My ambitious goal with this post is to cover two closely related topics – the misperceptions about carbs in kids’ diet and the importance of accepted foods at each meal.

In many traditional cultures around the world, meals are accompanied by a plain side dish, usually a starch, which is easy to eat and goes well with other dishes on the table — bread or potatoes in Europe, rice in China or corn tortillas in Mexico.

These simple options are not only easy to combine with the rest of the dishes but they also serve as a security blanket for children who are still learning about all the flavors and textures. When a child comes to a table, she needs to quickly identify what he can comfortably eat.

Other options may need more consideration, experimentation and a more gradual approach.  If every single option she sees on the table is a challenge, mealtimes can turn into a hurdle instead of being a pleasant and satisfying experience for everyone. 

But what should parents do if all children choose to eat are those accepted/safe foods that more often than not are of the starchy type?

First of all, let’s look into what is accepted/safe food.

What food can be considered “accepted” food?

Any food you never had to entice your child to eat is considered “accepted” food. Typically it is a type of food he is happy to eat when hungry.

It does not have to be their absolute favorite and it does not have to be dessert/sweet type of food either.  Read this post on desserts and sweet to learn how to manage them effectively without overly restricting.

Many child feeding experts and researchers, including Ellyn Satter, the creator of the Division of Responsibility in feeding formula, suggest including safe/accepted food in each meal and snack.

For most children, accepted food is some starch, like bread, potato, pasta or rice.  Starchy foods usually have a predictable texture and flavor and are generally preferred by children. 

But protein-rich food like cheese, chicken or eggs, vegetables or fruit can also be included in meals as accepted foods.

Some extremely selective children have very specific requirements for their accepted foods. Their accepted food may need to be of a specific type or brand only. If your child exhibits this degree of selectivity, in addition to eating a very limited variety, you may need a multidisciplinary assessment by a group of specialists to get to the bottom of his feeding issue. 

How many accepted foods should I include in a meal?

One-two accepted foods in each meal and snack should be sufficient to let the child feel welcome at the table.

Accepted foods can be either main dish (eg. pizza or steak), side dish (bread, vegetable, pasta, etc)  or accompaniments (cheese and fruit platter, crackers and dips etc). 

I have a whole post on how to plan meals with selective kids – read it here.  

But what about the advice to “not cater”?

There is a difference between catering and being considerate of a child’s preferences and abilities. Getting up from the dinner table to get an alternative would be catering. Planning meals so that include options that work for the child is being kind and considerate.

That’s why, especially if you are just transitioning to family-style meals, it makes sense to include a couple more simple side dishes, extra fruit or dip so that the child can easily find something to eat.

But why would my child ever want to eat something different except his safe/ accepted food?

– Because he sees YOU eating a variety of food and he wants to be like you, providing you have a good connection and positive relationship around food and eating.

-Because positive repeated exposures to new food improve its acceptance.

– Because, like any child,  he is a curious creature and wants to learn about his environment, including food. 

– Because he is guided by flavor and his palate keeps developing as he is growing.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to repeat that a very small number of children with severe feeding difficulties, including those with the diagnosis of ARFID, will find it much harder to expand their food choices. If you suspect that your child is on the extreme side of the picky eating spectrum, you will need an assessment and a multidisciplinary team of health professionals to help them.

So my child only has been eating his safe/ accepted foods for a week now. When will he start to branch out?

It depends on a few factors. 

1. How severe are his eating challenges? 

If there is anything going in the background, psychologically or physiologically, it needs to be sorted out before he will be ready for food adventures.

If you suspect there is a digestion issue, food hypersensitivity, oral motor delays or a food allergy, check with your doctor and get a referral to see a specialist. 

Should I limit carbs to help my child try more variety?

2. What meals used to be like for the most part of his life?

If the pasta portions used to be restricted to entice him into eating more carrots, it will take a lot of meals consisting of pasta only to negate the effect of this strategy.

If he used to be spoon-fed in front of the screen for many months, he will need to rediscover the flavors and textures and learn basic self-feeding skills before diving into a variety. 

But it always helps to remember that starches are the preferred way for many kids to get their calories, so the amount of starchy foods your child is eating is probably just normal.

But isn’t it a bad thing to be “filling up” on “empty carbs”?

I used quote marks around these phrases because I hear them from my clients a lot.

In fact, carbohydrate-rich foods are quite nutritious and provide a fantastic source of calories and energy for children. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends that kids get about half of their calories from carbs. 

Besides, one would struggle to find a carbohydrate-rich food that would not also be a decent source of protein, fiber and other important nutrients.

For an average 3-year-old, it translates into about 600-700 calories or 150-170 grams of carbohydrates per day!

Two pieces of bread contain 24 grams of carbohydrates so it is a fantastic source of this important nutrient. In order for your child to get the same 24 grams of carbohydrates, they would have to eat 4 cups of chopped broccoli or 4 whole carrots! 

On top of that, 2 slices of plain white bread provide:

  • 2 grams of fiber (whole grain bread)
  • almost 5 (!) g of protein – a third of a 3 year old’s daily needs 
  • 2mg of iron – a nutrient of concern for small kids 

In addition to dissuading concerns about “too many carbs”, I  also always recommend looking at what a child eats over a course of a week or two, instead of micromanaging every meal.

It is very likely that you will see that, over a few days, your child eats from all food groups. 

Finally, if you feel that your child eats only bread or other carbs at meals, think about ways to add nutrition instead of limiting the carbs.

For example, you can choose a fortified variety with extra iron, calcium and fiber or experiment with nutrient-rich dips and spreads like olive oil, butter, tomato sauce, jam, pureed soups, melted cheese, hummus, pesto and others. 

if you have been limiting your child’s accepted foods in order to get them to eat more variety, you are definitely not alone. Many parents are in the same boat, desperately trying to get their child to eat in a balanced and nutritious way.

What are your thoughts? Would you allow your child to eat as much of their accepted foods, including starches, as they want?

More on picky eating and child nutrition:

Age-appropriate Ways to Talk to Small Kids About Nutrition

COMPLETE GUIDE: How often do kids (0 to 5) need to eat? Sample schedules included.

Looking for help with picky eating? Avoid these 5 pitfalls.