As dinnertime approaches, your stomach tightens. You automatically become irritable. "He will eat what I make tonight," you mutter to yourself as you prepare the evening meal. "I will not lose another dinnertime skirmish to a two-year-old!"

Sound familiar?

Relax! You’re one of thousands of parents locked in a battle for control at the dinner table. You’ve tried forcing your child to eat; taking away favourite toys; revoking TV privileges; making him sit there alone until his food is gone – nothing has worked. He lives on crackers, chicken strips and juice boxes. "Why can’t I get him to eat healthy foods?" you cry.

Maybe it’s not what you’re making that turns your kid into a tight-lipped frowner at the table; maybe it’s how you’re making it. Grown-ups tend to forget that young children are more sensitive to flavours and textures. Adults, who have had years to develop their taste buds, know what to expect when someone puts a bowl of borscht or a plate of scalloped potatoes in front of them, while babies spend most of their first year using their mouths to discover how the world tastes.

So, a kid who spits out boiled peas in machine gun fashion may gobble them down if they are sautéed with some bacon bits. And a kid who won’t touch raw tomatoes may devour scrambled eggs with a mild homemade salsa or tomato sauce on top. It’s all about trial and error.

Food tricks for type-As

Trying not to stress over drawn-out suppertime spats with the kids can be difficult, especially if you’re on a schedule.

"Both my husband and older son dislike vegetables and fruit," explains Anna Marie White, a working mom of two boys in Langley, BC. "Purée has been a lifesaver and a nutrition booster for us. We make all our purées ahead of time and freeze them in ice cube trays. We then store them in resealable storage baggies until I need them."

Add a couple of cubes of frozen beet purée, and baby spinach and broccoli purée to gravy for Sunday’s roast beef dinner. On pasta night, add yam, carrot or sweet potato purée to tomato sauce, and puréed white beans (cannellini or navy) or cauliflower/cabbage to alfredo or cream sauces. White also suggests taking the whole family berry picking in the summer to pick a year's worth of blueberries and strawberries for smoothies and yogurt toppings. It may require a large freezer, but kids will love that they are eating the berries they picked themselves. You can even sneak a cube of folate-rich beet purée into just about anything with blueberry in it without anyone noticing.

Kristen Best, in Saint Stephen, New Brunswick, adds puréed cauliflower and sweet potato, along with extra shredded cheddar, to two-year-old Maddie’s organic "mac ‘n’ cheese."

"It makes it really rich and I also add frozen whole peas, which she loves," Kristen reveals. "She has no idea how many veggies she’s eating!"

Once a month, spend an evening washing, chopping and bagging fresh vegetables into portions that can be refrigerated or frozen, ready to throw into the slow cooker or oven to roast with supper. Celery, peppers, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms and carrots all freeze well. It may take an evening or two each month to keep up the veggie inventory but it is worth it: everyone eats healthy and the after-work dinner rush is cut in half by the prep you’ve done ahead of time.

Timing is key

To avoid the mid-afternoon munchies that inevitably destroy kids’ appetites for your nutritious suppers, consider preparing the vegetables first. Put a plate of carrots, celery, broccoli – whatever raw veggies they like – on the table about an hour ahead of dinnertime. When the kids say, "I’m hungry," and "What’s for dinner?" point them to the veggies and provide dips like low-fat sour cream with dill, plain yogurt, hummus or even crunchy peanut butter for the celery. With something at hand they are willing to eat, their veggie intake will be instantly improved. By the time dinner comes around, all you need to worry about is the meat and potatoes, so to speak.

Sneaky tactics

For kids with a more specific dislike of plain veggies, you may have to get creative in your approach. For example, if you slip spinach and bell peppers into an omelette, draw a ketchup happy face, rainbow, train or other favourite images of your child’s on top to make the meal instantly appealing.

