Although there's been a considerable shift in how adults approach their nutrition over the past couple of decades, it seems how children eat is still really… childish.
Instead of giving kids the same food we eat, children have their own food: mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, french fries, fruit juice, cereal, fruit snacks, cheese-flavored crackers, etc.
Unfortunately, most foods for children aren’t designed with their health in mind. They’re typically highly processed, loaded with added sugars and unnecessary additives, and designed to be massively appealing.
However, building a foundation on these kinds of foods could lead to health complications and a poor relationship with food once your children reach adulthood.
That’s why we advocate for a lower-carb diet — even for children. Here are our best tips for transitioning your kids to a healthy low-carb diet.
Low Carb for Children
So, what exactly does a low-carb diet for children look like?
Unlike Keto, a low-carb diet for kids has plenty of room for healthy carbs like potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit, beans, dairy products, and even grains (if your child can tolerate them).
However, it also emphasizes protein, healthy fat, and vegetable intake to ensure your child is getting the nutrition they need to grow.
Overall, a low-carb diet for children is a balanced, whole food-based eating pattern that strictly limits processed foods and added sugars. It is low in carbs compared to a standard Western diet, which is heavy in unhealthy, refined carbohydrates.
Some of the potential benefits of a low-carb diet for children include:
- Fewer cavities[*]
- Better academic performance[*]
- Better eating habits[*]
- Less risk of weight gain[*][*]
- Better health into adulthood[*]
Is It Safe?
Yes, a lower carb diet for kids is perfectly safe. However, we don’t recommend your children go Keto unless they are doing it for a medical reason (for instance, epilepsy) and they are under strict medical supervision.
A lower-carb diet can still contain plenty of healthy carbs but excludes many major culprits contributing to poor health — like excessive added sugar and highly processed, refined snack foods.
Top 15 Low-Carb Foods for Kids
Need a starting point? Here are 15 low-carb, healthy foods, along with some easy kid-friendly dinner ideas for each:
- Canned tuna or salmon. Our children need omega-3 fats for their growing brains, and fatty ocean fish are an excellent source. Unfortunately, lots of kids have very negative feelings about fish. A great way to include these in their diet is to make salmon or tuna cakes or fish sticks — all of which can be made in large batches and frozen for later reheating.[*]
- Nut butter. Peanut butter and other nut and seed butters are great ways to get more nutrition for your kids. A simple snack of fresh fruit can be made much more filling and appetizing with some peanut butter for dipping, and you can use low-carb sweetened versions to create healthier desserts.
- Eggs. Eggs are an excellent and versatile way to add some extra protein, fat, and nutrients to your child’s diet. Scrambled eggs or omelet makes an easy, kid-friendly breakfast. You can also stir well-beaten eggs into oatmeal or grits during cooking, and your kids will never notice they’re there. Hard-boiled eggs are a great addition to a simple snack box with fresh fruit, too.
- Cheese. Many kids like cheese, and cheese sticks and cheese cubes make really easy snacks. Cheese is also a great way to make other healthy foods more appetizing for your children while adding extra protein and fat.
- Berries. Berries, although sweet, are naturally low in sugar — making them a great fruit for your kids to snack on. Fresh sliced strawberries and whipped cream makes an ideal low-carb dessert for kids.
- Cream. When in doubt, put whipped cream on it! While cream isn’t exactly a necessity in your child’s diet, homemade whipped cream is naturally unsweetened and makes almost any food more appealing to a kid. Invest in a whipped cream dispenser and you’ll never need to buy canisters of whipped cream again — just heavy cream.
- Beef. Many young children don’t enjoy eating meat unless it’s chicken nuggets and hot dogs. But beef is so rich in protein and nutrients that it’s a great inclusion in their diet. When you find a beef meal that your child likes, make sure to include it regularly in your meal rotation. Tacos, meatballs, and hamburger steaks are popular choices.
- Chicken. Chicken is another great source of protein for kids. They don’t necessarily need lean meats so you can use dark meat or add extra fat to make it more appealing. Homemade chicken nuggets are really easy to make and freeze for later use. Kids may also prefer chicken when it’s shredded (for instance, in shredded chicken tacos or enchiladas).
- Chia seeds. Chia seeds are fiber-rich, and a lightly sweetened chia seed pudding with fresh fruit can be a great alternative to artificially-colored gelatin snacks and sugary pudding cups.
- Orange vegetables. Orange vegetables like carrots, butternut squash, and bell peppers are easy to blend into tomato sauces or cheese sauces, so they can be hidden if necessary. But a lot of children like these foods, too.
- Green vegetables. Green vegetables are difficult to “disguise” in foods, but it’s still important to regularly offer them to your children. Cook them in appealing ways, and use sauces and dips to make them taste better.
