06/28/2012 02:37 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

Kids Love Healthy Foods -- As Much As They Love Anything

Kids Are a Work in Progress

Every meal should be a happy meal! From early on, kids begin to develop preferences for certain foods and dislikes for others. It is important for parents to understand that their children have different nutritional needs at each age based on their growth and development.

The nutritional benefits infants and toddlers receive play a decisive role in their physical and mental development. At the earliest stages of life, bodies need lots of calories, protein, fat and other nutrients. In particular the brain depends on sufficient fat intake for optimal growth.

By the age of 2, the fat content of a child's diet should be limited. Leaner protein sources, like fish, chicken, low fat dairy and dried beans as well as a broad variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, should become staples with most meals. The nutritional quality of a child's diet at the early developmental stages is extremely important.

Adolescents have also heightened nutritional needs. In fact, at the age of puberty, youngsters have the highest nutritional demands since infancy. The dramatic growth spurts that typically occur at this time must be supported by extra healthy eating and physical activity.

For children, many risk factors are the same as for adults. Fatty, salty and sugary foods, combined with lack of physical activity, are all causal factors for the epidemic rise of youth obesity today. Possible long-term effects of being overweight at an early age are diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Teaching Kids About Food

When it comes to your kid's eating habits, there is no such thing as "the talk." It takes an ongoing conversation to assure they know as much as possible about the importance of a healthy start in life.

Learning how to eat right does not have to be complicated or imposing. But as the adult, your actions speak louder than your words. Set the stage for healthful eating habits at home and your kids will see the benefits first hand.

Always use a practical approach when teaching healthy eating. Before you do the food shopping, make a grocery list. It should include lots of fresh vegetables and fruit. Let your children add reasonable requests, but explain the importance of the health benefits that certain foods have over others. Then stick to the plan.

Take your children to the farmer's market and make it fun as well as educational. Talk about the foods you're buying. Back at home, prepare your meals together. It can be a time well spent for the whole family.

Young Bodies Need to Move

Kids are natural exercisers. Unfortunately, they spend a lot of time watching movies and playing video games. The fact is that kids need plenty of physical activity to strengthen their bones and muscles, develop a healthy heart and lungs, burn calories and build self-esteem and confidence.

All kinds of sports and leisure activities are useful. What matters is that they are done with regularity.

Making Healthier Choices

Healthy eating should always be a pleasurable experience for everyone, especially your kids. If they feel deprived, they will not enjoy their food, no matter how beneficial it may be to their health. Variety makes meals interesting and helps ensure a balanced diet. There are hardly any "forbidden" foods, however, moderation is key. Fresh fruits and vegetables can and should be served in abundance and with regularity. Their nutritional benefits cannot be over-estimated. Encourage your kids to make consciously healthier food choices by explaining how the body uses food to stay healthy and strong.

Three Meals Plus Snacks

Active kids burn lots of energy. However, since their stomachs are small, they have only a limited capacity for food intake and digestion. Consequently, they must eat more often than adults. Three meals plus one or two healthy snacks per day may be required to meet all their nutritional demands, especially during growth spurts.

Snacks should provide a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat. Serve fresh vegetables and fruit often, but keep salty and refined foods to a minimum. Yogurt and low fat dairy products are excellent sources for calcium.

Limit Portion Sizes

Yes, portion sizes do matter, even at a young age. Limiting portion sizes is crucial for healthy growth and the avoidance of weight problems at a young age. Don't overwhelm your children with food or try to bribe them with desserts and snacks. Never force kids to clean their plate if they don't want to. Their small stomachs fill up faster than you may realize.

If weight becomes an issue, cut back on calories and fat without diminishing the quality and taste of the foods you normally give your child. Learning how to use smart cooking methods and using leaner ingredients can make a real difference to the quality of your family's nutrition.