Eating behaviors are developed early in childhood and parents have to acknowledge that children aren't going to like everything that's served.
"Getting children to eat foods they don't like can be difficult," says Dr. Karen Cullen, an associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "But by continuing to offer foods they don't like as choices for other family members at mealtimes, many children will eventually acquire a taste for those foods."
Many parents try to bribe, punish or reward children in order to get them to eat, but this tactic is never a good solution. Such bribes or rewards may make the disliked food even more undesirable or cause them to overeat because they're not hungry.
"We want children to recognize and respond to their internal signals that tell them when they are full and when they are hungry," Cullen says. "Having a parent who's constantly trying to get a child to eat may cause the child to ignore these important signals and overeat."
If children don't want to eat what was prepared for the family, then they should not be forced to, because this can turn into a power struggle. However, avoid giving your child something else to eat. Children will not starve after missing a single meal and providing alternatives to the prepared meal will reinforce the idea that special foods will be prepared for each meal.
The key to getting picky eaters to eat is by offering choices. Cullen, also a behavioral nutrition researcher, suggests giving children one vegetable that you know they will eat and one that they may not like, so there is always a choice.
Parents often worry that their picky eaters aren't getting enough nutrition from the foods they choose to eat, but Cullen says even though children may not be eating the food choices parents would like, most children eat enough and grow normally. Parents can always talk with their pediatrician during check-ups.
Cullen stresses the importance of parents modeling the behavior they are trying to instill in their children. She advises placing less emphasis on food and more on the positive aspects of enjoying mealtime as a family.
"Children tend to watch and mimic their parents, so the more frequently you eat a particular food, the more likely your child will be to eventually try it."