Protein is one of the most important parts of a healthy diet. Your child needs to meet their protein requirements as they continue to grow and develop. Protein works to build and fortify muscles, heal injuries, and create new tissues throughout the body.
Are you incorporating enough protein into every mealtime to meet your child’s needs? We’re diving into all things protein for kids.
How Much Protein Does My Child Need Per Day?
Some food marketing tactics will lead people to believe that they aren’t getting enough protein — but in reality, most families who regularly enjoy a wide variety of foods are successfully meeting their protein requirements through a balanced diet.
As a parent, though, it still helps to keep an eye on important nutritional metrics so you can make sure that your child is getting what they need to grow and thrive. This is especially important for parents of picky eaters who may be hesitant to enjoy protein-rich foods.
General guidelines for childhood protein intake are as follows:
- Toddlers ages 1 to 3: 13 grams of protein per day
- Children ages 4 to 8: 19 grams of protein per day
- Children ages 9 to 13: 34 grams of protein per day
To put the numbers into perspective, chicken nuggets contain about 3 grams of protein per piece, meaning four chicken nuggets is almost enough protein to sustain a toddler for an entire day. If the nuggets are grilled rather than fried, they can be a great, healthy way to help your child meet their goals.
Can Kids Have Protein Shakes or Protein Supplements?
From gym-goers to runners to general exercise enthusiasts, you’ve likely heard of (or consumed) protein shakes — and while they can be convenient for us grownups, there shouldn’t be a reason for your child to need protein shakes or protein powder supplements unless they’re specifically recommended by a pediatrician.
Children should typically be able to meet their protein requirements by eating protein-rich foods, and things like protein drinks or shakes may be excessive.
Too much protein can cause tummy troubles, and excessive amounts of protein may even be dangerous! The average protein powder contains more protein per scoop than many children need in an entire day, so it’s best to focus on your child’s nutritional goal and stay as close to that number as possible.
If you’re worried about your child’s protein intake and think they may need a little extra support, talk to your pediatrician for advice.
The 10 Best Sources of Protein for Kids
These high-protein foods are easy to incorporate into your child’s diet, and even picky eaters are sure to enjoy at least a few foods on the list.
1. Nut Butter
Nut butter (or seed butter, if your house is nut-free) is a great source of protein that even picky eaters usually find yummy. Peanut butter or sunflower seed butter is welcomed by most children, and just one single tablespoon of peanut butter contains about 4 grams of protein.
Almond butter and sunflower seed butter have slightly less protein per tablespoon than peanut butter does, but a two-tablespoon serving can still play a tasty (and important) role in helping your child meet their daily protein needs.
2. Lean Meats
Lean meats like chicken and turkey are versatile, easy to prepare, and easy to serve. Grilled chicken is an easy solution for quick and healthy protein, and lean ground beef contains a substantial amount of protein with a minimal amount of fat.
You can incorporate lean meats into a wide range of meals and snacks, from spaghetti sauce to soups and stews, salads, macaroni and cheese, and slider burgers. If you have a plant-based kiddo, alternatives like tofu, seitan, or lentils work, too!
Both fatty fish and lighter white fish are high-protein foods. Salmon is hearty and filling, packing 17 grams of protein into a 3-ounce serving — but if your picky eater simply will not eat salmon, try a white fish like Alaskan pollock.
Alaskan pollock is the same fish used to make fish sticks and fast food fish sandwiches, and it contains just as much protein as salmon. Its flavor is very light, delicate, and not overly fishy, which is why it may be a better bet for your picky youngster.
Beans, peas, and lentils are all part of the legume family. Legumes are excellent sources of plant-based protein, and they’re often used as a nutritional cornerstone in vegan diets.
Legumes are among the most versatile sources of plant-based protein because it’s super easy to use them as a meat substitute. From black bean burgers to lentil tacos to potato and pea dumplings, there are plenty of popular and downright delicious dishes you can make with legumes.
