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Dining at the Toddler Café: Ways to Please a Picky Eater

Dining at the Toddler Café: Ways to Please a Picky Eater
According to Jennifer Carden, kids' cooking teacher and author of The Toddler Café, bringing fun to the table is the surest solution to the picky-eater struggle with kids. She believes that a play-based approach to dining can help teach preschoolers lifelong healthy eating habits while enhancing their attention span, social development and creativity.

"It's all about playful interaction," Carden says. "From the very beginning, my husband and I engaged our daughter with mealtime games. I'll admit that it started with the old ¿airplane coming into the hangar' trick where the spoon is the plane. That trick has been around a long time for good reason - it actually works! You feel a little silly at first, but you soon realize that taking a lighthearted approach fosters a positive attitude towards food and dining. And it's as much fun for the parents as it is for the child."

Here are some ways she meets the challenge:

1. Think Creatively
Use your imagination to relate your child's personal interests to foods. For example, her daughter wouldn't eat tuna until she was jokingly told: "Well, it's what mermaids eat." And now it's one of her favorite foods. Whether your child is into fairy tales, dragons, superheroes or sports, creative association can help equate enjoyment with nutritious food choices.

2. Make Food Fun
The dining room should be associated with pleasure. To eliminate the mealtime power struggle, Carden suggests that parents make fun, not war. "As you engage your child, be ready to accept the refusal of some foods and don't let it faze you," she advises. "Give praise for even the smallest steps - and no matter how annoyed you get, remember that raising your voice will only make a tense situation worse."

3. Keep Trying
If you want your child to try a new food, be casual, patient - and persistent. Carden notes that "it can take up to 15 attempts before a toddler will agree to sample something new." Start with very small portions, and offer only one unfamiliar food at a meal. Never resort to force. Sometimes the solution is simply to change the way the food is prepared. If a child won't eat cooked vegetables, substitute raw ones (or vice versa). Once a child has tried a new food, reinforce that step at the next meal by saying, "Remember when you tried squash and how much you liked it?"

4. Dine Together
"It can be so tempting for tired, busy parents to simply sit a toddler in a high chair with a plate of food, then walk across the kitchen to do the dishes or read the newspaper - but don't give in to the urge." Carden emphasizes the importance of establishing the mealtime tradition of dining and conversation. When that's not possible, talk and interact with your child while he or she eats - and at least eat a bite or two of the same food. "Kids are introduced to food traditions by their parents. It's important to set an example: Don't just tell your child that fruits and veggies are good for them - eat them yourself."

5. Get Ready to Eat
If kids are usually playing before mealtime, Carden suggests giving them fair warning by setting a timer. You can also help them make the transition by enlisting their help in setting the table (placemat-and-napkin duty works best for toddlers). Including kids in meal preparation stimulates both interest and appetite.

6. Don't Stress the Mess
Drips and spills are inevitable. Carden warns parents to "be prepared, roll up your sleeves and jump in!" It's important to distinguish between accidents and intentional messiness; inadvertent spills are part of the learning process, but throwing food is not okay. Carden advises keeping a hand-held vacuum handy, soliciting your child's help with clean-up or, if all else fails, getting a dog.

7. Vary the Presentation
To preschoolers, the way food looks is every bit as important as the way it tastes. Familiar foods presented in fresh new ways can appeal to a picky palate. One of Carden's best-loved tricks is to wrap finger-friendly foods in foil or parchment, then invite kids to "open their presents." Another fun technique is to use cookie cutters or pancake molds to form polenta, bread, cheese or sandwiches into appealing shapes.

8. Play with Food
Use rhymes and stories to make food fun. Creative food play is Carden's favorite way to increase a child's interest in healthy eating. For example, pretend you're both dinosaurs and the asparagus on the plate is a forest waiting to be devoured. Or invite stuffed animals as "dinner guests" (placed out of the child's reach), and make a fuss over how much they love the food. Carden's one caveat for mealtime games: Make sure they don't distract from dining.

9. Use Color
Let the colors and textures of foods appeal to a kid's creativity by cutting colorful foods into bite-sized strips and arranging them in an intriguing pattern on the plate. For very picky eaters, try bringing out one color of food at a time, announcing "Here comes the green," etc. Or offer kids little dishes of favorite condiments and let them use small pastry brushes to decorate their food.

10. Set a Kid-Friendly Table
Small children will find it easier and more fun to use kid-sized dinnerware, glasses and flatware. While toddlers do best with specially designed, unbreakable pieces, kids aged four and older prefer scaled-down versions of grown-up dinnerware. Carden suggests using sturdy dipping bowls or porcelain ramekins, and for beverages, a durable shot glass or demitasse cup.