Four-year-old Sam eats bagels (plain) and peanut butter (creamy), cucumbers (peeled) and scrambled eggs (sometimes). At meals, when the rest of the family drinks milk or juice, he swigs from a bottle of Evian. His mother is frantic.
"The doctor says he's growing, and he certainly looks healthy," she said. "But it's hard to feed a child who doesn't want what you have to offer."
Parents' complaints about picky eaters are on the rise, said Ellyn Satter, author of "How to Get Your Kid to Eat but Not Too Much" (Bull Publishing, $14.95). She blames the rise on the demise of the family dinner and the growing interest in nutrition. But you have to realize that most children are little conservatives when it comes to food.
"You could say they are naturally picky eaters," said Alexandra Logue, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of "The Psychology of Eating and Drinking" (W. H. Freeman, $17.95).
Kids' experience is so limited that foods we take for granted are brand-new and very strange to them. They also taste and smell things more acutely than we do, Ms. Logue said, so the broccoli that is pleasantly bitter to an adult can be unbearable to a child, and the sour-sweet lemonade that refreshes parents will make a child wince.
Usually, children get used to new foods by seeing others eat them. But if you take away the family dinner, there is no place for children to learn from the people they trust what is considered safe to eat.
All children go through periods when they are finicky eaters. It is part of the process of growing up and becoming an individual, of learning to say no. The baby who ate whatever you spooned into his mouth becomes the 2-year-old whose lips clamp shut at the sight of oatmeal, the 4-year-old who eats only bananas and processed cheese, the 8-year-old who takes peanut butter sandwiches to school every day.
That is fine if parents do not panic. If they can relax and trust children's appetites, they will find they eat what they need and eventually accept more foods.
But it is hard to relax. It is doubly hard if you believe good nutrition is central to a good life.
"All parents hate it when their children don't eat," Ms. Satter said. "But the pressures go way up when the parents are involved with nutrition. They worry, they push, the kids get stubborn, and what started as a mild dislike winds up as an eating problem."
Good nutrition is important, of course. But as long as children are growing and thriving, they are probably eating enough, doctors say. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study of toddlers' eating habits. It found a great variation from child to child and from meal to meal, but each child ate about the same number of calories in the course of a day as he or she did the day before, and the number of calories each child took in was related to his or her weight.
Besides, pressure and bribery are guaranteed to result in even pickier eating and a more limited diet.
What, then, is a parent to do? Back off. Swallow your feelings of rejection and your conviction that the child's life will be blighted a bad diet. Vow to keep your mouth shut.
Then make changes in the way you feed them. Every day, offer three meals and at least two snacks that are as nutritious as the meals. If the child is hungry before dinner, offer fruit, carrot sticks or whole wheat bread and cut out the sweet or salty snacks that kill appetites.
If the child is thirsty, offer water. Many parents overdo apple juice, which adds calories in sugar but not much else.
Always eat with your child. If you cannot be there, be sure that the baby sitter eats with the child.
Try to offer a variety of foods without making any comments on them. If you serve a new food, offer something the child already knows and loves, too. If that's chicken and rice, serve it with (yuk) brussels sprouts or (yuk) beets.
Keep portions small. Ms. Satter tells parents of toddlers to serve one tablespoon of a food for each year of a child's age. Two-year-olds get two tablespoons of hamburger meat, two tablespoons of corn and half a banana. It is not much, but it is enough, and if they are hungry, they can ask for more.
When you cook for children, make the food simple and bland. Not only is children's taste more acute than ours, but they are suspicious of foods they cannot identify. Who knows what might be lurking in a stew?
Let them help you cook. A child who dices vegetables for minestrone will feel more confident about eating it.
Have patience. Studies show it may take 20 exposures to a new food before a child tries it.
And no comments on what or how much they eat. You wouldn't say anything to an adult, would you?
These kid-tested recipes were developed by Betty Cuccurulloa, former home-economics teacher who runs a school for nannies in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., for a course on feeding infants and toddlers.
Kids' minestrone soup
Makes 10 to 12 children's servings.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil