The way to stop fighting about picky eating is to stop fighting. And a good way around that is the "participatory meal," where everyone makes their own combination of a noodle bowl or pizza or sandwich.
Researchers think one of the reasons kids gravitate toward junk food is because they learn to eat through pleasurable experiences. Getting nagged or even yelled at during dinner isn't fun, making kids more likely to associate healthy food with an unpleasant experience, said dietitian Melanie Newkirk, manager of clinical nutrition at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital's Fit4Allkids program.
I learned this the hard way as a first-time mom. My oldest was very finicky, and I made the rookie mom mistake of giving up and catering to it, afraid he'd starve if I didn't have chicken nuggets or grilled cheese on hand.
By offering only the tried and true "kids foods," our boys' palates never got any better.
So one day I sat my then 8-year-old down for a talk well before dinner time. I apologized. I told him I hated all the fights we'd had over what he ate. I explained that I was concerned about his health but that didn't excuse making him dread dinner time. I told him I would continue to offer a healthy variety of foods but there would be no commenting -- good or bad -- on what anyone ate. I promised if he'd go along with the idea of taking a "no thank you" bite, I would lay off the nagging and never make him finish something he didn't like.
The new focus of dinnertime would be about visiting with each other.
He tested me on this, of course. Healthy foods that he normally ate, he just left on his plate. I bit my tongue and told knock-knock jokes instead.
Once I proved to him that I meant what I said, dinner became a more relaxed environment.
I so enjoyed retiring as the Food Police that I didn't even notice he had quietly started expanding his culinary reach within a few months. It wasn't until my husband marveled one night that our son happily had seconds of grilled asparagus and black beans and rice -- I hadn't even realized it because I was having too much fun trying to beat him on a state capitals challenge.
This was a kid who I once begged to just try a slice of cucumber. He refused. But within a year of no nagging, both my kids, then 4 and 8, were eating much better, and dinnertime was a joy.
Fast-forward to the older child's 13th birthday, when he requested we go out to his favorite restaurant, Nitally's, a Thai-Mexican fusion eatery in downtown St. Petersburg, and the boy ordered a Panang curry chicken burrito, spicy. I would have never predicted that back when I was on Food Police patrol.
A family affair
In Laurie David's terrific book "The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids One Meal at a Time," she makes the scientific case for why connecting is so important. But I especially love her idea of "participatory meals" where everyone plays a part, like in creating their own tacos, pasta toppings or Vietnamese noodle bowls. It makes for a fun meal with little complaints, because everyone has created their own.
Newkirk of All Children's agreed, and said even sandwiches can make a healthy participatory meal.
While my image of a sub is lots of meat, cheese, oil and mayo, Newkirk said: "That's funny, I think of subs as a great vehicle for lots of veggies."
Clearwater chef Marian Getz is known to HSN viewers as Wolfgang Puck's pastry chef, who cooks alongside the celebrity chef on TV as he sells his knives, steamers and cooking pots.
But she's also a mom who had picky eaters.
Having been picky as a child herself, she didn't let it hurt her feelings when her son recoiled in horror upon entering the kitchen and whined: "What is that smell?" He would literally cry when the family favorite meatloaf and potatoes were placed on the table.
"I'm convinced so much of it is smell and texture," Getz said, "and for busy boys the whole thought of sitting down here at the table was torture."
She and her husband, Greg, resolved not to repeat the clean-plate mistakes of their parents that brought back terrible memories.
"We love our fathers but they were mean," she said of her and Greg's experience. "It was awful to have him lord over you as you stare at this plate of congealing food. So why would we do that to our kids?"
Instead, they made it a game.
"We put it on the coffee table, their little bits of different foods, not too much. We told them they could run around the house one lap and stop and take a bite," she said. "We made it a game. Just because your parents did it one way doesn't mean you have to do it that way."
By their teen years, the finicky eating had faded, Getz said, and her most finicky child is now an adult vegetarian with a picky eater of his own. He learned from his parents, and doesn't make a big deal of it, either.
One of Getz's best finds to get her grandchildren to eat new food is cute colorful chopsticks for children she has found at Asian markets such as Oceanic in Tampa and MD Oriental Market Pinellas Park. They make it easier to grab the food and more of a game as the kids build their chopstick skills.
