01/10/2013 03:11 EST | Updated 03/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Teach kids to choose from variety of healthy foods for a balanced diet

TORONTO, Cananda - Letting kids pick what they'd like to eat from a range of healthy choices will go far to ensure they have a balanced diet and make mealtimes more enjoyable, says a Toronto dietitian.

Cara Rosenbloom, who advises on healthy eating with her nutrition communications company Words to Eat By, has two young children, so she knows firsthand what parents and caregivers have to deal with on a daily basis.

She has come to value, in her work life and at home, information from Ellyn Satter, a dietitian, social worker and psychotherapist in Madison, Wis.

"Her advice is so straightforward and it works really well: As the parent you're responsible for providing a variety of healthy food choices and the child's responsibility is deciding which foods they want to eat from among those healthy choices and how much they want to eat," Rosenbloom explains.

"And if parents can remember that really simple division of responsibility it makes mealtime a lot more calm and easy and relaxed and it helps children not develop really picky or finicky eating habits."

Rosenbloom, 39, finds many parents initially pooh-pooh the idea, saying their children will eat just one thing or will eat too much but counters by saying "children have an amazing innate ability to know when they're hungry or when they're full."

And don't make children clear their plates. "If you force-feed kids, make them eat certain foods or make them eat a certain amount of food, that will override their natural ability to know when they're hungry and full, and when they lose that ability, that's when they overeat and that's when they gain weight. So it's really important to trust a child's appetite."

Provide items from Canada's Food Guide — grains (especially whole grains), vegetables and fruit, milk and alternatives like cheese or yogurt, and lean meat, beans or fish — at mealtime and your kids will choose a balanced meal.

Rosenbloom lets her children — Kasey, 5, and Aubrey, 1 — see what's on the table and choose what they want to eat.

"They're encouraged to try everything. If they don't like something they don't have to finish it, and if they do like it, that's fantastic and they can have more and I don't limit how much they're allowed to have of healthy foods," she says. "If they're hungry they eat more, and if they're full they stop eating."

It's OK for kids to have additional helpings if they want it.

"Kids grow at very different rates. One day they can have a big appetite because they're having a growth spurt and eat three or four helpings and the next day they might not be that hungry at all. That's totally normal," Rosenbloom says.

"Listen to your child's appetite. Of course not with things like chocolate cookies and chips.... But if they want some more broccoli and some more pasta and another piece of chicken, then let them eat."

It may take a few weeks for the kids to get used to eating this way.

"But when you stop bothering your kids about making sure that they eat certain portion sizes of different foods, the kids are relieved and when that stress is gone, that control is gone and they just enjoy eating as a family."

For children who don't have big appetites or eat a small variety of foods, it's important that what they do consume packs a nutritional punch in every bite.

Whole-grain bread has more fibre than white or whole-wheat bread.

If kids have a sweet tooth, supply foods that are naturally sweet but also have nutritional value, such as fruit.

Chocolate milk has some added sugar but still has the 16 nutrients found in plain milk, such as calcium, vitamin D and riboflavin.

"Sure, they're getting a couple of teaspoons of sugar, but look what else they're getting," Rosenbloom points out.

Yogurt with fruit has calcium and other vitamins and nutrients.

Dietitians find that children's diets are often deficient in DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid vital for normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves. It's important for children, especially those under age two, as well as for pregnant women.

One reason is the No. 1 source of DHA is fish, and a lot of kids don't love fish. Make it more kid-friendly — try salmon cakes, incorporate cooked fish in sushi rolls and make salmon sandwiches.

Other sources are eggs enriched with omega-3, and milk and yogurt that have been enriched with naturally occurring DHA. The hens and cows have been given feeds that are richer in omega-3 fats, resulting in eggs and milk that are naturally richer in DHA. Not all brands contain it — check labels. Two to try are Dairy Oh! milk and L'Il Ones yogurt.

Teach children the difference between a snack and a treat.

A snack is a mini meal — cheese and crackers, cereal and milk, yogurt, fresh fruit, vegetables and dip. Kids need snacks for energy to carry them through the day.

"A treat for us is something that has lots of added sugar, lots of fat, things like cookies, chips, candy and ice cream," she adds.

"And those we don't have every day. Those are not things we bring to school to give you energy. Those are things we have at birthday parties, on the weekend, after dinner as dessert once in a while."