Thanksgiving is at least one time when families sit down and focus on the meal. While the turkey may be the centerpiece, at least in our family we are presented with a variety of vegetables, salads, baked goods, and desserts. Some of the dishes remain on the traditional menu because “Aunt Martha always brings her molded salad,” although if the truth be known, she had fallen out of love with making it years ago. Other selections survive as memorials to long-departed family members: “Remember how much Grampy Stevens loved that pickled watermelon rind” that no one has touched since he died 10 years ago?

And although Thanksgiving may be all about the food, it’s really about sitting down together and celebrating each other over a meal. It should really be a happy meal but not one that comes in a box with a plastic toy. But for the parents of a picky eater, Thanksgiving is often destined to be another stressful dining experience. They know that despite the bountiful spread of food, there isn’t going to be anything on the table their child is going to eat.

They can cope with the situation in one of two ways. They can bring something they know he will eat, such as a can of corn or a microwaveable macaroni and cheese so he won’t “starve.” Or they can cast a pall on the festivities by attempting to badger, coax, and coerce him to eat something, as they do every night at home.

Parents may be assisted in their efforts by other family members who will bring something from the picky eater’s “might eat list.” Or, more likely, they will join in a chorus of old favorites such as “Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?” Or “You won’t be able to have any of Grandma’s cookies if you don’t eat some dinner.”

Either approach will be another step toward solidifying the child’s reputation in the family as a picky eater. Rachel is the cousin who plays the piano, and everyone knows that Brandon is going to be a great soccer player. Bobby is the one who won’t eat anything but mac and cheese.

A few years ago I had the thought that instead of allowing Thanksgiving to become an event that highlights and perpetuates the picky eater’s unfortunate habits, why not use the holiday as an opportunity to turn the page and begin a more sensible approach to selective eating?

So for some parents of picky eaters, I have begun to recommend the following: Tell everyone who will be coming to Thanksgiving that the pediatrician says everyone should agree that the event will be all about having a good time and not about who eats or doesn’t eat what’s on the table. And there will be no discussion about the picky eater’s habits – positive or negative.

It might be nice to include on the menu a dish or dessert that the picky eater has eaten in the past. But this is done without ceremony, comment, or preconditions such as “You have to eat some of this to get that.” This silent gesture of kindness also may reassure nervous grandparents who are worried that the child will starve if he doesn’t eat anything for a day despite your reassurance to them that the pediatrician said it was okay.

While I admit that one Thanksgiving with these new rules is unlikely to convert a 6-year-old picky eater into a voracious omnivore, it can be a first step toward helping a family adopt a sensible approach to the child’s eating habits. At least it won’t make things worse and is likely to turn unhappy meals at home into mini feasts that celebrate togetherness.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”


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