A 2014 study in Appetite, the journal of behavioral sciences as it pertains to food, found that children who helped cook the meal ate 76 percent more salad than when the parent cooked the meal without them. And studies found that kids who have wider food preferences often have family meals that are positive, without TV or phones, Newkirk said .
"When you are begging and pleading and bribing and talking about good food versus bad food, it gives the children the thought that they are mutually exclusive," Newkirk said. "Something that tastes good can't be healthy and something healthy can't taste good. Participating in creating meals makes a big difference."
Keep in mind the guideline that half your meal should be veggies, one quarter whole grain and one quarter lean protein, she said. Tailor your offerings accordingly.
The Getz family has found that theme dinners like Mexican night, make-your-own pizzas and rotisserie chicken with a lot of sides to choose from work to make meal time more satisfying for everyone's palates.
"Put out the things that make you feel better as a parent nutritionally ," Getz said. "Let them be in control whenever you can, or whatever makes sense for their age. I think it helps."
Participatory meal ideas
Start with: A large pot of rice of your choice.
Set out: For a Korean-style rice bowl, offer sliced Korean beef, tofu, mushrooms, cucumbers, green onions, carrots, kimchi. Have cilantro, sesame seeds and lime wedges on the table. Drizzle with choice of soy sauce, teriyaki, hoisin and red pepper paste.
Go Mexican by adding some lime juice and chopped cilantro to rice, then setting out sliced grilled steak, chicken or black beans. Top with a combination of corn, diced tomatoes, grilled vegetables, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, salsa, bell peppers and diced jalapenos.
Try this: Create a Thai sweet chili version by using jasmine rice, then setting out chicken, salmon or tofu. For the veggies, go with edamame, shredded carrots, green onions, cooked broccoli, diced red pepper, chopped purple cabbage, diced peanuts and sesame seeds. Have sweet chili sauce and soy sauce on hand to drizzle on top, or make this quick ginger peanut sauce: Combine ? cup peanut butter and 2 tablespoons honey in a small bowl. Microwave for 15 seconds, or until the peanut butter thins. Stir well. Add 2 teaspoons grated ginger, 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar and 2 teaspoons sesame oil. Stir again, and thin as desired with water.
Start with: A variety of breads or rolls.
Set out: Slices of turkey or lean roast beef, plus cheeses, banana peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, cucumber slices, chopped peppers, onions, shredded lettuce, olives, roasted red peppers and goat cheese.
Finish it: Add a splash of olive oil and oregano. You can toast the subs or serve them cold.
Start with: One ball of store-bought frozen or refrigerated pizza dough, which makes about four mini pizzas. A teen or adult might make two pizzas, so allow about half a ball of dough per person.
Let the dough rise to room temperature and then cut it into quarters. Give each person a square of parchment paper and a dough ball and roll out the dough together. (Or, use whole wheat tortillas instead of pizza dough.)
Set out: Sauce, chopped tomatoes, fresh spinach, mushrooms, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, lean pepperoni, pineapple, multicolored peppers, olives, roasted peppers, onions.
Finish it: Place the personal pizzas on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until bubbly in a 425-degree oven.
Start with: Pour your favorite flavored broth into a tea kettle and bring to a boil. Have cooked soba noodles on the table so each person can add them to their bowl.
Set out: Chopped chicken, pork, shrimp or tofu for the proteins; mushrooms, crunchy cabbage, carrot slices, white beans, chopped hot peppers, herbs, green onions, chopped broccoli, chopped bell peppers for the veggies. Also set out condiments such as lime wedges, chiles, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce and scallions.
Finish it: Once the bowls are filled, pass the tea kettle around and allow diners to pour broth into the bowls; let them steep for a minute then eat.
Our rules for stopping food fights
— No commenting good or bad on what anyone eats. Dinnertime is for visiting. If you want to compliment the cook, fine. But if you don't like something, simply say nothing.
— Everyone should take at least one "no thank you" bite the size of a dime. As we grow, our taste buds change, so think of it as a check-in. After the bite, drop the subject.
— Serve at least one thing each person likes.
— If you are worried your picky eaters didn't eat anything, give them a healthy snack before bed. But be mindful that toddlers and their tiny tummies can do just fine on two good meals per day. Look at the whole week's intake nutritionally versus one day.