We reserve one night a week as homemade pizza night in our house—it’s easy to throw together and it’s a fun meal that everyone enjoys. Recently, however, my three-year-old son, Ben, has started removing all of his toppings (even the cheese!) promptly after being served. As a mom and registered dietitian, it bothers me that so many nutritious ingredients are going to waste, not to mention the fact that Ben is only eating pizza crust for dinner. I’ve also noticed he gravitates toward the crackers or muffins on his snack plate, while leaving other things untouched. He seems addicted to carbs.
I take a little solace in knowing it’s common for preschoolers to turn into full-fledged carboholics. After age two, kids’ growth slows as they come out of their “critical nutrition period,” meaning their appetites aren’t as voracious as they were during infancy and toddlerhood. This often translates into more selective eating, which, combined with a preschooler’s natural desire for independence and control, can lead to some very vocal food preferences. Carb-rich foods like bread and pasta are easy for little ones to love—they don’t overwhelm the taste buds and have a soft, consistent texture. And they aren’t necessarily unhealthy (especially if they’re whole-grain options), but if they dominate your child’s diet, they can displace other nutrient-dense foods like meats and protein alternatives, dairy, vegetables and fruit. They also tend to be high in calories and sugar (especially if they’re processed, which most store-bought items are), so too much can lead to unhealthy weight gain and other health issues down the road.
Kimberly Crackel, from Kitchener, Ont., has noticed that her son Daniel’s preference for starchy foods has intensified. Mini bagels, nan, toast, crackers and cereal are the four-year-old’s faves. Crackel finds it challenging when Daniel opts for carbs only, despite her efforts to offer variety. “I’ll make a sandwich with chicken or turkey, but he always finds something wrong with the meat and only eats the bread,” she says. Because she worries that Daniel isn’t eating enough in general, she often gives in. “When I’m tired, it’s easier to feed him foods he likes so I know he has a full belly and won’t be cranky later on from hunger.”
Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding, developed the Division of Responsibility of Feeding philosophy, which says that when it comes to kids (beyond infancy and before adolescence), parents are responsible for the “whats, wheres and whens” of feeding, while kids control the “whether and how much.” In other words, it’s your job to provide healthy, balanced meals and snacks at certain times and in specific places (like the kitchen table), but the rest is up to the kids. This philosophy takes the pressure off everyone: Our kids often become more open to trying foods because we aren’t on their cases, and we can relax a little, knowing that we’ve fulfilled our role as feeders and can’t do much more.
I don’t recommend forbidding foods, but try to limit processed carbohydrate-rich snacks as much as possible. With meals, choose nutrient-dense sides like quinoa, brown rice and whole-grain bread, as well as starchy vegetables (yams, winter squash, taro, parsnips and corn) and fresh fruit. As a rule of thumb, offer preschoolers grains or starches three times a day, as well as one treat.
Even though Ben picks apart his pizza, he tells me that he loves pizza night, so I try to practise what I preach as a dietitian and play it cool, knowing that kids often require up to 20 exposures to a food before warming up to it. With regular, unpressured access to a variety of healthy foods—and a lot of patience on your part—most kids outgrow the “carboholic” phase around six or seven and start to expand their palates. Hang in there!
Did you know? Kids may have a biologically driven desire for sweet, carb-rich foods. According to recent research, genetic traits and evolutionary factors contribute to the inherent attraction, which is universal among kids around the world. The authors explain that our sensory systems have evolved to prefer these foods and reject potentially toxic foods that taste bitter (think green vegetables).