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Our teenage boys, for the most part, are “good eaters.” They drink the occasional soda and wolf down too many chips, but they also understand they should drink a lot of water and choose healthy foods. Sure, most kids probably prefer sugary treats to nutritional snacks, but there’s no reason they can’t have both.

The key, in all honesty, involves balancing what the stomach wants with what the body needs – and kids that can do this have better mental health, make better grades and lead happier, healthier lives.

When our children were young, they were pickier. Dinner often consisted of a meal for mom and dad – and another meal for the boys. Most children go through a stage like that where they restrict their food choices. Some whine, cry or throw a tantrum, for example, when presented with broccoli. Parents, don’t indulge such behavior, as it only heightens dinner-table emotionalism.

As a parent, I myself know it can be challenging to get kids to try new foods, especially vegetables. As a therapist, though, I consider it the parents’ job to motivate their children to expand their options. Consistently encouraging children to try a bite or two of new food will at least open their minds to the idea. So parents, simply put the new food on your kids’ plates and request they take a chance (but don’t argue).

As one key to getting young children to try different foods and choose nutrient-rich options, model healthy eating habits. If parents prepare unhealthy meals, their children receive the message that it’s acceptable to regularly eat such food. Also, parents, serve appropriate portion sizes – you can have too much of a “good thing.”

While I’m not a big fan of bribery, it can be an effective strategy for food experimentation. However, make sure not to overuse this technique, parents, or you could have future problems. Consider allowing your child to have a special dessert if he or she eats (say) one or two green beans. You can, on the rare occasion, even allow your kids to have some extra screen time if they accept your challenge to try a new dish.

If, despite your best efforts, your child refuses to expand his or her culinary horizons, consult your pediatrician. A 2015 study at Duke University called 3 percent of children “severely selective eaters” and another 20 percent “moderately selective.” These children run a higher risk for mental health issues (such as anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD) than children who have open palates. That’s not to say that picky eating causes psychological issues or vice versa, but there is a definite correlation between diet and mental health.

Not every dinner should include new foods or pressure to try them. Meals mark a time for families to come together and share their day. When families enjoy eating together, kids are more likely to respect their parents’ requests. If, however, most meals focus too much on nutrition, kids will naturally resist. Variety’s not only the spice of life but also an important mealtime philosophy.

Prior to going into private practice as a psychotherapist and learning-disabilities specialist, Russell Hyken, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.A., LPC, NCC, worked for more than 15 years as an English teacher, school counselor and school administrator. Visit him online at ed-psy.com.

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