A Thanksgiving guide for parents, from handling picky eaters and the kids' table to addressing the holiday's history

Experts break down how to handle picky eaters, Thanksgiving history lessons and more. (Getty Images)
Experts break down how to handle picky eaters, Thanksgiving history lessons and more. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

For kids, Thanksgiving is less about toiling for hours in the kitchen while your mother-in-law gives a running commentary on your stuffing-making skills and more about Bluey blimps and waiting all day to be served wobbly cranberry sauce on the rickety card table you're sharing with your rowdy cousins. That said, there's a lot for parents to consider as the holiday approaches — from keeping the family healthy as cold and flu season ramps up, to making peace with the fact that your picky eater won't touch the Ina Garten-worthy feast you've prepared and explaining the significance of the day in a meaningful way. Here's how to navigate the potential parenting challenges headed your way.

Dealing with picky eaters

Some kids may happily wolf down turkey and all the trimmings and still have room for pumpkin and pecan pie. And then there are those who will eat nothing but dinner rolls and a marshmallow plucked from Aunt Sharon's famous sweet potato casserole.

"Holidays are not typical days by definition and we have to remember that our kids are likely out of their element — they're excited to play with cousins, overwhelmed by the number of strangers in the mix, anxious about traveling, etc.," says registered dietitian Diana Rice of Tiny Seed Nutrition and Anti Diet Kids. "Add a buffet of unfamiliar foods and it's very, very likely that kids will focus on whichever familiar food will address their hunger and not exacerbate their anxiety."

Parents, especially those with kids who tend to be especially anxious or selective about food, can plan ahead by making sure a familiar food will be on offer — even if that means bringing chicken nuggets.

"I think it really helps children feel that their parents are looking out for their unique needs by bringing a dish to share that they know their own kid particularly likes, or even packing a sandwich so that their child can just eat and get back to enjoying the event," Rice tells Yahoo Life.

Parents also shouldn't stress out about how much green bean casserole or carrots their kid ate before digging into the pie selection.

"Children's overall nutrition is important, but what they do or don't eat on holidays is a drop in the bucket compared to how memories of being teased for their food preferences at family gatherings, or made to clear their plate in order to get dessert, will impact them into adulthood," says Rice.

One final food concern: Relatives who make comments that could be seen as reinforcing toxic diet culture, whether that's Grandma wondering aloud what those mashed potatoes will do to her waistline or an uncle teasing your kid for how much they're eating. If that sort of body-shaming talk in front of your kid makes you uncomfortable, be prepared to advocate for them. Speaking to Yahoo Life earlier this year, registered dietitian Jennifer Anderson of Kids Eat in Color suggested calling ahead to politely but firmly request that any diet discussions be avoided around the kids in order to limit their exposure to negative self-talk and help them appreciate their own bodies. (If they insist, they can always update you on their Ozempic obsession over the phone or in private.)

And how would Virginia Sole-Smith, author of Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, respond to body-shaming comments about a kid? Try telling the critical relative this, she suggests: "We're not worried. We don't see their body as a problem. We trust their body. We're letting them figure it out.”

Keeping bugs at bay

While a new poll shows that more than a third of Americans aren't worried about the current uptick in flu, COVID and RSV cases, there's no denying that we're in the throes of sickness season. Speaking to Yahoo Life earlier this month, Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a mom of two, shared how she keeps her own family healthy ahead of the holidays. For starters, everyone — including her 9- and 11-year-old daughters — has received their updated COVID and seasonal flu vaccines. “The best thing that folks can do ahead of Thanksgiving holiday is to get vaccinated," she says.

Other best practices for warding off illness?

  • If you're sick, stay home to rest and recover rather than spreading illness to others.

  • Wash your hands — especially before, during and after preparing, and eating, Thanksgiving meals.

  • Wear a mask.

  • Take a COVID test before gathering or traveling, and bring tests along on any trips you take during this time.

  • Figure out ways to improve ventilation, such as opening a window or hosting guests outside if the weather allows.

When it comes to kids, Cohen recommends making sure their fundamental health needs are met — and calling the pediatrician if they do feel unwell. “Making sure they're getting enough sleep every night; healthy diets, making sure they're getting enough vitamins into their growing bodies; and making sure that they're in safe environments. All of the things we want [to help] our kids to thrive, those are the things that keep them healthy,” Cohen says.

To kids' table or not to kids' table?

It's common for large family gatherings to see under-18s relegated to their own dining space, but that might be changing. As Yahoo Life reported last year, some parents are speaking out about why they prefer for everyone to sit together as a show of "respect" and love. To quote one mom, "It's ridiculous to have children removed from the rest of the family during a family holiday.”

What do experts say? Essentially, there's really no right or wrong answer. “As a parenting expert, I recommend that parents discuss which option is best for their family and go with what will make everyone feel most comfortable," says Mo Mulla of Parental Questions. Families might also consider alternating kids with adults at one large table, or assigning a chaperone to supervise the kiddie chaos.

Talking to kids about the history behind Thanksgiving

As a child yourself, you might have donned a Pilgrim hat or construction-paper feathers as part of some "friendly Thanksgiving feast" at school. And while many kids today are still getting some version of that sanitized story, experts say that it's "harmful" to gloss over the real history and how Indigenous people were mistreated.

"It’s important to provide children with accurate history,” Debbie LeeKeenan, a leader in anti-bias education, lecturer, early childhood consultant and author, told Yahoo Life in 2021. “The traditional Thanksgiving story is told from the white colonist viewpoint. When we do not give the accurate story, we are perpetuating harmful stereotypes and misinformation about Indigenous people — in this case, the Wampanoags.”

She and other experts recommend giving kids age-appropriate but accurate information about the truth of Thanksgiving's history and relations between settlers and the Wampanoags. "Young children don’t necessarily need to know the gory details, but they need to know that the Native people [the English settlers] encountered were members of sovereign nations that long predate the existence of the United States and are still here," says Jameson R. Sweet, the first Native American professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers University. To say otherwise is erasure, he says. If parents "only invoke the ‘good’ parts of history and ignore the bad, they contribute to this harmful mythology and participate in the dehumanization of Native Americans," Sweet adds.

Here are some ways to have the conversation:

  • Ask kids what they know about Thanksgiving. What questions do they have, and what stereotypes or misinformation needs to be corrected?

  • Learn about the history together; many children's books center Native perspectives.

  • Discuss why some people opt to not take part in Thanksgiving celebrations, and why this is a day of mourning for many Native Americans.

  • Find ways to center Indigenous culture by, for example, learning more about the land you live on and the tribes who called it home, making Native dishes, spending time in nature or educating your family on the rich diversity of Native tribes and how they live today.

  • Talk to your child's teacher about how they plan to teach students about Thanksgiving, and respectfully steer them toward educational resources that include Native perspectives.