The picky food preferences of children can make even the best of parents struggle to ensure their child eats right and to keep mealtimes from being a battle.

Ensuring that your child eats nutritious food can be a challenge, but is not impossible, said Jim Meyer, a University of Missouri Extension nutritionist in New London, Mo.Child picking at his food

“Modeling is a big thing,” said Meyer, a parent himself. “If they see you eat it, they're more likely to try a new food.”

Children can be finicky about new foods and may need to be exposed to a new food 10 or 12 times before they are willing to try it. “Keep offering chances at new food in different ways,” Meyer said.

If children are not interested in steamed broccoli, he said, they may like it mixed in a casserole with rice and cheese, or served fresh with dip.

Meyer said it is up to parents whether they require a child to taste a new food or not. “I use ‘Just taste it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it,’” he said.

Reverse psychology is another technique Meyer uses at home. When his children turn their noses up at a new food, he said, “I tell them, 'Great. That means more for me.'”

Whatever method a parent chooses, Meyer said: “One thing you want to avoid is a power struggle by making them eat something they don’t like. You can’t force them."

“Be patient and keep offering these foods,” he added.

For foods that a child just won’t eat, look for alternatives that can provide the required nutrients, he said. For many children, the grittier taste of whole-grain bread is unappealing, but they may eat whole-grain cereals or bagels.

Focusing on what the body needs can help even young children understand the importance of nutritious foods. Those low in calories and high in nutrients can be helpful in explaining why children should consume less soda, candy or fast food, which are high in calories and low in nutritional value.

When his children ask for a trip to the drive-through window, Meyer uses the request as an opportunity to talk about the nutrients their bodies need. “I tell them that they need a variety of foods from the different food groups and that if we eat fast food, there’s a very good chance they are not going to get all the nutrients their bodies need, so they’ll have to make up for it in other meals,” Meyer said.

He added: “It’s tough to get across to a seven- or eight-year-old. That’s where modeling becomes important.”

With teenagers, the cost of eating fast food and buying a soda at a convenience store can be an attention-getter, Meyer said. “I tell them to add up those expenses over a week,” he said. “Then I point out that the money could have gone for gas in their car or a new CD.”

For young athletes, Meyer said, focus on how nutrition affects performance. “I tell them you’re not going to be able to perform your best if you’re not getting the right nutrients.”

Regardless of the child's age, he said, parents should give them a consistent message: “You need a variety of foods that provide the essential nutrients to stay healthy.”