Children should eat more vegetables, say the experts. Easier said than done? Emma Haughton tackles her three boys
It was when the boys had eaten chicken-style burgers and oven chips for the third night running that we decided enough was enough. Ours is a vegetarian household, but catering for their lowest-common-denominator approach to food - nothing mixed together, nothing squidgy, and nothing green - had brought them to the brink of starvation and us to the point of murderous exasperation.

We were not alone. A recent report by Strathclyde University found that an alarming number of children are bullying their parents into letting them eat exactly what they want - and what they want is often a nutritional disaster. So much so that the Cancer Research Campaign is concerned that children's widespread refusal to eat fresh fruit and vegetables is exposing them to increased risks of cancer.

It was time for action. First of all we reorganised the house so there was room for a family dining table. Eating with the children might mean never again having a meal in peace, but we thought we'd stand more chance of getting them back on the nutritional track if we were on site. Then we evolved The Rules: no puddings without eating all (or near as damn it) their first course; everyone has to try a bit of everything; those who choose not to eat have to wait until the next meal - even if that is breakfast.

Armed with our spanking-new strategy and an iron determination to equal that of our offspring, we launched our first attack. Sunday lunch - nut roast, boiled potatoes, broad beans, stuffing and carrots, gravy optional. "Don't like it," said Joshua, aged six, staring at the modest portions on his plate. "Yuck," said four-year-old Nathaniel, and burst into tears. Zachary, 18 months, simply lobbed a potato over our heads. We explained The Rules - several times. Joshua, with some heavy-handed persuasion, eventually ate most of his meal, Zachary ate the green beans, Nathaniel went on hunger strike.

Undaunted, we concentrated our efforts on one family meal during weekdays, two at weekends. We cooked to adult specifications - neither of us fancied a permanent diet of nursery food - but eased off on the chilli and curry powder. We also introduced more traditional puddings like crumbles and fruit pies; they give more of an incentive to eat up the first course and provide a useful source of extra calories. It hasn't been easy, but I think we've cracked it. Joshua knuckled under fairly quickly, but for several weeks Nathaniel showed an unnerving ability to go without food from one breakfast to the next. Six months on there's still a great deal of moaning and grumbling at the start of every meal (I've given up hoping they'll ever be grateful for all those hours spent in the kitchen) but at least most days they do eat most of everything. Sometimes they even enjoy it. The trick is to get them to take that first mouthful; once they've discovered that the food doesn't taste like dog poo after all, it's usually downhill to a clean plate.

The vital ingredient is meaning what you say and sticking to it. After they'd called our bluff a few times and gone to bed on an empty stomach, they knew the score. You also have to be very careful about snacking - no packets of crisps or slices of bread before tea time - a rumbling tummy makes goulash with carrots and mash seem much more palatable.

Although it worked for us, many parents quite understandably lack the time or patience for a daily battle over mealtimes. No surprise, then, to find that those who've given up this uneven struggle are reluctant to admit it. "I've spent hours trying to persuade him to eat carrots or green beans, and it always ended up with food on the floor and both of us in tears," says one mother of a four-year-old. "I more or less give him what he wants now, and that's usually some combination of bangers, chips, toast and tinned pasta. When it comes to his health, I'm just keeping my fingers crossed."

So what do the childcare gurus have to say on this most thorny of parenting issues? Dr Christopher Green, author of Toddler Taming, a book cherished by long-suffering parents for its more down-to-earth views, is surprisingly laissez-faire. "Experiment with the full spectrum of veg, from greens to beans," he advises. "If all this is a non-event, don't worry, our children will manage well without any vegetables as long as they take an ample amount of fruit. If they don't eat fruit, they will still thrive if they take bread, cereal and fruit juice." Tell that to the Strathclyde researchers.

I turned to Penelope Leach, expecting a much more rigorous attitude. "The mother who finds herself trying to feed a toddler food which he refuses needs to ask herself, honestly, whether he appears in any way malnourished," she suggests in Babyhood. "If he is healthy, growing, energetic and cheerful, she has to try and accept that her worry is not rational, or at least it is not really about the child's nutrition."

Steering a course between neurotic concern for your child's health and abandoning any attempt at reasonable nourishment seems to be far from easy. Not so, says Julie Foley, 33, a primary school teacher with two girls of four and six, who does believe a relaxed attitude is the answer. "I've always felt that if you sit and force them it becomes an issue and they will eat even less," she says, "I let Emma and Lauren have what they want in the evening, and they usually choose things that are really quite healthy, like baked potatoes or tuna, pasta and sweetcorn."

"I suppose I do let them have some junk food, but because I've always let them have what they wanted, getting them to eat healthy things too hasn't been a problem. But then again, I've come across plenty of kids at school who will eat nothing but tinned spaghetti"n

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