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Survival of the Hungry: Getting Through Holiday Meals

Survival of the Hungry: Getting Through Holiday Meals

By Diana J Poliniak
‘Tis the season for large family gatherings! While these events bring a mix of stress and joy to most of us, parents of “picky eaters” may have another layer of anxiety to tackle.

Many children with autism and other neurodivergent diagnoses like ADHD and sensory processing disorder struggle with what most of us call “picky eating.” Before attempting to tackle this issue, though, we need to reframe it. “Picky” seems to indicate fussiness, or choice and is not exactly a fair descriptor. More than half of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder have difficulties related to food. This is not simply a case of a child refusing to eat healthy foods and demanding fun junk food instead.

Autism and other disorders very often come with issues related to sensory processing. People with autism frequently report being hypersensitive to light, sound, and touch. Taste is no different. Sensitivities to touch can include how a food feels in a person’s mouth. It is no surprise then that autistic people can struggle with eating But we don’t have to take the struggle to Grandma’s house, which might already be a more stressful situation for a child taken out of their normal environment and routine, and make us more prone to meltdowns with an audience. We can try a few things to help make the meal harmonious for all.

  1. Call it what it is. This is not “picky eating,” but “food sensitivity.” This more accurate label removes the stigma, and might subtly remind any judgy family (not that we have any, right?) that this is part of their disorder. And change from thinking about how to get your child to eat the meal YOU want them to (or Aunt Sue, who pushes her stuffing on everyone) and think about presenting a meal they are willing to eat. This changes the dynamic and prevents a parent versus child stand-off.
  2. Prepare your child ahead of time. Talk to your child or use social stories to go over what the day will look like. Where is the meal going to be held? What does that house look like? Where will your child sit? What time is the meal going to be served? You can make up a visual or written schedule that your child can carry the day of so they can be prepared.
  3. Prepare back-up plans. Go through the menu with your child to discuss what they will and will not eat. If you aren’t the one cooking, ask the host what they plan to serve. Keep in mind that your child might like the way you prepare a dish, but if it looks, but if someone else prepares it differently, they may not want to eat it. Allow your child to bring some snacks they like just in case they can’t find something they want. The last thing you want during a holiday is dealing with a cranky, hangry child! You can bring their favorite drinks, too.
  4. Prepare for overstimulation. Holiday meals are often the time of year the entire extended family gets together. These gatherings can get loud and overstimulating very quickly for a person with autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder. Even a neurotypical child who isn’t used to large, boisterous groups can have difficulties. Talk to the host and plan a quiet place your child can use if they get overwhelmed in the larger group. If the larger group is eating in the dining room, your child may have an easier time eating somewhere else. If your child has a hard time with food, they will struggle even more if they are overwhelmed by the environment.
  5. Do not judge! Talk to your relatives about your child’s difficulties and be ready to defend them. Outsiders, especially older family members, are often not aware of the types of struggles children with autism go through. Let them know what your plan is and ask them not to discuss your child’s food sensitivities at the event. The judgement of others will cause additional stress that may prevent your child from eating anything, even foods they like. This may be a difficult conversation with your relatives, but setting and holding this boundary is critical.
  6. Relax. You may have a holiday meal where your child just doesn’t eat anything, despite all of your attempts. Or they may skip the meal and only want dessert. And you know what? That’s ok. One day of “bad eating” isn’t going to do irreparable damage. You have the entire rest of the year to worry changing unhealthy eating patterns and making sure your child takes in enough calories and appropriate nutrients. Take the holiday as a day to just not worry about it and to let your child just enjoy the day.

Holidays should be about family and fun, but they can be difficult for some families. So instead of focusing on what is wrong and how to fix it, focus on how you can make the day easier for everyone involved. This will definitely help you and your child build better holiday memories!


Diana J Poliniak is a mother to two neurodivergent children and is a behavior analyst at New Story, Berwick.


Bandini, L. G., Curtin, C., Phillips, S., Anderson, S. E., Maslin, M., & Must, A. (2017). Changes in Food Selectivity in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 47(2), 439–446.

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