Christi Olcott, 4, stores a bright orange jack-o'-lantern on a shelf in her bedroom to remind her of the fun she had trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Despite the time lapse since the holiday, the plastic pumpkin is still full of treats.Treats her mom, Susan, will eventually toss out.

The same untimely end strikes the chocolate Easter bunny Christi receives during the upcoming holiday celebration.

"I usually cut the bunny up in pieces and divide it with the neighbor kids," Susan explained. "Christi doesn't like much candy, though it's often around. She'd rather eat a piece of cheese or fruit."

Christi's an ordinary, rough and tumble 4-year-old concerned with which side her ponytail hangs from, what shirt matches the pants and in which conversation her energetic verbal skills command the most attention.

Food, as a whole subject, claims a tenuous position near the bottom of Christi's "Important Things" list.

"I used to think I knew what Christi liked to eat;" Susan lamented. "It was macaroni and cheese as often as I would fix it. But now there's no set pattern to what she will eat. She is getting more fussy about what the food looks like than what it tastes like. I can't get away with peanut butter slabbed on bread and folded over any more. The sandwich has to be cut in a shape."

Susan, like many other parents of preschoolers, struggles with erratic, unpredictable eating behaviors in children.

And for Olcott, who serves as district manager of theKearns Family Health Services office of the Salt Lake City-County Health Department, the problem extends beyond her immediate family and into the community.

Establishing healthful childhood eating habits requires a combination crash course in nutrition, child development, psychology, marketing and design, not to mention lengthy lessons in consistency and common sense.

The task seems overwhelming, particularly to new parents faced with wailing infants or tantrum-prone 2-year-olds.

But Ellyn Satter, nationally recognized expert on children's eating habits, suggests a simple rule of thumb for successful feeding in her book, "How to Get Your Kid to Eat . . . But Not Too Much."

Satter cautions, "Parents are responsible for what is presented to eat and the manner in which it is presented. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat."

That parental responsibility starts with a choice to breast-feed infants.

Many physicians and other health-care practioners cite the nutritional as well as nurturing benefits of breast-feeding, according to Pam Mitchell, a registered dietitian and consultant for Women, Infants and Children supplementary food program, (WIC).

"Though infant formulas are nutritionally sound, breast milk is always fresh, is the least allergenic and contains natural immune factors," Mitchell added.

WIC consultants suggest offering iron fortified cereals at four months; other solid foods at six months.

"New foods should be introduced one at a time," Mitchell continued. "Allow two to five days adjustment to each new food; then check for possible allergic reactions to a single food before introducing another new item. Juices should be introduced in a cup, a skill the infant learns to master at this age."

As the infant masters other coordination tasks, he learns to feed himself, beginning with bite-size nibbles of cereal, cheese or fruit.

Shape, color and texture of foods play an important role in generating interest in meals.

Regular mealtime patterns should be established for children.

Mary Abbott Hess, president of the American Dietetic Association, suggests that "Families who eat together develop a sense of belonging and sharing. As we talk about what we've done during the day and what our plans are for the future, we learn about one another. Family communication relieves stress and improves self-image. Keep mealtime conversation light and tableside rules at a minimum. A positive attitude about the food encourages children to experiment."

Maintaining a positive attitude with toddler's eating styles challenges the most conscientious parent.

"A toddler sends his own food signals," according to Satter. "Instinctively he knows when, what, how much and at what pace food is eaten. He is capable of managing his own food intake."

But that management style isn't always what parents prefer.

"Children frequently go on food jags, insisting on the same foods meal after meal," Hess explained. "Parents should avoid making too much fuss about the cycle, but at the same time continue to offer the child a variety of other foods."

That kind of independence could frustrate parents unless they understand their responsibility ceases with presentation of the food.

Allowing the child to monitor his eating patterns eliminates power struggles, forced eating and routine rejection of new foods. A child exercising independence in food choices grows in self confidence as well as physical size.

Physical growth measures the adequacy of a child's eating patterns.

Infants grow at a rapid rate, ordinarily tripling birth weight and increasing height by 50 percent in the first year. As growth rate slows, so does the need for nourishment, but limiting a child to three meals a day fails to meet his caloric demands.

"Nutritional snacks are an important part of a preschooler's eating day," said Mitchell, consultant with WIC. "Snacks should offer the same nutrients as meals - proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Cheese and crackers is a good example, or a fruit and milk combination, like Orange Julia. Think of a snack as a mini-meal, not as a treat."

Preschoolers deserve a healthy head start in the world of life-long eating experiences. Armed with adequate information and passels of patience, parents contribute to the establishment of worthwhile eating patterns in children.- TIME TO EAT

- Present new foods at the beginning of a meal when your child is most hungry.

- Serve small portions of new foods. If the food is not accepted, take it away without fuss and present it again a few days later.

- Don't reward children for "trying just a bite." Preschoolers are less likely to eat a new food again if they are rewarded than if they are just exposed to the food and allowed to try it.

- Make food look beautiful and appetizing. Use interesting shapes, colors and a variety of textures.

- Add a little juice or sauce to dry foods because children prefer moist textures.

- Serve foods warm, at room temperature, or chilled, rather than very hot or icy cold.

- Be an example.

(From Mary Abbott Hess)

- HEALTHY HEAD START is a part of National Nutrition Month, sponsored locally by the Utah Dietetics Association. Individuals with questions about nutrition, children's eating habits or other food concerns are invited to consult their family physician or contact Lee Anne McConnell, Cottonwood Hospital, 269-2020; or Jean Zancanella, University Hospital, 581-2203; or the WIC office, 584-8232.