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Raising an Adventurous Eater

Champion the family table

Respect family dinnertime. We try to eat together almost every night. So that our kids appreciate this ritual without feeling coerced into it, here's what we decided: If one of our two older kids is finished eating, he can leave the table, but he can't hang around nearby, playing and talking and distracting the rest of us. He has to go into the living room or upstairs. Usually, what he really wants is our company and attention, so he'll stay in his seat. My husband and I have our own rules to obey, too: We don't answer the phone or watch TV during dinner.

You have to try one bite. And no more, if what your child tastes makes him or her gag. Like most parents, I have childhood memories of being forced to eat foods that turned my stomach, and I don't want to subject my kids to that. Some moms I know are so worried they won't be able to tell the difference between genuine revulsion and mere balkiness that they let their kids off the hook at the first sign of refusal. But it has actually turned out to be easy to tell when a dish is truly nauseating to one of my kids, at which point I'll quietly let him know that he doesn't have to finish it.

If all else fails, use bribery (and don't feel guilty). My kids may be open-minded about food, but that doesn't mean they always like what I've cooked. Heck, I don't always like what I've cooked. But eating it isn't torture. Yes, my kids can decline the meal, but if they start poking food around on their plates, eating a bite of this but none of that, or acting stubborn or sulky, we resort to the same bag of tricks that our parents used:
No dessert if you don't eat dinner.
No seconds until you clean your plate (but then seconds can be whatever part of the meal you like).
Or, the most mysteriously effective one of all, "I see you're not eating your chicken. Mind if I give it to your brother?" at which point, some inexplicable competitive urge kicks in, and the petulant child turns into a food-eating dynamo and polishes off everything on his plate.

Save room for dessert. I can't lie: Sometimes ice cream tastes better than anything on the planet. Life has its share of sweetness and serendipity, and mealtime should, too.

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