Chapter 9: How to have a successful Thanksgiving dinner with sensory child

Open Concept Design in Englewood by interior design firm BRT Interior Design

Thanksgiving can be a lot of fun, full of delicious food and quality time with family. But, for parents of sensory needs, it is stress on a whole other level. There’s so much that we have to think about, and sometimes we just don’t want to pre-plan it and it comes to bite us in the bum.

So here are a few tips I use religiously, after learning my lesson the hard way. This is my own personal experience that I want to share with you, parent to parent. So use it to your liking and tweak it based on what your child needs. Happy Turkey Day!

1. Avoid Tantrums

If you’re invited out for Thanksgiving dinner, ask the hosts if they are willing to start dinner on the earlier side. It’s already hard for sensory kiddos to eat in a foreign home with so many people. If they eat much later than their usual schedule, it’ll completely throw them off and potentially cause a tantrum. Avoid tantrums. But, make sure to properly communicate the situation to the host so that they can try to work with you.

Stressed mother with sensory child

2. Make Your Sensory Child Feel Comfortable In A Foreign Place

Find a small quiet space in the host’s home where you can put some familiar items, like a toy, a blanket, or a comforting object that can help your child self-regulate. You’ll know exactly what to bring with you because you most likely already use it at home. Any sensory objects that your child loves will help them soothe in this change of environment. Maybe have your child eat in this quiet space too if that’s possible. Speak to your child about this before so that they are aware of the change. Sensory kiddos have a hard time with transitions, so we need to communicate with them openly so they can be mentally prepared. But don’t make a big deal about it, neither to the child, nor to the host. Speak as though you’re explaining the plan of action.

Sensory Child Black marker making a check on a piece of paper

3. Pre-prepare

Organize yourself early. That is the key to avoid anxiety for us parents. Make a list of things to prepare for this outing. What do you need ? And what will facilitate this event? Think of your routine at home, and try to replicate it as much as possible. Also, bring a change of clothes for your child. For any age. You never know if there’s a spilling accident or even worse, a bathroom accident. It always happens when you least expect it, doesn’t it? I always get really upset at myself when I think I won’t need a change of clothes, and somehow an accident occurs. Better safe than sorry. And for kids who hate feeling wet, this is extra uncomfortable and will completely throw them off.

4. Pre-feed

Always think about food for your kids, especially when not eating at home. Pre-feed them. This is a must in my books. We can assume they will eat at the host’s house, but chances are they won’t. You are going to be in someone else’s house and the food will most likely not be ready when your kids are ready to eat. Also, they might not like the kids’ food that’s being served. Which is ok. So, to stay safe, pre-feed them at home. Even if it’s early. And bring snacks in the car. But most importantly, if they don’t want to eat at the host’s house, just let them be. Don’t force food on them. That’s a hard one for me too.

5. Pre-Pack

Bring pajamas with you, so that before you leave Thanksgiving dinner, your kids be dressed and ready for bed. Then they’ll sit in the car in their pajamas. Also, bring a toothbrush, sleep medication and/or melatonin if needed. If your drive home is longer than 20 minutes, your kids will most likely fall asleep in the car. After all, Thanksgiving dinner is a very overstimulating event and they just exerted so much of their energy trying to regulate their body in this foreign environment.

Sensory child - Person packing clothes

6. Back To Reality

The following day, plan to have a very structured day that will bring your kids back to as normal schedule as you can manage. I say that, because I know it’s hard the day after a big event like that. So you do the best you can. But know that your kids need the structure. Have them play outside as much as they can, weather permitting of course. But really, they can play outside in any weather. Unless the weather is really unpleasant, kids will find ways to make it work. For example, they love to jump in puddles in the rain. So, any activity can be transformed into a fun fulfilling sensory activity. The weekend will need to have structure as well. It’ll help their sleep schedule, and your mental health, of course.

Did I miss anything? Oh yes- limit the sweets. Please, it’s not good for anyone. I’ve told my kids that sugar in their body makes them misbehave and they get in trouble. Do I eliminate sugar completely? No, but I try to find healthier options and I definitely use a sugar-free chocolate option instead of regular chocolate. I often use sugar alternatives, especially when I need to make a cake that I know my kids will eat. Even though a sugar alternative is not really a natural option, I’m thinking about my child’s body and how it will affect their mood once they consume sugar. You can notice it instantly. It’s like a stimulant. As a mom, I didn’t want to see it, but as soon as I removed sugar, I noticed that my kids’ moods didn’t fluctuate as much. I’m not a nutritionist and this is not medical advice. This is what I see with my kids that makes a significant improvement in their behavior.

No, this isn’t a design post. But it’s to help parents who are already stressing about Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn’t mean we need to stay home and miss out on dinner. But there are ways to make it easier. Sometimes it’s not possible to stay out for the entire evening, which is fine. Leave early. At least you made it out. It’s healthy. As parents, we always try to do our best for our kids. And we always put our kids before us. But in order to do our best, we need to be in an orderly and calm frame of mind. Happy parent, happy child. That’s the rule.

Please send me a message if I forgot to mention anything else! We are in this together, parents!

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Interior designer in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey specializing in sensory-friendly spaces for children and individuals.