Carbohydrates for Kids: Optimal Sources and Recommended Intake for Your Child

When considering children and their diet, carbohydrates, or carbs for short, are likely to be the first thing that comes to mind. Carbohydrates are abundant sources of energy, which is why many children are naturally drawn to easily likable carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, pasta, and potatoes. As a result, parents often have questions about the quantity and types of carbohydrates that are best for their children. Continue reading to gain a deeper understanding of carbohydrates and how to incorporate them into your child’s diet effectively.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, which are the fundamental components of food that provide us with energy. Among these macronutrients, carbohydrates offer the quickest and preferred source of energy for our bodies. When we consume carbohydrates, they are directly absorbed into the bloodstream and then taken up by cells throughout the body, where they are utilized for immediate energy or stored for later use.

There are several different types of carbohydrates, including simple carbs, complex carbs, and fiber.

Simple carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates consist of single sugar molecules, such as glucose, fructose, and lactose. They are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and are the easiest form of carbohydrate for the body to digest. Simple carbs provide rapid energy to the body when needed.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are made up of multiple sugar molecules and are often referred to as starches. They take longer to digest compared to simple carbs since they require more effort to break down in the body.


Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body cannot digest, and it does not break down into sugar molecules like simple or complex carbohydrates. Due to its unique characteristic, fiber aids in maintaining optimal functioning of the digestive system.

Why carbohydrates are important for children

Carbohydrates are crucial for children because they provide energy, which is essential for their play, learning, and growth. Carbohydrate-rich foods also contain various nutrients that support optimal development and growth. For instance, fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Carbohydrates supply both immediate and stored energy to the body and are the preferred fuel source, especially for the brain and central nervous system. In the absence of carbohydrates, the body may resort to breaking down proteins from muscles and other tissues, or stored fat, for energy. Additionally, certain carbohydrate foods contain fiber, which aids in maintaining proper digestive system function. Sufficient fiber intake, along with an adequate amount of water, is particularly important for children experiencing constipation.

How much carbohydrates should children consume?

It is recommended that children obtain about 45-65% of their daily calorie intake from carbohydrates [1]. Following this guideline ensures a nutritious diet when incorporating high-quality carbohydrate sources into most meals and snacks. When selecting carbohydrates, prioritize options such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.

A note on sugar:

Many parents are concerned about their children’s sugar intake. While sugar itself is not inherently bad (as it provides energy), excessive consumption can have negative effects. While each family should establish their own plan for managing sugar, here is some advice to consider.

Try not to excessively focus on sugar. The more attention it receives, the more your child may desire it. Additionally, whole food sources of sugar, such as fruits or dairy products, should not be a major concern. Even sweet treats like cookies or ice cream made with real sugar can be enjoyed in moderation within the context of a balanced diet.

If you want to limit sugar, start by examining products where it is not necessary. Be mindful of added sugars in items like yogurt, granola bars, cereal, salad dressings, and pasta sauces. Whenever possible, opt for products sweetened naturally with fruit. If alternatives are not available, choose products with the lowest amount of added sugar or purchase plain versions and add your own sweeteners.

Carbohydrate sources suitable for children

Many foods contain carbohydrates, and children usually have no trouble meeting their recommended daily carbohydrate intake. While all foods can be part of a balanced diet, it is important to prioritize high-quality carbohydrates to ensure that your child receives adequate nutrition. Here are some top options:


All fruits contain carbohydrates, primarily in the form of fructose, and they also provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Most children enjoy fruit as it is, but you can also serve it in the form of smoothies, dried fruit, or baked goods.


Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, and regular potatoes are excellent sources of carbohydrates. Other vegetables also contain carbohydrates, albeit in smaller quantities. Make vegetables more appealing by roasting them or serving them with fun dips like hummus or ranch dressing.

Dairy foods

Dairy products like milk and yogurt supply carbohydrates in the form of lactose. When selecting flavored dairy products, opt for those with the least amount of added sugar, if possible. If your child does not enjoy these foods on their own, they can be incorporated into smoothies or used to prepare oatmeal.

Whole grains

Whole grains, as well as other grain products, are beloved sources of carbohydrates for many children. These include bread, pasta, and crackers. Whenever feasible, choose whole grain options to increase fiber content.

Carbs FAQ

Q: What are carbohydrates for babies?

Babies who are 6 months and younger receive all the necessary carbohydrates from breast milk and/or formula. Once babies are over 6 months and begin eating solid foods, they can enjoy a variety of carbohydrate-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, yogurt, oatmeal, and other whole grains. Remember to prepare them in a way that is appropriate for your baby’s age.

Q: What are three examples of simple carbohydrate foods?

While there is a wide range of carbohydrate-containing foods, three examples of simple and easy-to-eat carbohydrate foods are fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal.

Q: What is considered the healthiest carbohydrate?

There isn’t a single carbohydrate food that can be deemed the healthiest. However, when it comes to carbohydrates, it is beneficial to consume them in their whole food form. For instance, prioritize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products to fulfill the majority of your carbohydrate requirements.

Q: What happens if a child doesn’t consume enough carbohydrates?

If a child doesn’t consume enough carbohydrates, they may experience fatigue, irritability, and a general lack of energy. Additionally, inadequate carbohydrate intake can result in growth problems, as carbohydrates provide the body with the largest and easiest-to-use form of energy.

Q: What is the ideal brain food for kids’ breakfast?

The ideal brain food for kids’ breakfast is a well-balanced meal that will keep them satiated until lunchtime. This should include a combination of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and fiber. For example, scrambled eggs with avocado and a slice of toast or a full-fat yogurt parfait with fruit and chopped nuts are good options.

Q: What is the main source of carbohydrates in most infant formulas?

The carbohydrate sources in infant formulas can vary, so it is advisable to check the nutrition label of the specific formula you are using. Common carbohydrate sources in formulas include corn syrup solids, lactose, maltodextrin, galactooligosaccharides, polydextrose, sugar, and glucose syrup. It’s important to note that formulas require a carbohydrate source, so the presence of sugar on the nutrition label should not cause alarm.

Q: How many carbohydrates should a child consume per day?

Children should aim to have approximately 45-65% of their daily calorie intake from carbohydrates. This means that roughly half of their energy should come from carbohydrate-containing foods. Achieving this guideline is relatively simple by incorporating a carbohydrate-rich food in most meals and snacks. Opt for foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products as the primary carbohydrate sources.


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