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story.lead_photo.caption There are plenty of ways to help kids develop healthy lifelong eating habits and attitudes. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad and I love to cook. I make a special point of preparing meals I think my children will like — or at least eat! But time after time I find myself dumping perfectly good, untouched food into leftover containers, or worse, into the trash. The children seem to want nothing but macaroni and cheese, and I’m worried that they’re not getting what they need in their diets. What can I do?

A: This may not make you feel any better, but I’m betting that every parent reading this column is nodding his or her head in agreement. Apparently, all our children got the same memo about the white food group.

Your job as a parent is to encourage healthy eating habits and to provide a good variety of healthy foods. Of course, as you know, providing it and getting the children to actually eat it sometimes seem mutually exclusive. Not to worry.

Research consistently shows that despite the frustrating appearance of the almost-untouched after-dinner plate, even the pickiest children generally meet or exceed their recommended energy and dietary requirements. (After all, you don’t see too many children keeling over from scurvy on the school playground, right?) The body automatically seeks out the nutrients it needs.

It might also help to consider that children’s unwillingness to experiment with unfamiliar tastes and textures may have some evolutionary roots. Early hominid children with a predisposition to put weird things in their mouths were less likely to survive to pass on their genes than those who preferred bland and familiar foods.

That said, there are plenty of ways to get children beyond eating nothing but the white food group and help them develop healthy lifelong habits and attitudes:

• Don’t let your children fill up on sugar or fat, especially less than two hours before a meal. Children who are reasonably hungry at dinnertime are much more likely to eat what’s put in front of them.

• Follow the “eat-a-rainbow” principle (offering foods with a variety of colors) to cover the widest range of vitamins and minerals.

• Don’t prepare different meals for the children and yourself. Find a happy (or at least reasonable) medium that everyone can eat.

• Get the children involved in food preparation — measuring out and adding ingredients, stirring in milk, grating cheese and so on. They’re much less likely to reject something when they’ve invested their own time and effort.

• Have them help you shop. And, if you’re feeling brave, every once in a while let the children find something new for you to try!

• Try, try again. Research indicates young children won’t accept a new food until it’s been offered it at least eight times.

• It’s perfectly reasonable to ask children to take at least one bite of everything on their plate and to stay at the table until everyone is finished.

• When a new food passes muster (to your surprise, and theirs), write it down and serve it again soon.

• Cheat a little. If all else fails, you may be able to slip some nutritious foods unnoticed into their mac and cheese.

When it comes to picky dinnertime eating, there’s less need for panic than we often assume. Fortunately, most children get more adventurous with age. So if you keep your end of the bargain by filling everyone’s plates with a wide variety of healthy foods, chances are everything will work out just fine.

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