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The great dinner debate -- feed your family without the fuss

Feeding a busy family can be challenging. Feeding a fussy family can make the strongest of parents want to give up. In addition to figuring out what to eat, finding creative ways to gather your scattered bunch long enough to enjoy a meal together is tough. Discovering how to prepare a meal that wasn't handed to you through a drive-thru window that everyone will eat without complaints adds yet another element of stress to parents whose patience is already worn thin.

Preparing multiple meals, bribing children to eat or restricting privileges based on the amount consumed at dinner are just a few of the tactics employed by parents desperate to hold consistent family dinners -- but are they the right ones?

Dinner time is important for a child's development. The benefits of eating dinner together are often impeded by children protesting they do not want to eat what is served or them playing with their food at the table. Here are some tips on making meal time less of a battle of wills.

Making food fun
  • Serve chicken, tuna, or egg salad in ice cream cones or as a dip for crackers and vegetables
  • Let your child decorate her meal by adding sprinkles of cut herbs or condiments. Give only the amount of spices you want to see on her food.
  • Serve drinks with a straw, soup in a cup, and sandwiches cut into funny shapes.
  • Concoct funny names for what you serve. Skewer fruit and call it a caterpillar or snake.
  • Serve raw veggies as a snack in a bowl before dinner. Eat it as if it were popcorn.
  • Add vegetables to sauces your child likes. Pureed corn is hardly visible in macaroni and cheese, and fresh tomatoes add vitamins to tomato sauce.
  • Don t save your china and crystal for special occasions. Throw that plain set of ceramic away and dine in style!

Are you a short order chef?
Picky eaters are less challenging when their parents know how to handle them. Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, Texas says, "Parents should not prepare more than one meal at a time. This sends a message to the child that they can run the show, and children have to learn some degree of compromise as a tool they can take out into the world."

Instead of preparing a special meal for your child separate from your own, try serving a dinner that has an entree, two side dishes and a salad and/or bread. This way everyone has something to eat even if it's bread and fresh carrots. "Children will not become under nourished if they only eat the salad and bread at dinner. Other meals during the day can compensate for not eating protein, calcium or whatever they miss at one meal," says Lemond.

Another option is serving the meal buffet-style, allowing your child to preview everything and decide what he wants to try first.

Give your child the ability to choose one dish that will be served during dinner to further alleviate some of his or her pickiness. "Even if your child chooses applesauce or macaroni every night, knowing that he has some small control over what is served can help him in accepting to eat the other foods that are served," adds Lemond.

"While I wouldn't recommend catering to every single whim, parents need to respect that each child may have strongly different tastes and desires. These need to be respected and means that varieties of a meal may need to be prepared so that children not only feel satisfied but don't feel anxious at each meal," counters psychologist and author Dr Susan Bartell, Ph.D. of Port Washington, New York, who specializes in childhood eating issues.

Patiently playing games
Picky eaters need to be helped to expand their palate. "Many children need to be exposed to a new food at least 15 times in a row before they will grow to like it," says Dr Bartell. Parental patience and determination are required to help a child taste a food several times again until the child gets used to it and begins to enjoy it. Pick practical foods to help your child to learn to eat rather than unusual foods. "Common fruits, vegetables and proteins are the best to begin with," adds Dr Bartell.

Indulging in requests to use separate utensils for each food and not letting foods touch each other on the plate might go a long way in smoothing the path toward eating dinner. "I introduced my children to purple grapes by presenting them as magic food," says Winter Prosapio of Porter, Texas. "We made it very big and dramatic, and explained that eating the 'Princess Grapes' was the only way to remain a princess." Appealing to your child's imagination, serve fossil finders oatmeal with raisin fossils hidden under the layers of cereal.

Eating it all
Teraisa Rogers had the common "eat it all" dilemma. "My husband used to dish out the food and tell the kids they had to eat it all," said the Carson City, Nevada mom. Raising a blended family of seven children, the Rogers realized the value of being prepared to carry through on their word. "They would ask with plate in hand, 'Do I need to finish this?'. We knew not following through was bad and we ran the risk of teaching them to eat even when they were not hungry or enjoying their food," says Rogers.

Giving a child half of what you want them to have and allowing them the leeway to ask for an additional serving teaches children about portion control and how to gauge what they want to eat. "One of our daughters does not like corn; however, she must eat one kernel for every year of her age," adds Rogers, offering a handy suggestion for compromising on portion sizes of foods that children aren't fond of.

Many use the tactic 'if you eat everything on your plate, you can have dessert'. "This can become extremely unhealthy, form bad dietary habits and offers skewed examples," emphasizes Lemond. "Children should not eat beyond being satiated just to have more food, especially sugary food."

Nutrition experts encourage parents not to use food as a reward or a punishment. "Forcing children to overeat can lead to obesity and unhealthy meal habits later in life," cautions Dr Bartell -- a sentiment echoed by Lemond.

Amy Hood, of Charlestown, Rhode Island has put the 'eat until your tummy is full' policy in effect at her family's table. The mom of two says, "Nobody has to eat anything they don't like and they never ever have been forced to eat everything."

Hood believes family meals are a matter of trust -- if parents take control of the food, they do not trust their children to make good food choices. "They need to learn how to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full," she says.

Instilling healthy eating habits now leads to healthy grown-ups later. Help your child make healthy mealtime choices -- and avoid the nightly power struggle -- by making your child a partner, and maybe employing a few tricks along the way.

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