12/22/2011 06:48 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

7 Ways to Deal With Picky Eaters at Holiday Dinners

Normally, a bean casserole should not inspire huge amounts of anxiety. But it's the holidays -- a time of year when the expectations are often as big as the celebrations themselves -- and you can't stop worrying about that the huge get-together at your in-laws' house, with all their "important" friends who can't wait to meet your kids. And, yes, Grandma will be making her "famous bean casserole" -- the one that's causing your stomach to sink, because you can already hear your son taking one look at it and whining "Eeeeeeeewwwwww!" He is The Picky Eater.

And you will be the mortified parent everyone stares at when he objects to the food that's put in front of him. I have been there! You feel as though you've failed as a nutritionist, a caregiver, a mentor, a behaviorist -- in other words, a mom.

The truth is, everyone has or knows a picky eater, and my household is no different. I may be a professional chef with a handful of family-meal-geared cookbooks -- but I still worry about my loveable picky eater, and I still stress about being judged about it. When the holidays roll around, you're faced with more potential dining disasters and "judging moments" than usual (invited by boss, by old friend you haven't seen in ages, by distant relatives, etc.).

Since you can't magically make your child like beans -- or salmon or Brie en croute -- the instant an invitation arrives, here are some tips that have helped me dare to venture out into the dining sphere of holiday cheer:

  • Don't wait to give the kids dinner until you get to the party. Feed them something before (preferably healthy) so they aren't hungry and nagging and whiny! And if they don't care for what's offered, no big deal.

  • Don't forget to go over some ground rules. Such as: We never say "Gross" or "Eww, what's this?" at the dinner table -- and that goes for your house, too!
  • Don't try to be the Nutrition Police on a special night. Relax the rules. There are 364 other days this year to get your kids to try spinach.
  • Don't sit them next to someone who can be a bad influence (crazy Uncle Joe!). Try to find someone they know and admire, so they can emulate their good manners. Remember... behavior is contagious!
  • Don't hesitate to use the hostess gift to your advantage! Bring an appetizer or dish that you know your child loves -- so at least he'll have one safe choice at the table.
  • Don't make a big fuss if your child still reacts badly. Have a smart, humorous comeback line at the ready -- guaranteed to diffuse any mishap.
  • And finally: Don't get so worked up! You might feel the pressure for your kids to behave. impeccably, but the truth is that most people don't share those expectations -- especially when we're talking friends and family. In fact, they'll likely relate and feel for you if a meltdown does occur. Perfect kids don't exist, so let this day slide with a smile on your face and start afresh with a good, healthy breakfast tomorrow.