We novice parents wonder if our preschoolers can live on bread alone. Some days, bread and bread-like substances (bagels, pizza, tortillas, crackers) seem to be our inflexible kids’ chief source of calories.

On school days, my son Theo, like many of his classmates, lunches on PB&J sandwiches made with required nut-free sunflower seed butter. School-issued snacks often provide an extra dose of bread: English muffins with that selfsame SunButter, biscuits and jam, and pizza bagels (remember those!) are in heavy rotation.

Theo is even happier gnawing a whole Standard Baking Co. baguette, plain. As a baby in Oregon, he teethed on crusty artisanal loaves and ever since has considered French bread his chief comfort food. The perforated double baguette pans I registered for as a wedding gift sit on the shelf unused, though. Thanks to the influence of my pro-specialization economist husband, I outsource bread-baking to local experts.

In turn, I’ve convinced my bread-centric husband (like father, like son) to mostly stop buying grocery store loaves. Sorry, Barowsky’s Organics and Country Kitchen: you may be baked in Lewiston (for America’s second-largest bakery, Flowers Foods Inc.), but you no longer make the cut. To help the loaf rise and extend shelf life, such industrial breads contain extra powdered “vital wheat gluten.” My family now prefers the natural gluten generated when flour is kneaded, and we favor breads leavened with wild sourdough starter to those leavened with baker’s yeast. Such slow fermentation, and also soaking and pre-sprouting any wheat berries, is said to render grains more digestible.

“What’s your favorite kind of bread?” I asked Theo on the car ride down to the Portland Food Co-op’s recent annual meeting, which packed St. Peter’s Catholic parish hall. (Think locavore food and live bluegrass music under the crucifixes.) “Plain,” he replied. “Do they have plain? I don’t like cheese or pumice” (which is what my son calls hummus). Lucky for him, the co-op served its hummus and Maine cheese plates with those gold-standard Standard Baking baguettes.

About the only grocery loaves I tolerate these days are Wells-based Borealis’ sourdough slices, in preservative-free types ranging from Aroostook wheat (showcasing the elegant simplicity of Maine-grown grains) to anadama to rosemary. At the farmers market, I ply Theo with Borealis’ pumpkin raisin and multi-grain rolls. He may say “plain” is his favorite, but he’s hardly met a bread he didn’t love.

Flax, sunflower or pumpkin seeds within a loaf don’t phase Theo. We sneak in nutrition through bread. Seeded crusts, however, are another story. “I don’t like the seeds,” rigid Theo complains, so I dutifully remove them from Portland’s Union Bagel Co. bagels (which, incidentally, are as good as New York ones).

We budget for the good stuff, because for Theo and my husband, bread isn’t just a source of empty calories. At our Brunswick Farmers’ Market, spendy Zu Bakery is deservedly king. We like baker Barak Olins’ wheat-rye Integrale – studded with cornmeal, flax and sesame seeds – and his tangy, dense 100-percent rye loaves. Unlike other quick-to-stale artisan loaves, the latter stays fresh enough all week. Olins says his own young children love the nutty rye, as does Theo. Now that I am well into the second trimester of my second pregnancy, I crave it slathered with salty cultured butter.

Damariscotta-based Hootenanny Bread won us over at our Fort Andross Market this winter. Theo strolled the market most Saturdays chewing a plain (of course) Hootenanny bagel, tolerating a caramelized onion-topped bialy (fresh bialys in Maine?!) when they had them. Baker Derek DeGeer is assisted in the kitchen by his daughter, Frances, 6; Hootenanny’s name comes from a popular music/movement program DeGeer ran for her and other Damariscotta kids. Look for his addictive corn gruel–pumpkin seed loaf at Hootenanny stands at several Midcoast farmers markets this summer.

From Portland to Portland, coast to coast, toast – of all things – is enjoying its culinary moment. So bread in hand, I’ve turned my mind to improving my toast techniques and spreads.

Fortunately, cookbook writer, pastry chef and mother Raquel Pelzel is ready to ease me out of my toast first, then butter rut. I’ve been doing it all wrong, apparently. Pelzel has opened my eyes with insider tips in her forthcoming “Toast,” due out from Phaidon Press in September, just in time for late-tomato sandwich season.

To achieve that evenly caramelized crust, Pelzel butters the bread before briefly toasting it under the broiler or pan-frying it. For an especially crisp, golden surface, she recommends a pre-toast spread of mayonnaise instead of butter. Pelzel has two sons, ages 5 and 9, so “Toast” includes a number of family-friendly recipes, including savory snacks like fried chicken toast (see recipe above) and sweet ones like apple pie toast.

I’d feel less guilty about Theo’s bread consumption if it became more a supporting canvas rather than star of his meals. Pelzel’s recipes give me hope. Thankfully, as he stares down his fourth birthday, my Theo is branching out beyond bread again. Even gardening, and on rare occasions, kitchen help are back on the table.

Sesame and Honey-Barbecue Fried Chicken Toast

Excerpted from “Toast” by Raquel Pelzel, Phaidon, $24.95, September 2015.

In her forthcoming cookbook “Toast,” Raquel Pelzel describes this honey-doused fried chicken as lying somewhere between Southern chicken over waffles and Szechuan fried chicken. Reuse the frying oil for another recipe or donate it to Maine Standard Biofuels through Garbage to Garden’s “Fats to Fuel” curbside composting program.

Serves 4

FRIED CHICKEN:

1 cup buttermilk

2½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon sweet paprika

1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, halved crosswise or cut into strips

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cornstarch

3 tablespoons barbecue sauce

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 tablespoons honey

1 to 2 tablespoons hot sauce

4 to 5 cups canola oil

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

TOAST

Four slices sandwich bread

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

Coarse kosher salt

MAKE THE FRIED CHICKEN:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, 2 teaspoons of the salt, the garlic powder, pepper and paprika. Add the chicken, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour or overnight.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. In another large bowl, whisk together the barbecue sauce, ketchup, honey and hot sauce and set aside.

Remove the chicken from the buttermilk (discard the marinade). Add the chicken to the flour mixture and turn to coat. Set aside while you heat the oil.

Set a wire rack over a baking sheet lined with paper towels or paper bag. In a large, deep, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until an instant-read thermometer reads between 360 and 365 degrees F. Add half of the chicken pieces and fry until both sides are golden brown and the chicken is cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Use tongs to transfer the chicken to the wire rack to drain and fry the remaining chicken.

MAKE THE TOAST:

Spread the bread slices with the mayonnaise and sprinkle with salt. Toast in a toaster oven or under a broiler (mayonnaise browns faster than butter or oil, so keep a close eye on it).

Place the fried chicken in the bowl with the barbecue sauce mixture and toss to coat. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, place 1 or 2 chicken pieces on top of each slice of toast, and serve.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on [email protected] and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.