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A Survival Guide for Families with Unique Mealtime Needs

Managing holiday meals for children with autism, ADHD, and learning differences
Smiling child holding a Happy Thanksgiving sign

There is plenty of research about the great benefits of family dinners, but mealtimes can be challenging for children with neurodevelopmental differences, especially over the holidays. Thankfully, The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit initiative, has lots of helpful advice about how to make holiday meals enjoyable for all:

Great expectations — help your family and friends to help you 

Planning is key, not just for the cook roasting the turkey and preparing all the fixings in the kitchen, but also when it comes to paving the way for a celebration that will be fun for everyone. Talk with extended family members and friends ahead of time to set expectations and let them know about any extra support your child might need. For example, you may need to say: “Sometimes things seem extra loud to our son. He might cover his ears or hum. If that happens, we might want to lower our voices.” Or: “Our daughter will join us at the table for ten minutes, then she’s going to have some quiet time alone. She’ll be back to join us for dessert.”

Sensory-friendly dinner tables

For children with sensory processing issues, think about ways to make their seat at the holiday table extra comfortable. Stress balls, fidget objects, wiggle cushions, noise-cancelling headphones, or earbuds to play calming music, might be helpful. If the menu is challenging, consider bringing “safe” food along to the meal that you know they will enjoy.  

Games, games, games

Fidgety kids can shake, shake, shake their wiggles out with a pre-dinner dance party, while games like Waiter, Waiter can help them take much-needed breaks from sitting at the table. “Waiter, waiter! Please bring more water to the table!” “Waiter, waiter! We need more napkins, please!” And so on….

The Family Dinner Project has more games and activities to help children take movement breaks and explore holiday foods here.

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