(Chester County Moms)

No matter how much of a fuss your child makes, you know a healthy diet does not solely consist of macaroni and cheese, hot dogs or peanut butter sandwiches ... right? If your children are finicky about the foods they eat and the kitchen table has become your battle zone, then dinner time may be the most stressful point of your day. By following these tips and tricks, you may be able to get your picky eaters to expand their palate and gain some solace during mealtime.

Wave the white flag.

Believe it or not, your children may actually know what's best for them when it comes to eating. Small children usually only eat when they are hungry, so forcing them to eat or clear their plates may actually reinforce some bad eating habits and emphasize eating as a point of conflict. "Allow children to stop eating when they are full," says Chester County mother of two and Registered Dietitian Kim Knipe*. "If my children tell me they are full after just a few bites, I let them help me wrap up the remainder for a snack later. That way, I know they stopped because they are truly full, and not because they want ice cream or a cookie."

Encourage healthy options.

When your kids are hungry, encourage healthy options and alternatives to the usual sugary, fatty snacks. Kids love eating finger foods, so offer apple slices to dip in peanut butter or homemade pita pizzas with fresh veggies, mozzarella and marinara. You could also make a fruit smoothie using fresh and frozen fruits with a little milk or 100% fruit juice. If you don't have a lot of time to prepare a snack, make a healthy, storable trail mix out of nuts, dried fruit, seeds and Cheerios.

Play with food.

It is proven that repeated exposure to sights, smells and tastes can increase our fondness for a particular item. By letting your child discover their food - through their five senses - before forcing them to eat an entire plateful, you may actually find they offer less resistance. You can also apply this same theory to how you prepare meals. By sneaking chopped fruits and veggies into a dish, your child will unknowingly be exposed to them.

Create (and stick to) a routine.

By serving meals at the same time every day, your child will know what to expect when mealtime comes and probably put up less of a fuss. Try to keep your children away from snacks, juice and milk at least one hour before a meal, so when mealtime rolls around, they will want to eat what you put in front of them.

Be a role model.

Children watch what you do, so do your best to grab fruit instead of chips for your own snack. Make one meal for the entire family, rather than taking food orders. If your children see you eating and enjoying the same food you put in front of them, they may be more inclined to eat it, too. If they see that Mommy or Daddy eats his or her veggies, then they may want to give them a try. However, it's okay if you want to add a sauce or spice to your own food, as a child's palate often prefers more plain fare.

Fork over the control - become a team.

While you do not want your kids to take the reigns when it comes to making household decisions, allowing them to be a part of the decision-making process can reduces power struggles. Once a week, let your child decide what the family is going to eat for a meal - within your guidelines, of course. At the grocery store, ask them to pick out a few healthy items that they think would be fun to try. Turn cooking a meal into a family activity, and have your children help with the kid-friendly food preparation tasks. If your children feel like they had a say in the process, they will be less inclined to flex their independence during mealtime.

Healthy eating habits are not developed overnight. They need to be learned, practiced, nurtured and maintained. By following these simple steps, you can help your child develop lifelong healthy eating habits and cut down on your own stress at the dinner table.

* Kim Knipe, RD, LDN is the Community Nutrition and Outreach Coordinator at Chester County Hospital. A resident of Chester County, she is the mother of two daughters, ages 9 and 13, one of whom is a picky eater.

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