Do you feel like pulling your hair out when it comes to getting your preschooler to eat anything but mac & cheese? Would your toddler rather play with Legos than eat anything at all? If you lay awake at night worrying about your child’s nutrition, read on for some helpful tips!

In our line of work, we see a wide range of concerns from parents. Everything from, “My son will not eat meat!” to “My daughter is eating us out of house and home!” It is such a natural and healthy thing to desire the best nutrition for your little one, but if that turns into worry and stress at meal times, then no one is having a good time.

Consider these 10 effective tips for preventing mealtime battles.

Respect your child’s appetite, or lack of one.


If your child is not hungry, do not force a meal or snack on them. Likewise, do not bribe or force your child to eat specific foods or clean his or her plate. This might start a power struggle over food or cause them to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration and lose the sensitivity to his or her own hunger or fullness cues.

Start with a small portion of food and give your child the chance to ask for more on their own.

Stick to your routine.


Try to serve meals and snacks at about the same time every day. If your child chooses not to eat a meal, a regular snack time will provide an opportunity to eat nutritious food. Offer milk or diluted juice with food and water between meals and snacks. Keep in mind that 1 cup of 100% juice contains 36 grams of sugar, which is just 3 grams away from 1 cup of Coca-Cola.

Allowing kiddos to fill up on juice, milk or snacks may decrease their appetite for meals, which is not what you want!

Consider what your kiddo eats over several days.


It can be easy to get tunnel vision when thinking about what your child is or is not eating at any given meal. This may lead to worry about excessive calories or nutrient deficiencies. Taking into consideration what your child has eaten over several days will most likely result in a better variety then you may have thought.

Stay positive.


Avoid criticizing your child or using the term “picky eater.” At a young age, children will notice a negative attitude and will believe what you say about them. Give praise if you see progress!

Avoid becoming a short order cook.


Here at WIC, we talk a lot about the “Division of Responsibility.” This means that parents decide the foods to offer at meal times and the kiddo gets to decide how much they eat or if they eat at all. Following this rule of thumb will help you avoid becoming a short order cook. It can be easy to cave in and prepare different foods for the child who does not want what is offered. No one wants their child to miss a meal, but rest assured they will not starve themselves and this will set up a lifetime of healthy eating behaviors.

Treat food jags casually.


The definition of a food jag is, “When a child will only eat one food item, or a very small group of food items, meal after meal.” Food jags usually do not last long and can be a way for kiddos to figure out their personal tastes. Trying to see the bigger picture and remaining calm can help you get through it.

Provide only two or three choices at meal times.


Offering a reasonable variety, not a huge array of foods, will help teach your little one to eat the foods offered but will give him or her the independence of making food decisions on their own. It is also a good idea to include at least one food you are certain they like.

Substitute a similar food.


Have you ever been advised to “pick your battles” when it concerns your children? This may be one of those times. If your child refuses to eat a certain food and not a single idea is working, it may be time to try a substitution. Offering a sweet potato or yam in place of a less flavorful veggie such as squash may be just the ticket to getting that serving of vegetables into their meal.

Try to make new foods fun.


For choosy kids, trying new foods can be a disaster! A practice we have found at WIC has helped some parents master the new foods fear. Take your children shopping with you and have them pick out a new food to try. Make it a fun little game, then brainstorm ideas for preparation at home.

Get them involved in the kitchen.


Another idea to bring kids along is to let them help in the kitchen. There are a number of safe and easy tasks you can have your children do while you are preparing meals. Here are some examples. If their new food choice at the store was fresh produce, you can let them wash the produce in the sink and have them dab dry with paper towel. If you are mixing something, let them stir after you have done the hard part. You can also have them be in charge of the seasonings (if you dare!)

Having a selective eater can seem like a challenge, but in fact, it may be your child’s first steps toward making their own food choices and learning how to make their own decisions.

Remember: Be patient during this time, try not to let meals become a stressful time, and stay positive! Happy National Nutrition Month!