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8 Tips for Thanksgiving With a Picky Eater

When I was a girl, I would start daydreaming about Thanksgiving 10 minutes after taking off my Halloween costume. My mom’s once-a-year stuffing, made with challah crumbs, dried sage and lots of soft, sweet onions, dominated my thoughts for weeks. Other than my birthday, Thanksgiving was my favorite day of the year.

But if you ask my son what he thinks of turkey day, he’s more likely to express nervousness: Will there be anything he likes? Will he be pressured into trying gross-looking food?

RELATED: A Food Writer's Worst Nightmare: Her Picky Eater

I’m new around here, but you may have gathered: I’m the mom to one supremely picky eater. For a few years, Thanksgivings were downright ugly—especially when we’d go to family gatherings on my husband’s side, where my in-laws would note how few of the dozens of dishes he’d even try.

But eventually I realized that Thanksgiving is legitimately scary for a picky eater. The sumptuous comfort foods we grownups anticipate all year seem alien and overly complicated to a kid who likes plain pasta and simply salted chicken.

Over time I came up with a set of guidelines—I’d never call anything a rule when it comes to picky eaters—that transformed our holiday from a source of stress to a celebration of family and friends:

1. Don’t make everything a once-a-year treat.

For picky eaters, unfamiliar = eww, no! So yeah, bust out that amazing stuffing recipe, but also serve potatoes the way your kid likes them.

2. Make sure there’s one can’t-miss item on the table.

For my son, that’s these pumpkin rolls. I make them only for Thanksgiving, but he knows and loves them (and helps me bake them)—it gets him excited for the day instead of dreading it. And I can kid myself that the pumpkin counts as a vegetable.

3. Condiment to your heart’s content.

A smear of Gulden’s mustard convinces my kid to eat roasted turkey breast, since it reminds him of the deli turkey sandwiches he eats during the year. "Use whatever works" is my motto.

4. Let your kid assemble her own plate.

Presenting a plate laden with small portions of a dozen unfamiliar foods can freak out an already unsettled child. Put your kid in the driver’s seat, and try not to comment on what he’s taking (or skipping).

5. Limit pre-meal snacks.

Come mealtime, your kid should be actually hungry, so limit snacks. Or do what I do, and set out fruit and crudités long before the rest of the meal. I know he’s unlikely to eat most of what’s on the Thanksgiving table, so if he nibbles on nutrients in the hour before dinner, that’s fine with me.

6. Share your strategy.

If your plan is to keep things mellow—to not push your child to try foods she might find daunting—clue in whoever’s hosting beforehand. I’m less embarrassed by my son’s nearly empty plate when other adults know we don’t expect anything different.

7. Pump up the nutrition in dessert.

My picky guy has a wicked sweet tooth. I know he’s likely to hoover everything on the dessert buffet. So I’m always sure to include at least one item that seems decadent, but also packs plenty of nutrition (sorta like my breakfast cookies). This Pumpkin-Ricotta Gingersnap Pie is a perfect option for the big holiday feast.

RELATED: Why I Give My Son Cookies for Breakfast

8. Don’t sweat it.

We’re talking one meal. And why shouldn’t a picky kid (and his mom) get to really enjoy a holiday once in a while?

How do you handle holidays with your picky eater?

Photographs by Debbie Koenig

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