your Kids

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

The holidays are supposed to be “merry and bright,” but for many parents, they also bring new meaning to the phrase “food fight.” Whether your kids want to eat every cookie they see or they refuse to eat anything at all, you may find yourself in a constant battle – made even worse by those judgey looks from friends and family.

To help you and your child through the whole jolly holiday season, we're sharing strategies for handling some of the biggest holiday eating challenges for kids – including overindulging in holiday goodies, too much sugar, and picky eaters who won’t eat at all. Consider it our gift to you. Happy Holidays!

When normal nutrition goes holiday haywire

From gingerbread houses to fudge to endless cookie platters, the holiday season is a sweets smorgasbord that can send kids into a tizzy – though that may just be the sugar rush. So, how do you stop your kids from eating nothing but sweets during the holidays?

As adults, many of us have learned to think of foods as “good” or “bad,” or “healthy” or “unhealthy,” but nutritionist Gretchen Flanagan suggests another perspective. “Food is fuel, and we need to think of it as fuel. Some fuel might be better suited to the moment than others, but it’s all part of a healthy balance. Every food provides some nutritional benefit. There are simply some foods that should show up more frequently than others.”

In essence, both cookie and salads offer nutrition, although they offer a different balance. You get to determine that balance by deciding whether cookies or salads show up more often in your house. During the holidays, that balance may shift – but that’s okay. If your child eats 14 cookies, they’ll learn from the resulting tummy ache that it wasn’t what their body needed.

How sugar affects your child’s brain

It’s all well and good to say food is fuel – but what about sugar? How exactly does it affect your child’s brain? Is sugar really that bad for you? Your brain actually needs sugar to function, and in fact, glucose is the brain’s primary fuel. How well you think, learn, and remember is affected by how efficiently your brain uses sugar, and if you don’t have enough, your brain stops producing chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. That can cause the communication between your neurons to break down.

Even though our brains need sugar, more sugar doesn’t translate to better learning, memory, or thinking skills – and too much actually has the opposite effect. A study from UCLA in 2012 found that consuming fructose (a form of sugar) was related to slower brain function, so binging on holiday candy might actually make it harder for you to keep up with the hustle and bustle.

Another big problem with too much sugar is the risk of diabetes. While you probably know diabetes can cause a wide range of health issues, you might not know how severely it can affect your brain. If you develop Type 1 or Type 1 diabetes, it can:

  • reduce the functional connectivity between regions of your brain that are linked

  • cause your brain matter to shrink (or atrophy)

  • restrict the blood flow in your brain, causing cognitive difficulties

  • potentially trigger the development of vascular dementia

Of course, one or two cookies probably won’t bring on serious health issues, but over time, the effect of sugar on your family’s brain health can be devastating.

When kids hate the holiday spread

On the other end of the spectrum, what do you do if your child simply won’t eat anything at family gatherings? Holiday meals are often filled with new and unusual foods – oyster casserole, creamed pearl onions, to name a few – that may have your kid squishing up their nose and refusing to eat. Remember, your child’s brain is still developing, and it easily can become overwhelmed by an overload of sensory input, including:

  • new tastes, textures, and smells

  • new people

  • noise

  • an unfamiliar environment

  • uncomfortable seating

Just like you might get irritable after traveling all day or dealing with relatives, your child may shut down when their senses are overloaded, making them reject any food that hasn’t passed their sensory processing tests. To help, plan in advance to serve your child something you know they enjoy at every meal, like their favorite fruit or crackers. Just seeing something familiar can help to calm your child and help them relax enough to eat.

App Tip:

If you have a picky eater, handling holiday eating doesn’t have to be a nightmare. To take the pressure off of everyone, serve your child mini-meals every few hours. Gretchen explains. “The parent’s role is to provide opportunities throughout the day for your child to adequately fuel their bodies. Think of those opportunities as mini-meals, where we allow our child to eat the amount of food that they need at that particular time.”

Ideally, your mini-meal will include a healthy balance of protein, grains, fruit, and veggies – but no matter what you serve, offer one “portion” roughly the size of your child’s first. They may eat everything – or they may eat nothing. You don’t have to worry either way, because another mini-meal is coming soon.

The mini-meal can work almost anywhere. Instead of trying to get your child to eat a full meal in a crowded, noisy, over-stimulating airport, offer a bag of cheese, crackers, and fruit. If your child doesn’t eat, offer it again later once you’re settled on the plane. If your kid is surrounded by relatives (strangers) at the holiday table, they may be too overwhelmed to eat – but they might feel more comfortable at the next mini-meal when they’re alone. Just present your child with healthy foods to fuel their body, and they’ll decide if and how much they eat.

Want to learn more about how to help your picky eater through the holiday season? Check out “Picky Eating, Healthy Eating” and start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.

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