Are you in the habit of making mac-n-cheese or chicken nuggets just to avoid a war with your child-sized picky eater?

Is your kid a picky eater?  Have mealtimes become a battleground?  You want your child to have a healthy relationship with food, so what to do?  Here is what the experts say.

Realize that many young children are picky eaters.  Newly introduced food may not be immediately welcomed.  It may be the smell, texture, taste or even how it looks.  Think back to your own childhood-were there some foods that you just couldn’t eat?  Sitting at the dining table well after supper had ended pushing around a pile of cold canned peas comes to mind.

Be a good role model by eating healthy foods yourself.  Children learn by example.

Don’t buy unhealthy food.  If junk food isn’t available children will acquire a taste for nutritious foods.  If your children have already been introduced to processed food, replace chips with crunchy apples and carrots, sodas and other sugary drinks with 100% juice or water and sweet snacks with a variety of fruit.

Maintain a mealtime routine-including snacks.  Consistency helps a child know what to expect.  Knowing that food will be served only at scheduled meals or snacks encourages children to eat what they are served.

Serve child-size portions of foods.  Let the child ask for more.  Unless there is an eating disorder or a power struggle already exists, children will stop eating when they are full-let them.

Eat meals at the table with the TV and other media devices turned off.  The emphasis at mealtimes should be eating and connecting with each other as a family.  TV is distracting and interferes with a child’s ability to focus on eating.  As a side note, TV advertising can have a strong influence on a child’s desire for sugary and processed foods.

Make mealtime relaxed and even fun.  Cut food into shapes or present food in an entertaining way.  Play the “who can eat all of their colors” game.  Brightly colored fruit and vegetables are typically more nutritious than bland colored food.  Talk with each other, keeping topics of conversation pleasant.  Children’s appetites are affected by distress as much as adults are.

Include your child in grocery shopping and food preparation.  It may take a little longer but after all, isn’t the one of the goals of parenting to help our children become healthy adults? Children that are involved in the process are more likely to try unfamiliar food.

Grow a vegetable garden either in the ground or in a planter box.  Let your child have their own section, select and plant seeds, water and weed and finally harvest their bounty to be shared with the family.  If you are unable to plant a garden outdoors you may want to grow some herbs in a pot indoors and use them for seasoning.  The objective is to have them experience where food comes from and to be involved in the whole process.  Another good exposure to fresh produce is your local farmers market.

Do not use dessert or sweet treats as a reward.  Doing so teaches a child that sweets are valued more than other foods.  Dessert and sweet treats are okay on occasion.  If you must end your meal with something sweet try fruit.

Do not prepare special meals to accommodate a picky eater.  Do try to include at least one food you know your child likes when serving unfamiliar or disliked food.  Remind your child that as they grow their tastes will change so it’s important to keep trying unpopular foods.  Take the taste test.

Incorporate healthy additions into food that your child already likes.  Add blueberries or apples to pancakes, carrots or pineapple to muffins, shredded veggies to sauces.  Use your imagination to make favorite meals even more nutrient dense.

I conducted an informal survey that asked adults the question “Did your parents make you eat everything on your plate even if you didn’t like something?”  Some answered yes and some no.  Those that were forced to eat food they disliked found clever ways to hide and dispose of the offending food.  Many still have an aversion to it.  I understand the concepts of parent as authoritarian and wasting food is well, wasteful.  But if your goal for your child is a healthy relationship with food (and you) then creating positive mealtime experiences that have an emphasis on a nourishing diet will help them attain that goal.  Your child may even thank you when they grow up!