5. Low-Fat Dairy Products
Dairy products might become a substantial part of your child’s protein intake if your child can consume them. Greek yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese, frozen yogurt, cow’s milk, and low-fat cheese contain substantial amounts of protein, and they’re often easy to incorporate into almost every meal.
Dairy milk is more than just a great source of protein — it’s also packed with vitamins and minerals. Dairy products naturally contain calcium and are usually fortified with vitamin D to help promote the absorption of that calcium. Calcium is absolutely essential for growing and developing kids, and without sufficient calcium, healthy bone growth can falter.
Unfortunately, plant-based milk alternatives usually come up short in the protein department. Oat milk and nut milks like almond milk don’t naturally contain substantial amounts of protein, vitamins, or minerals. Soy milk is the exception — although soy milk isn’t as rich in protein or nutrients as dairy milk, it’s undoubtedly the top contender when it comes to vegan milk substitutes.
That said, many plant milks are now fortified with key vitamins and minerals! Just keep your eyes peeled for a nutrition label that gets you all the good stuff.
It’s easy to mistake quinoa for a grain like rice, but it’s actually a seed, and like all other seeds, it’s a valuable source of protein.
Quinoa is a complete protein. It’s one of few plant-based protein sources to contain all nine essential amino acids, which act as the building blocks for healthy muscle development. It’s also incredibly versatile, and you can serve it up like rice as a side dish or incorporate it into yummy soups and stews.
7. Whole Grain Bread
True whole grain bread contains about 5 grams of protein per slice, and something as simple as swapping white bread for whole grain bread can add 10 grams of protein to your child’s daily lunch sandwich.
This is a simple switch that doesn’t require too much extra effort or thought on the part of busy parents — if you’re using bread anyway, why not use better bread?
Many parents are busy in the morning. If you have to get your kids fed and off to school so you can get yourself fed and off to work, you may not have time to whip up a five-star breakfast from scratch. That’s perfectly fine.
There are plenty of easy ways to prepare a protein-rich breakfast, and instant oatmeal often fits the bill.
Oatmeal is a whole-grain food, and whole grains naturally contain protein. Plain instant oatmeal contains about 3.5 grams of protein per serving, but if you prepare it with cow’s milk or soy milk instead of water, you’re increasing the protein and nutrient content.
Add a spoonful of seed or nut butter and a dash of cinnamon for a little extra flavor, and voila, breakfast is served. The microwave can even do most of the work for you while you’re checking everyone’s backpacks and packing up your work bag.
One large egg contains 6 grams of protein, no matter how you cook it. Scramble it with cheese. Lightly fry it sunny side up to serve on a piece of toast. Poach it, boil it, or bake it in a muffin tin. Eggs are eggs-tremely versatile! Try making breakfast for dinner one night a week to incorporate more eggs into your family’s diet.
Eggs are a great source of protein in vegetarian households, especially if you’re able to source eggs from well-loved local hens. If you’re able to source duck eggs, that’s even better — a duck egg boasts a whopping 9 grams of protein and even more nutrients than a standard chicken egg.
10. Hummus (or Chickpeas)
Kids love to dip everything they eat. It turns a meal into an exciting project and gives them a legitimate excuse to play with their food. Most children are eager to dip their dippables into ketchup or ranch dressing. Try swapping out their dip of choice for hummus.
Hummus is made from chickpeas, which are a valuable source of plant-based protein. Hummus contains slightly more than 1 gram of protein per tablespoon, and while this may not seem like a lot, let’s compare it to ketchup — ketchup contains a meager 0.2 grams of protein per tablespoon.
Condiments like honey mustard, mayonnaise, and ranch dressing contain similarly negligible amounts, so hummus is a definite step in the right direction for children who insist on dunking before they bite.
The Wrap-Up on Protein for Kids
There are plenty of tasty and protein-rich foods that even fussy children will be happy to eat, and simple swaps can help busy parents make healthy eating a little easier.
Aiming to serve a minimum of five grams of protein per meal for children under the age of eight is a great way to help your child meet their needs throughout the day — and if you’re looking to support their diet in other ways, too, Hiya’s multivitamins for kids have your back.