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Picture the last meal your family shared. Do you see familial bliss or are you remembering a tiresome battle of wills between you and your kid? If you’d rather sit through a root canal than spend another meal screaming at your kids to EAT. THEIR. VEGGIES…don’t fret, we’ve got your back. Follow our experts’ advice to turn the kids into healthy eaters and the dinner table just might become your new happy place.

FOCUS ON FAMILY, NOT FOOD

If a drama-free dinnertime seems beyond your reach, it’s not (we promise). The most important change you can make is shifting the focus of meals away from the food itself. Instead, concentrate on creating a welcoming environment as a first step in developing a routine of healthy eating.

“Eat as a family. Make mealtime a calm, relaxed atmosphere; sit down and interact with each other. Food should be presented in an enjoyable, fun and calming setting,” says David Krol, MD, medical director of the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative at Rutgers University. “By being present, your kids will be able to recognize the cues of hunger and satiety; starting with those things builds a healthy relationship with food.”

What’s more, parents need to work on letting go of control. “Mealtime should not be about food lectures, food fights or getting our kids to eat more,” says Connecticut-based registered dietician and child nutrition expert Jill Castle. “It’s all about goals. The most important goals are for our children to enjoy food and be able to eat well by making healthy food choices. Secondarily, our goal is for our children to grow up to have a healthy relationship with food. All of that begins in childhood.”

YOU PROVIDE, THEY DECIDE

We’ve come a long way since the days when licking our plate clean was a requisite for leaving the dinner table. Now, child nutritionists and pediatricians alike follow the mantra: You provide the food and it’s up to your kids if and how much they’re going to eat. If you’re in the habit of coercing or forcing your kids to eat, we get it: Giving up control is no easy task. “It takes some patience and persistence. You have to trust in your child and have an understanding that when they’re hungry, they’re going to eat,” Krol says.

By encouraging our kids to eat rather than forcing them, we’re setting the foundation for them to be healthy eaters for life. “We should give [them] enough opportunities to eat, ideally five to six feeding times a day broken down into three meals and two to three snacks. If they decide they don’t want to eat, it’s okay. Eventually, they will,” says Andrea Berez, a Warren-based registered dietitian and specialist in pediatric nutrition.

Berez recommends a child’s plate be 1/4 protein, 1/4 starch and 1/2 fruits and veggies at each meal. “Your child should always have a choice. Give them options so they feel like they’re making their own decision. For picky eaters, make it fun. Give them dips to try, put cheese on their vegetables or give them a piece of fruit if they won’t eat vegetables,” Berez says.

MODERATION AND BALANCE ARE KEY

Experts agree that we should feed our kids the same way we feed ourselves. “What’s healthy for us is healthy for our kids, and what’s healthy for our kids is healthy for us,” Krol says. Yet with many of us following eating plans that limit or completely eliminate entire food groups (fat-free, plant-based, vegetarian, ketogenic, etc.), it’s important to remember our kids need a balanced diet made up of all food groups to truly be health eaters. Read: Just because we’re cutting way back on carbs doesn’t mean our kids should be.

“Parents have to be very careful and cautious if they’re dieting. Their kids should still be eating a balanced diet [of] three to four food groups per meal and two food groups per snack like a protein and a vegetable,” Berez says. There are no good or bad foods, and nothing should be off limits, including sweets, says Berez. Restricting can lead to binging. A better idea is to let your child choose one to two times per week when they’d like to indulge. “With treats, assess what’s going on in your week and save the treats for birthday events or going out for ice cream as a family,” she adds.

BE PERSISTENT

Our kids see the choices we make whether we’re healthy eaters or not. Let’s not fool ourselves; the food in our homes is there because we put it there. Those Doritos didn’t just miraculously appear in your pantry. Still, stocking healthy foods in our kitchen is pointless if we give up too easily when our kids reject them. When introducing new foods, consistency and repetition are key.

“Children tend to not like vegetables early on because they’re bitter,” Castle says. “We learn to like that flavor by eating it a lot. If a child rejects broccoli or green beans two or three times, don’t give up. They may need eight to 50 exposures to a new food. Try showcasing these foods and keep including them even if children don’t like them. Kids need to see mom and dad as role models eating their vegetables.”

So, at your next mealtime, make the table distraction- and device-free and focus on your family. Leave those food battles behind and enjoy calm time with your kids. A mama can dream, right?

Have you tried helping your kids grow into healthy eaters? Tell us in the comments.