By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She specializes in writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics.
With so much hype around carbohydrates, many parents wonder how this nutrient should be viewed when it comes to children. Is it healthy or should it be avoided? Here’s what you need to know about the role of carbohydrates in your child’s diet, including how many your infant or toddler requires and the healthiest places to find them.
Carbohydrates are an important nutrient, especially for kids. They play a significant part in the growth and development of babies and toddlers.
Carbohydrates can be found in a wide variety of foods, some healthy and others not as healthy. Therefore, it’s important to understand which carbohydrates are best and choose the healthiest sources and amounts for your children. Ideal carbohydrate choices will also offer other important nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, whereas unhealthy carbohydrates will have little nutrition but lots of sugar.
Why Carbohydrates Matter
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the body’s main energy source. They’re found in the highest amounts foods like grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. They’re also found in less healthy foods, such as packaged snacks made with refined grains, baked goods, and junk foods. Needless to say, most people eat more carbs than they probably need to given the wide availability of high-carb foods today.
When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into glucose, or sugar molecules. This sugar is then used to fuel important everyday physiological functions. The same is true, of course, for babies and toddlers who have growing muscles, busy bodies, and very active brains that need lots and lots of energy. When you are burning as much energy as an active toddler, you definitely need to refuel.
Infant Carbohydrate Needs
Carbohydrates should make up around 40% of an infant’s calories. For an infant who needs approximately 800 calories per day, that’s 320 calories from carbohydrates. There are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate, so that means this infant would need 80 grams of carbs each day.
For infants, the primary source of healthy carbs will come from infant formula or breast milk, especially during the first 12 months of life.
When solid foods are introduced around 4-6 months of age, infants can get healthy carbs from things like applesauce, mashed bananas and avocado, and pureed veggies like corn, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, and beans. As their digestive tract develops, babies can be introduced to grains like quinoa, oats, rice, and even whole grain toast cut into strips.
Toddler Carbohydrate Needs
Carbohydrate needs for toddlers increase to around 55% of calories at two years old. Mostly to support the increase in activity during this time. Have you ever been around a toddler? It can be exhausting to watch them move around!
For a toddler requiring 1,100 calories per day, that’s 605 calories per day from carbohydrates. At 4 calories per gram, this comes out to approximately 150 grams of carbs per day.
Toddlers can get healthy carbs in foods like whole grain breads and grains, beans, lentils, peas, cooked veggies, canned fruit, berries, and mashed potatoes. Parents may also choose to supplement their child with a toddler formula, which will supply extra carbs along with other important nutrients for growth and development. A plant-based toddler formula like that from Else offers 19 grams of carbohydrates in a 240 ml serving made with the formula powder.
To give you an idea of how many carbs may be in plant-based foods for babies and toddlers, here are some examples:
- ¼ cup cooked lentils = 19 grams
- ¼ cup cooked quinoa = 29 grams
- ¼ cup cooked sweet potato = 11 grams
- ¼ cup pinto beans = 28 grams
- 1 slice whole grain toast = 19 grams
- 1 Tbsp peanut butter = 4 grams
Your toddler should be offered a variety of these foods, in addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables to meet their carbohydrate needs.
Toddlers also start to develop food preferences during this stage. They may naturally gravitate towards sweet foods, which may not be quite as nutritious for them. This is an important time to encourage your toddler to eat plenty of healthy carbs, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Offering these types of foods regularly will help them develop a healthier palate.
Carbohydrates are an important nutrient whether you have an infant or toddler, and healthy carbs can be found in a wide variety of plant-based foods once your child starts to wean from breast milk. Else Nutrition also offers a high quality line of plant-based formula appropriate for toddlers, which can be a great way to easily incorporate healthy carbs into your child’s diet.
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.