In the second year it is common for little ones to use food (or refusal of food) to assert their developing independence.

In the second year it is common for little ones to use food (or refusal of food) to assert their developing independence.

As the mother of two young children, Nikki Duffy knows first-hand the dangers of dinner time. Tantrums, anxiety, stress. And that's just the parents.

Recipes:

There are no guarantees in life ... However, there is a mysterious rule, to which I have yet to find an exception, that all children, everywhere, like spaghetti bolognese. This is despite the fact that all parents make it differently ... There's just something about it. It's great because, if you make your own, you can pack it with good stuff, including lots of chopped veg and plenty of tomatoes. 

Egg parcels

Zucchini Polpette

Vegie bean curry

''Mealtimes with young children can be a challenging part of parenthood,'' Duffy, a freelance food writer who spent three years as the food editor for British food business River Cottage, says.

''But they can also be a source of immense joy, fun and satisfaction. When a meal is a truly communal experience, something a family enjoys together - the food, the conversation, even the tidying up - you are all enriched by it in an emotional as well as a physical sense. For me that's what it's all about.''

Duffy has written a book, River Cottage Baby & Toddler Cookbook, that conveys the message that food, from breastmilk, to the earliest solids, through childhood and beyond, should be a pleasurable experience.

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, a father or four and the River Cottage guru, has written the introduction, where he says feeding time can give you quality family time. Good nutrition is not about becoming obsessed with what to avoid, ''so much as celebrating all of the delicious foods you can embrace enthusiastically'', he says

Yet both Duffy and Fearnley Whittingstall admit that it's not always zucchini flowers, sunshine and, well, not lollipops, but perhaps, plum cobbler. They've both been faced with rejected meals, dinner time conflict and concerns over what is, or is not, being eaten.

But if there's one message Duffy hopes readers will take away from the book it's to relax.

''One doctor told me how stress increases adrenaline, and adrenaline decreases appetite - so you can see that unhappy mealtimes are completely counter-productive,'' she says.

''I know how easy it can be to get stressed and anxious over food - as a parent, you have such a strong instinct to get a decent meal into your child - but I've also seen that it doesn't get you anywhere.''

Duffy says the choo-choo train was banned at her house.

''How can it be healthy to make a child eat something they really don't want to eat, or eat when they're not hungry?''

She's an advocate of baby-led weaning, where the baby is allowed to explore and discover food at their own pace, and with their own hands and mouths, rather than spoon-feeding them.

''So, instead of putting parsnip puree into their mouth for them, a baby-led approach would be to put some thick, soft fingers of roasted parsnip in front of them and let them grab, suck, chew - or chuck on the floor! - as they choose.

''The theory is that this fosters a healthy and happy relationship with food. It means you don't have to go through an extensive pureeing phase and that, within certain limits, your baby can join in with family meals and eat roughly the same sort of things as the rest of the family from early on.

''It's an approach that many parents have found very positive and successful. I do think there's a danger of defining parents too strictly, though, as either 'baby-led weaners' or 'puree-ers'. I think the crucial thing about baby-led weaning is that it rejects the idea of making your baby eat something, it puts the baby in charge.

''You can still do that with purees - put some on a spoon and give it them, see what they do with it! It's possible to say, 'Right, I'm going to do baby-led weaning', and then start beating yourself up because you're not sticking to all the 'rules', or you mashed their avocado instead of slicing it. That's just unhelpful. It's really important to find a relaxed, enjoyable way of weaning that works for your baby, and for you.''

The book covers feeding from the beginning - she's ''a passionate advocate of breastfeeding'' - through the first year and into family eating. There are also sections on nutrition, dealing with conflict and anxiety and a comprehensive recipe section.

Many of the recipes have tips on how to adapt them for the family. Duffy agrees there's nothing worse than having to cook different meals for different members of the family, and then having to eat at separate times.

''I think eating together is really important: children learn so much from observing other people. If they see you enjoying healthy, varied meals, it can only help them on the same path,'' she says.

''It makes them feel grown-up and I think it can encourage them to try new things. Family mealtimes can be really fun and enjoyable too, although they aren't always, I'd be the first to admit! I know it can be difficult to always sit down and eat with your children - I certainly don't do it at every meal, but I feel it's really valuable whenever I do.''

She doesn't subscribe to the idea of ''hiding'' vegetables in meals.

''I hate the idea of tricking them into eating things too. With some things, you've just got to accept it's going to be a long haul. My mantra is: keep trying, keep offering it in different ways, but be cool about it, and, very importantly, eat with them and let them see you enjoying the things you want them to eat.

''It's helpful to remember that babies and small children often need to taste bitter or sour flavours, which many vegetables contain, many times before they will accept them. It's only natural. We're programmed to love sweet tastes.

''Neither of my children are big fans of vegetables. I keep putting broccoli on the table and I try not to get upset when they don't eat it - but sometimes they do.

''I have found they will eat vegetables pureed into a soup or chopped and added to pasta dishes, risotto or meaty sauces. I make sure they know what vegetable is in the dish too, so they learn that it's all right. I also give them plenty of fruit, which they love, so I feel confident they're getting lots of vitamins, antioxidants and fibre from that.''

Is there a recipe from the book she can guarantee children will eat? ''There are no guarantees in life ... However, there is a mysterious rule, to which I have yet to find an exception, that all children, everywhere, like spaghetti bolognese. This is despite the fact that all parents make it differently ... There's just something about it. It's great because, if you make your own, you can pack it with good stuff, including lots of chopped veg and plenty of tomatoes.''

River Cottage Baby & Toddler Cookbook, by Nikki Duffy. (Bloomsbury, August 2011, $35).

Karen Hardy is a staff feature writer.