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In households where mealtime is a constant war zone, you can almost bet there is a finicky preschooler who is responsible.

Food fights and unclean plates are almost enough to drive parents crazy, but they can be avoided, according to nutritionists who generally agree that parents should not worry too much if their child skips a meal or two.Mealtime during the second year is often the hardest for children because they are beginning to eat alone and they are trying different types of food.

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One of the most common problems among preschoolers is their refusal to eat. Some use it to assert their independence and others just don't like to try new things.

Food jags, or a child's insistence on eating the same thing, is common in children. For some, it is a reflection of their personalities. These are often the same children who may insist on wearing the same favorite shirt or socks for a week at a time.

"They may eat only peanut butter and crackers for several weeks, but it is best to avoid making an issue out of it because it probably will not last long," said Esther Thomas, a McLennan County, Texas, extension agent. "If your child starts losing weight, though, it's a good idea to give your pediatrician a call."

Jodie McMillan, a Woodway, Texas, mother of two children, has learned not to make a big deal out of unclean plates at her house because she knows her 2-year-old eventually will eat.

"We don't force Natalie to eat; hunger takes care of that."

McMillan said parents can use mealtime to teach children how to make their own decisions. Choosing what to eat is a child's first attempt to gain independence.

"Hopefully, she (Natalie) will learn to choose healthy foods for herself at a early age," she said. "We don't make a big issue out of it because she needs to learn how to make her own choices."

While children need a balanced diet, that balance need not be present within each meal, as long as things balance out every few days or even weeks, Thomas said. Parents can set a good example by eating foods from each category of the Food Guide Pyramid, she said.

Bernadette Haschke, a Baylor University associate professor and director of the Child Development Laboratory in the home economics department, said some of the old tactics that were used to get children to eat should be eliminated.

For example, parents should not make dessert a reward for eating, she said. If a cookie is a part of dinner, then it should not be used for a reward.

"If a guest came to your house, you would not offer them a cookie for a reward," she said. "We don't treat adults that way, so we shouldn't treat children like that."