How to Have a Sensory-Friendly Holiday Dinner

How to Have a Sensory-Friendly Holiday Dinner

The holidays can be an exciting time, full of joy, but they can also be a time of stress, meltdowns and power struggles, especially for children with sensory issues. From plates piled high with unfamiliar foods to well-intentioned cheek-pinching from long-lost relatives, the ingredients of the holiday gathering can be a recipe for disaster. There’s no way to predict and prevent every potential problem; after all, tantrums and tears are an inevitable part of parenting most any child. But with some preparation and consideration, you can make your next holiday meal a more relaxed and peaceful one for you, your guests, and most importantly, your child.

Comfort is Key

It doesn’t matter how cute that little suit and bow tie are if your child is miserable wearing them. Some kids with sensory difficulties are bothered by the way certain clothes fit, or the way they feel. Let your child wear comfortable clothes that don’t bind or chafe him. It won’t hurt to let him wear his favorite tattered sweater and froggie rain boots, and it could help get your holiday dinner off on the right foot.

It’s About the Feeling, Not the Food

If your little one is sensitive to textures and tastes, this is not the time to insist that he clean his plate. Aunt Martha’s green bean casserole may be delicious, but if your child was sensitive to the “sliminess” of beans yesterday, there’s not a great chance that you’ll get him to try it today without a fight. Bring along a couple of favorite, pre-cooked dishes for him, and don’t worry if all he wants to eat is a pile of plain potatoes and a slice of pie. If you’re concerned about potential food struggles, think about feeding your child something he loves before you leave home or before your guests arrive. Remember that holiday meals are more about being with loved ones than about what you eat, and as long as he’s eating something, you can make up the nutrition tomorrow.

Make a Quiet Space

If you’re going someplace else for your holiday dinner, talk with the host beforehand and see if there is a quiet room where your child can go to chill out for a little while if the festivities get to be too much. If you’re at home, make a “Do Not Disturb” sign to put on your child’s bedroom door and give him as much time as necessary to relax away from the crowd.

Consider Scaling Back

Holiday dinners have a way of expanding exponentially over the years. What started with a young couple and their children soon grows to include spouses, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, their partners, roommates, visiting friends… before you know it, your house is busier than Grand Central Station. If you have a child with sensory challenges who gets overwhelmed by too much noise and activity, think about cutting back your guest list. Most people will understand if you say, “It just got to be too much, but we would love to have everyone over for a barbecue this summer when we can all spread out outside and enjoy the weather.”

The Sweet Smells of the Season

Some children are sensitive to smells, even things that we consider appealing. If your home is already swimming in the aromas of pumpkin pie, turkey and all of the accompaniments, skip the scented candles. It’s a little thing, but for kids with sensory issues, it’s the little things that count sometimes.

Keep Them Entertained

Once the meal is over, the adults often retire to the living room or den to talk about whatever it is that grown-ups talk about, and the kids disperse outdoors to play in the snow or toss around a football. If this is the case with your family, your sensory-challenged child may find herself left out in the cold, so to speak. Kids with sensory difficulties often find it hard to join groups of other children, and, no offense, but adult conversation can be pretty boring. Keep a bag packed with favorite, easy-to-transport activities like books, paper and crayons, mind-teaser puzzles, Silly Putty or other activities your child enjoys. If your child is one of those that prefers adult company, don’t be too quick to shoo her out of the room, though. Let her join the conversation, and see what kind of insight she has to offer. Relatives who don’t know her well might be pleasantly surprised.

Keep it Short

Nobody expects you to eat and run, but remember that for children with sensory difficulties, holiday dinners really can feel like they last forever. Set a time that you’ll leave, and give your child a timer half an hour before departure time. This will not only allow him time to transition, but it will give him a visual cue that there really is an end in sight.

Picture This

The great thing about this day and age is that we have ready access to pictures of just about everything, thanks to things like social media and image searches. Before the day of your holiday dinner, show your child photographs of the other guests. Remind your child if they’ve met before, but don’t expect them to remember or to connect automatically with everyone just because they’re related. My son, who is on the autism spectrum, likes to remind me that “Just because I’ve met them, doesn’t mean I know them.” Create a simple picture schedule to help your child visualize what the day will look like. Simply draw or print out pictures of different points during the day and arrange them in order; it can be as simple or as complex as necessary and appropriate. For some children, something like “Drive to Grandma’s; Play with Cousins; Eat Dinner; Eat Dessert; Clean Up; Play Games; Go Home” will suffice. Other children will benefit from having each step from waking up to going to sleep laid out, including small steps like buckling up in the car and putting on their pajamas before bed.

Educate the Other Adults

Nothing is more fun than being lectured over dinner about how your child is spinning in circles because he’s undisciplined, or told that if you don’t make him eat all of his stuffing he’ll grow up to be spoiled. It’s important to remember how much research has been done on sensory issues, autism and other related disorders just in the past decade, and people who aren’t living directly with these concerns might not understand. A simple reminder beforehand can help diffuse some uncomfortable situations: “Jenny was diagnosed with autism, and some of the characteristics are that she doesn’t talk much and has sensitivities to certain foods and sounds. We’re working hard with her occupational therapist to help her deal with these, and please don’t take it personally if she doesn’t answer a question or prefers not to be hugged. She’s definitely her own little person!” Put a positive spin on it, too: “She may not say much, but you should see the drawings she does. She expresses herself so beautifully through her art.”


Your child may have sensory challenges, but he’s still a child. Most people understand that all kids have a hard time occasionally, and even kids without special challenges have been known to melt down at the most inopportune times. If a meltdown happens, deal with it just like you would at home, wipe the tears off your child’s face and the mashed potatoes off the ceiling, go back to the party, pour yourself a much-deserved glass of wine (or another cup of coffee) and get back to the most important part of the season: spending time with people you love. Life is too short to stress over flying mashed potatoes.
Happy Holidays, from Carolina Pediatric Therapy!

How to Have a Sensory-Friendly Holiday Dinner
-April Fox, Staff Writer

Carolina Pediatric Therapy © November 2013

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