For family members at least willing to eat salads, go with something other than the standard lettuce, tomato and cucumber toss. Mix regular veggies with sweet fruit to make your own version of a Waldorf salad (traditionally thinly sliced apple and celery, chopped walnuts and mayonnaise). Adding fruits like dried cranberries and apricots, grapes, oranges or raisins, along with crumbled feta or goat cheese and even a handful of nuts, can really pique the interest of kids who will be impressed by the array of colours on their plate. Top with a hardboiled egg and some cubed chicken breast and you’ve got yourself a variation on a Cobb salad – a full meal in itself!

"I even serve dinner with half a piece of fruit on the plate so it's part of the meal," says Jennifer Butler of Calgary, Alberta. It’s like dessert with dinner, and they don’t have to wait until the end of the meal to eat it.

When caterer Jenny Stegall of San Francisco, California, began feeding her babies soft solids, she made pancakes chock full of grated veggies like beets, zucchini, squash and carrots.

"They end up being mostly vegetables with just the batter to hold them together," she writes on the blog, Cooking for Kids. "They love the batter/bread and without realizing it, are becoming aware of flavours that they will later enjoy in a more adult version."

Food can be fun

Kids love to play with their food – it’s no secret. Why not give food fun names? Ask them what they think a certain item looks like and let them come up with a silly term they can relate to. Use French or Spanish names for foods your child hasn't liked in the past, but which you want her to try again in a different recipe. And bring food down to her size: toddlers love finger foods and individual servings they can hold with their hands. Make mini muffins; cook meatloaf in muffin tins; or roll up low-fat turkey deli meat and secure it with a toothpick. For special occasions, cut toast and sandwiches into fun shapes.

Homemade pizza can also become an instant family night hit with the kids. Buy or make individual-sized whole wheat pizza shells and prepare organic tomato sauce with healthy toppings. For especially picky kids, have them dress their own pizzas, insisting on a minimum of at least two or three types of veggies on each pizza. They’re much more likely to eat the whole thing, veggies and all, if they have decided what to put on it.

For anxious eaters, pack dinner in your child’s preschool snack kit. Place his meal in the tiny containers and open the kit at the table for him to choose from. Consistency is the trick here – he is already familiar and comfortable with this style of eating, and he can keep different foods from touching, a common issue for kids.

Conversely, a child getting a little old for the Bunnykins® dinnerware she’s been eating out of for three years may appreciate using "grown-up" cutlery and plates, with a real glass instead of a sippy cup. Garnish her food the same way you garnish your own to make her feel included; make sure it’s not obvious you’re serving her a bland, tasteless version of what you’re eating. Give her a chance to develop more sophisticated tastes. There comes a time when imitating mommy and daddy comes in handy – suppertime!

Give them some credit

Finally, when other tricks and tactics fail, give your kids some credit. These little beings grow and change every day. They learn new things and they certainly know what they like and what they don’t. They know when they are hungry and when they are not. Sometimes, while it may be expressed as a bad mood or a pout-fest, they are just too tired to keep eating; sleep may take priority over finishing every last grain of rice on their plate. Take notice of patterns in your child’s eating habits. Perhaps they need to eat smaller meals more frequently as they go through certain stages. They may love chicken one week while they learn to love fruit and veggies the next. If you still worry that your picky eater isn’t getting enough essential nutrients, be sure to discuss vitamin supplements with your doctor.

Remember, even when you feel like you’re losing control at the table, ultimately, you are the parent. You chose what a child eats, when they eat and where they eat. The child gets to choose whether they eat the food you present, and how much of it they will eat. Forcing the issue will only make mealtime a cause for anxiety for everyone involved. Ensure your kids know that once dinner is done, there are no more snacks before bed and they need to wait until breakfast to eat again. Learning that lesson the hard way may be just the motivation they need to consider eating what you put on the table.

Website references do not constitute blanket endorsement or complete agreement by Focus on the Family Canada.

Meghan Baxter was editorial manager for Focus on the Family Canada at the time of publication.

© 2009 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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