Kids are notoriously finicky eaters. They'll eat only one foodfor days, or refuse a food they loved a week ago, or eat ravenously at one meal and nibble at the next.
That's perfectly normal for children, say pediatricians and dietitians. But if parents make a big deal about it, a finicky eater could quickly turn into a problem eater.
Whether to prevent or cure an eating problem, parents need to remember one rule, says Dr. Joel Steinberg, director of medical affairs at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.
"As a parent, your job is to prepare the food, serve it in a good atmosphere and serve the right foods," he says. "It's up to the child to determine whether he'll eat it and how much he'll eat."
That means resisting the urge to pressure kids to eat -- whether with punishments or rewards. Meals should be a time for pleasure, not confrontation.
Don't promise dessert "if you eat a few more bites of chicken." Don't threaten to take away a toy "if you don't eat your vegetables."
"If the child doesn't want it, never force it," says Dr. Steinberg.
Eating problems can start as soon as babies are offered solid food if parents are too eager to shovel in spoonfuls of pureed food. Toddlers are also likely candidates for food battles.
Between the ages of 1 and 3, children grow much more slowly than they did as infants, so their appetites may decrease. They also are learning about independence and may want to test their control at the table.
"During the toddler years, children are naturally finicky eaters,says pediatrician Dr. Suzanne Corrigan. "If you're not aware of that and you make a big deal about it, you're going to have a lot of problems down the line."
Young children don't eat as much as adults. "A child-size portion of food is only a third to a quarter of the adult size," says Dr. Corrigan.
And parents shouldn't get fixated on the idea that children have to eat three meals a day. "It's better to teach your child to eat when he's hungry, and a 2- or 3- or 4-year-old may be hungry four or five times a day," she says.
Three meals and perhaps two scheduled snacks a day will accommodate young appetites. But make sure the food is nutritious -- have cheese and apple slices for a snack, for instance, instead of potato chips or doughnuts.
And don't worry if the child doesn't eat. Children won't starve themselves, says Dr. Steinberg.
In fact, several studies have shown that when children are offered nutritious food without adult intervention, they'll select a balanced diet over a period of time. From meal to meal, though, the type and amount of food they eat can be highly erratic.
Parents can help make food appealing to kids by being creative, says Neva Cochran, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
For instance, she suggests cutting sandwiches or pancakes into shapes with cookie cutters. Or using foods such as cheese and sliced vegetables to draw a face on sandwiches, casseroles and salads.
Another tip: Let children help with shopping and preparation. Also, bright colors, such as red apples or green peas, appeal to children, says Ms. Cochran.
Parents should keep in mind children's general food preferences: Youngsters tend to like foods separated rather than in a casserole. They prefer sauces on the side rather than on the food.
They like foods warm rather than hot, moist rather than dry. Crunchy foods are better received than mushy ones, so children may be more likely to eat raw fruits and vegetables than cooked ones, says Ms. Cochran.
Children may be more inclined to eat if they're offered a choice of foods. That's fine, pediatricians and dietitians says, as long as the food is nutritious and the choices are limited.
Breakfast, for instance, could be either whole-grain cereal or whole-wheat toast with fruit-only preserves. Lunch could be a grilled cheese sandwich or a tuna sandwich.
But if the child doesn't like his selection or doesn't eat it, that's the end of the meal. Parents shouldn't get trapped in the "short-order-cook" syndrome, racing to fix Junior a sandwich when he won't eat his spaghetti.
"An occasional missed meal isn't as bad as a parent who has to become a perpetual short-order-cook," says Dr. Corrigan.
At dinner time, families should make an effort to eat together -- without the television on, pediatricians and dietitians advise. And parents shouldn't try to fix or buy a special meal for the child.
"I don't think you ought to have two separate meals, one for you and one for the kids. All you'll do is develop the child's ability to have more and more control over what he eats," says Dr. Steinberg.
If you think your dinner will be too spicy or otherwise unappetizing to your child, consider adapting part of it to children's tastes. For instance, set aside some diced chicken and grated cheese from your casseroles, or add spices to a dish after you've spooned out the children's portions.
Try to serve at least one item you know your child likes.
Parents should remember how important it is to foster good eating habits early in life. "We're finding that a lot of our youngsters from 10 years old on up have an unhealthy obsession with dieting," as do many adults, says Dr. Corrigan.
"It's real important that we not give our children an obsession with being thin," she says. "One of the best ways to make sure a child maintains a normal weight is to start good eating habits at a young age and set a good example."
Ms. Cochran has a few suggestions on ways to dress up food for finicky eaters:
* Egg Flower: Put a cherry tomato in the center of a plate. Slice a hard-cooked egg, and use slices to form flower petals. Cut cucumber strips and use them for stem and leaves.
* Ants on a Log: Stuff a celery stick with either cheese spread or peanut butter and put raisins along it, so it looks like ants on a log.
* Fruit Milk Shake: Mix 2 cups cold fruit juice, a half cup dry non-fat milk powder and a drop of vanilla in a blender for 30 seconds.
How to deal with common children's eating problems:
* Food jags (child will eat only one food): Let them eat it if the food is nutritious, but continue to offer other foods.
* Short-order-cook syndrome (won't eat what's served and demands other foods): Have at least one food at the meal you know the child likes. If he doesn't eat anything, end the meal.
* Eats only white foods (bread, potatoes, macaroni, milk): Don't give attention to the habit because that will reinforce it. Continue to offer a variety of foods.
* Won't try new foods: Offer the new food at the beginning of the meal and serve it in a small portion. Continue to offer the food at other times. It may take many exposures before they're ready to even taste it.
* Wants to watch TV during mealtimes: Turn off the TV because it interferes with eating, as well as with the social aspects of mealtime.
* Doesn't like vegetables: Try fruits.
* Doesn't like fruits or vegetables: Try serving fruits and vegetables raw rather than cooked. Also, shredded fruits and vegetables can be added to foods such as sandwich fillings, muffins, meatloaf and soups. Fruits can be served mixed with yogurt or in a fruit shake.