More often than not, the dinner table is ground zero for power struggles over food. From begging your toddler to try a bite of broccoli to insisting she clear her plate, by the end of mealtime she's teary-eyed, you're drained—and everyone's dreading the next inevitable breaking-bread battle. When did the simple act of eating become so stressful?

"Food should be fun", says pediatrician Dr. Greg Lawton, author of the blog A Musing Pediatrician. "Food and family should be a focal point of a social experience that occurs 3 times a day. Stressing over food makes for a less than pleasant experience for all, and is almost certainly NOT worth the extra bite that has been coerced." Anxiety-free family meals are possible—so long as parents scale back the pressure on kids to only nosh on an "acceptable" diet.

It's time to ditch the jars of bland baby food and soggy purées, and make mealtimes an interactive art show of colors, shapes, textures and taste as you turn your new solid-food eater on to a variety of dishes. Dial down the stress and pique your toddler's cuisine curiosity with these entertaining additions to breakfast, lunch and dinner.

  • Make a mess! Don't be afraid to let your hands—or your child's—get dirty. Allowing your little one to play with her food isn't only fun, it's beneficial. Research from the University of Nottingham's School of Psychology found that babies who were allowed to freely pick-up, toy with, and choose their own food grew up to make healthier choices as children. This strategy is part of "baby-led" weaning—a fancy term for allowing babies free rein with food so that they feel empowered and engaged at mealtimes.
  • Finger foods. Force feeding is exasperating for everyone, and it can cause blowback—literally (spit-up anyone?). Empower your baby by creating small pieces of fist-friendly food in different shapes and sizes. Cut soft (and safe) foods like bananas or bread into small chunks and let your baby squish, sample and savor the pieces for the full sensual experience. Resist the urge to correct or feed her; the entertainment will encourage her to eat at her own pace.
  • Focus on faces. If your tiny abstract artist's more interested in flinging food around to create a kitchen-wide masterpiece than eating, it's time to make her meals so interesting that she'll hesitate to throw them overboard. All infants are fascinated by the appearance of people, so fashion a face out of soft bread or an English muffin. Make a bread circle with a cookie cutter, and adorn it with bite-sized fruit features and a generous dallop of peanut butter beard. Or, opt for hammy hair and a cheddar grin. The options are endless for your little one's foodie friends, and she'll never tire of seeing new faces.
  • Animal shapes. Make mealtime a trip to the zoo with pancake pigs, cheesy lions and other animal kingdom critters. Since your baby knows about furry friends from story time, she'll be excited to see them on her plate. For pig pancakes, simply make the cakes in two different sizes and stack them—largest on the bottom and the smallest on top (for a nose). Use chocolate chips or blueberries for eyes and nostrils. Cheesy lions can be made with any flower-shaped cookie cutter—cut out a darker cheese for the mane, and create a circular face out of a lighter cheese, such as jack, and use fruit bits for the features. For a simple way to create creatures, purchase a pack of tiny animal cookie cutters and use them to shape anything from sandwiches to steamed potatoes.
  • Crazy colors. Vivid colors aren't only fun to look at, they're better for your baby's nutrition—multihued fruits and vegetables boast vitamins and anti-oxidants galore. Give your budding eater a taste of the rainbow with diced green, red and yellow apples in the shape of a caterpillar or crazy quilt. Or, scatter blueberries or raspberries on cereal or oatmeal to brighten up a boring breakfast. Even when it's inconvenient, set a place for Roy G. Biv at the table—a 2012 Cornell University study found that children are most attracted to plates boasting six different colors of food.
  • Offer up options. It's no secret that toddlers crave independence—so ask and you shall receive! Fill your little one's plate with a limited number of healthy options, about 3 or 4, and allow her to make her own decisions about what to eat. The same Cornell University study cited above revealed that kids prefer their entrées with a whopping seven components—four more than the adults surveyed. Avoid heaping piles of food; instead, serve up golf ball-sized portions of your toddler's favorites, such as steamed sweet potatoes, diced strawberries, or cheese cubes. She may not eat it all, but the power of choice will persuade her to dabble in a few offerings.
  • Eat your veggies. So your princess doesn't like peas...or carrots, or anything resembling a vegetable? Make a "veggie face" with carrots, cucumbers and peas—perfect for picking at—and she won't be able to resist. Or try toast in the shape of a rabbit face with green bean ears, an olive nose and shredded carrot whiskers. Explain that carrots are the bunny's favorite food, and your baby will learn to like them too!

So dig in, get dirty and make mealtime more like playtime. When your baby's first encounters with food spark engagement and interaction, it means less stress for you and a healthier, happier eater down the road.