Take Back Dinner: Eight Strategies to Engage Your Picky Eater at Dinner

10/31/2012 05:42 pm ET | Updated Dec 31, 2012

"What are you making for dinner?" This question comes up frequently with parents I know, usually late in the afternoon as they are on the way home with a tired kid. Many of them describe their kids as "picky eaters" who have whole categories of foods that they will not touch. Some parents handle this by cooking more than one dinner, while others rely on a few tried and true dishes that they make over and over. Neither of these methods do much to encourage an interesting dinner hour.

So, what can you do if your kid is the one who only eats white foods or only likes pasta or refuses to try anything new? Decide to go on a culinary adventure together.

I know that kids can be suspicious of new foods and reluctant to try new textures, but think of it as broadening their horizons. Many of us spend hours taking our kids to art museums and libraries, music lessons and endless sports practices and play rehearsals because we want them to be well-rounded individuals who have been exposed to many different cultures. Why does all this curiosity and exploration have to stop at the dinner table? It seems to me that we are missing out on something important and so are our kids. Do today's children really need their chicken to be shaped like dinosaurs? For generations, children and parents sat down to the same meal and this still happens in many countries around the world.

I've given this quite a bit of thought and here are my ideas for parents whose children are reluctant to expand their food horizons. Think of it is as taking back dinner.

1. Begin by working with your kids, not against them. Let them have a role in choosing the family dinner. Take them to a bookstore or library and pick out a good kids cookbook. Most of these have great pictures with easy recipes that take familiar "kid food" and make it a little more sophisticated. Even young kids can look at the pictures and point out something to try. When you plan out the weekly meals, let kids each pick a couple of them.

2. Kids love to cook. Depending on their age, they can peel, sprinkle, chop, crack eggs, stir, pour, pack lunch, make toast, play sous chef to you, etc. Cooking with kids can be messy and add some time but it usually pays off. Most kids will try at least a bite of something they have helped prepare.

3. Make only one dinner and avoid engaging in arguments about eating. Keep it neutral and always make sure you have at least one thing at the table that you know your child likes and feels comfortable eating. If you have been cooking separate meals for them, this can be a challenge but stick with it -- they will adjust. Kids are very adaptable, and once this becomes the regular routine, they won't question it. And remember, just because they don't like something the first time they try it doesn't mean they won't like it the tenth time or if it is prepared in a slightly different way.

4. Give choices within reason. Ask them if they would prefer carrots or broccoli or if they would like rice or couscous. Keep these options simple. Much of the struggle parents face feeding their kids comes from a desire for some control.

5. Don't bribe, especially with dessert. Eating three bites of vegetables to earn a cookie reinforces the idea that cookies are great and vegetables stink. Believe me, I know that this one is way harder than it sounds on paper. We have all attempted to calm down a cranky, crying child or encourage a reluctant one by promising a cookie but you can see why it's not a great idea. Try to save it for when you really need to use the big guns.

6. Wrap, dip, skewer, layer. Kids love fun food. Anything that can be dipped, rolled in a tortilla, cut into shapes with a cookie cutter, etc. makes eating more fun for them. Take a lesson from Big Food. They are experts at packaging food so that it is as enticing as getting a new toy. Steal their marketing schemes. Put lunch in a bento box or use colorful small containers. Use fancy napkins at dinner one night wrapped in funny shapes or eat your meal with chopsticks. Challenge them to eat with their non-dominant hand. Make it as playful as you can for them and they will be distracted from the fact that the skewer also contains vegetables.

7. Don't overdo the afternoon snack. Kids who come to the table hungry are far more likely to try something new. If they are ravenous before dinner is ready, put out a plate with baby carrots, sliced peppers, sugar snap peas, or anything other vegetable along with some hummus or salsa or peanut butter. This really does work. A hungry kid will start munching on the carrots and hummus.

8. And, relax. It's just dinner. If your kids don't like one meal, it doesn't mean they won't like the next one. If you can be adventurous while keeping a sense of humor you will be teaching your child a valuable lesson about family mealtimes -- no matter how the chicken is shaped.