- White vegetables. White vegetables, like turnips, parsnips, jicama, and cauliflower, can be used as a substitute for potatoes. Cauliflower in particular makes an excellent substitute for mashed potatoes with some cream and cheese mixed in and jicama can be used to make french fries. Even if you just replace some potatoes with these vegetables, they’re an excellent way to decrease carb intake if your child is a big potato eater.
- Greek yogurt. Plain, full-fat Greek yogurt is a healthier, less processed alternative to low-fat yogurt, and you can sweeten it as you please. You can also use it to make frozen yogurt or creamy popsicles for your kids.
- Avocado. Avocado is a “love it or hate it” vegetable, but if your child likes it, it adds healthy fat to almost any meal. Try this avocado ice cream for picky eaters.
- Pickles. Lots of kids enjoy pickles, and if you opt for the refrigerated, fermented versions they can double as a valuable source of probiotics for your kids. Homemade fermented pickles are also really easy to make, and may be a project your kids enjoy helping with.
Top Food Swaps for Kids
Here are a few food swaps that you can start making for easy, kid-friendly breakfasts, lunches, and snacks — that are full of nutrients and lower in carbs.
12 Tips to Optimize Your Child’s Diet, Low Carb or Not
Whether you decide to reduce the carbs in your child’s diet or not, here are some ways to optimize their diet for their health and to foster a healthy relationship with food as they grow into adulthood:
- No sugary drinks: Sugary drinks are a significant source of added sugar in many kids’ diets in the US. Eliminate fruit juice, soda, and other sugary drinks to easily and immediately make your child’s diet much healthier.[*]
- Limit sweets: Many children eat sugar from sun-up to sun-down, starting their day with sugary cereal, having cakes for a snack, and closing out the day with a dessert like a cookie or brownie. Start cutting back on how many sweets your child eats by replacing them with healthier alternatives, aiming to limit them eventually to just one per day or a few per week.
- Offer healthy foods: Growing healthy eaters is, in large part, a game of exposure. Expose your kids to new, healthy foods often and they will be more likely to want to try these foods.
- Encourage water: Teach your children to enjoy plain water by making it their go-to beverage as soon as they’re old enough to drink something other than milk. If your kids are already in the habit of drinking juice or soda, start diluting their drinks with water slightly until — over the course of several weeks — what they are drinking is mostly water, with a little added juice.
- Don’t use food as a reward: To instill healthy eating habits, try not to use food as a reward for good behavior.
- Don’t use food as a pick-me-up: Likewise, try not to use food to help your kids feel better after a bad day or after getting hurt. These patterns of using food as a reward or a comfort can become deeply ingrained and follow them into adulthood.
- Let your kids help: Get your children involved in food prep and cooking. Not only will they be more invested in the food and more likely to eat it, they’ll also be learning skills that will serve them for a lifetime.
- Focus on real foods: Stop bringing highly processed foods into the house. Instead, learn how to make real food versions of their favorites and teach them that highly processed foods are best as occasional treats, not everyday stand-bys.
- Model healthy eating: Set an example for your kids by eating a healthy and balanced diet yourself. They are always watching, and what you do will likely have a much more lasting impact than what you say.[*]
- Don’t micromanage your child’s diet: Unless your child is very young (and therefore, many foods may still pose a choking hazard) or they have a medical condition that requires it (such as a food allergy or intolerance), try not to micromanage your child’s diet. There are many situations where you won’t be in control of what food is available, such as school parties, visiting friends or family, or holidays. These infrequent episodes are unlikely to have a huge impact on your child’s overall health, and they are valuable learning opportunities. It’s important that your child learns how to navigate these situations independently so they can learn self-regulation skills that follow
- Take it slow: If you have a child who has “cut their teeth” on a highly processed, sugary diet, then you can’t make all of these changes overnight. It’s important to make slow, gradual changes to improve your child’s diet, or they absolutely won’t be on board (and everyone in the house will be miserable). Start with easy wins, like swapping white bread for thin-sliced wheat bread or low-carb wraps, or cooking at home instead of eating out one extra night per week, and then move from there.
- Make healthy food enticing: Make healthy foods more appealing to your kids with cooking methods like roasting or sauteing rather than boiling or steaming. Add dips, sauces, and spreads to make them taste better too. Things like homemade ranch dressing, marinara, cream cheese, or cheese are great taste enhancers for savory foods, while low-sugar chocolate (like Lily’s or ChocZero), peanut butter, and whipped cream can make fruit and plain yogurt more appealing.
It’s so important to instill healthy eating habits in your children.
The way they learn to eat while under your roof is likely to stick with them for a long time, so it’s important to equip them with eating habits that will lead to lasting health.
For more easy, kid-friendly dinners for picky eaters, be sure to check out our recipes on the Carb Manager app. We’ve got tons of low-carb, nutritious, and kid-friendly meal ideas that the whole family will love!