By: Jennifer Berry, MS, OT/L

For parents, feeding kids can be complicated.  Even when you have found a responsive approach to mealtimes that work for you and your little ones, dining with family and friends can make things even more complicated. When we gather for holidays, birthdays, or family events, we also subject ourselves and our kids to the unwanted comments of friends and family members. When it comes to eating, everyone seems to have an opinion and offer it without being asked. I am sure most of you reading this can think of that one Aunt or Brother-in-Law who just can’t help themselves.  

No matter how well-meaning your loved-one’s commentary may be, it can be really nerve-wracking for parents to handle in the moment. It can be especially stressful if you have worked hard to establish an approach that works best for you and your kiddos, and even more so if you have an anxious eater or a child with a feeding tube or feeding disorder.  Here are some helpful tips to help you navigate those sticky situations.  

1. Remember – No one knows what your child needs more than YOU.  Even if you are in the minority in the way you approach feeding, you as their parents get to decide what the overarching messages are that you send to your little ones about food and their bodies.  You still get to lead the way no matter what others think or say.  

2. Choose – Our culture has so much strange “noise” around food, eating, and bodies, that we and our children are constantly bombarded with less than ideal messages.  While there is no way to completely protect our kids from that, we can choose to use moments such as holiday gatherings as opportunities to help our kids navigate those mixed up messages.  When the messages are too damaging or unhealthy, we can also choose not to surround ourselves and our children with those people, at least around food.

3. Reframe – If someone makes a comment about how much or little they eat or tries to get them to eat a food they aren’t wanting, you can often steer the conversation to a healthier place.  If someone tries to get your child to finish their carrots before having more rolls, try this:  “Thanks for trying to help” to your family member and then to your child “You know what buddy, those rolls are delicious, go ahead.  I’m going to have another too”.  It’s a nice way to acknowledge that more than likely that person was indeed trying to help in the best way they know how, it also takes the discussion out of the problematic “shoulds” and “should nots” and puts it where it should be on taste, comfort, enjoyment and connection.  Think about those elements of what makes mealtimes safe and responsive in your house and try to gently and briefly change the subject using one of those ideas.  

4. Divert – Changing the subject all together can be helpful. A non-responsive comment from a family member about how your child should make “healthier” choices can startle you.  If it feels right, try something like “Suzy does a great job listening to her body.  Also, I forgot to tell you about her school play…….”.  Sometimes changing the subject with someone who you know isn’t going to see it your way is better than engaging in a debate in front of your child.  Also, you get to decide who you want to talk to about these tricky topics and when.  When in doubt, change it up!

5. Assert – Asserting yourself and explaining your approach to feeding can be a great idea.  Here are some thoughts about doing so in a way that is effective. Give some thought ahead of time to a quick way of summing up your approach to feeding and raising your body positive kids.  

  • Keep it brief.  When we try to explain too much it can seem like we are trying to justify something we already know is right for our families. Getting into the weeds with someone at the big gathering is not only super stressful for you and your kid, but it invites more opportunities for unwanted comments. 
  • Shut it down.  When a family member won’t stop or wants to challenge you, you can try to shut it down.  Try “I’d love to talk to you about this more but not right now” or “I know you are trying to help, but please don’t make comments about my child’s body or food choices.  We have it under control.”
  • Don’t let comments about body size or shape go unchecked.  Even if you aren’t ready for a full discussion about feeding approaches it’s important that your child hears something to counteract a negative comment.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, but a simple “I love Jamal just the way he is.  He’s strong and smart and fun.  Let’s go play, buddy!”

6. Plan Ahead – Some family members are more apt to engage in this negative messaging around food than others.  When deciding where to sit be strategic about who is near you and your child while they eat.  Also, chose your company wisely if your child’s eating is fragile and if you yourself are triggered.  It’s completely fine to participate in only the dessert part of a family gathering and skip the mealtime all together.  If skipping the meal or adjusting the seating aren’t options, consider meeting up with the person you are concerned about or talking to them on the phone 1:1 before the big day. Try not to convince them about the right way to do things, but approach it by explaining what specifically works for your family and why.

Keep in mind there is no perfect response to these challenging situations.  If you didn’t handle it the way you wish you had, you can always try a different approach next time.  You can talk to your child after the fact if you left out something else you need them to hear.  The message you send your child day after day about food and their bodies is much more important than what happens in a single meal at the holidays.  We hope there is peace and happiness at your family table during this holiday season and always.

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