Feeding a picky eater is tough! Does your child eat less than 30 foods? Less than 20? Eating a variety of foods is really important for children’s growth and well-being. If your child snubs his nose at meat- even common childhood classics like fish sticks and chicken nuggets, you may worry about him getting enough protein.

These days, many people are fixated on protein, and for good reason, it’s absolutely essential, especially for a growing child! More isn’t always better though. So, how much protein is enough? Is there such a thing as too much protein? And what are some good protein foods for kids?

Importance of Protein Foods for Kids

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how much protein does for our bodies. Protein is the building block for our cells, muscles, and organs. Cells in the body are constantly being made and repaired, thanks to protein. 

Our immune system wouldn’t work without it – antibodies are made of protein to help the body fight off invading viruses and bacteria. Protein also acts as hormones and enzymes, and transports other molecules throughout the body. Talk about nutrient powerhouse!

We need to eat protein to stay healthy. Protein is made up of amino acids – essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids. Don’t let the name fool you, we need both for our bodies to work correctly. The difference is that our bodies can’t produce essential amino acids, we need to get those from our diet (it’s essential we eat them). Nonessential amino acids are made right inside the body.

Dangers of Lacking Protein Foods for Kids

Children need more protein per pound of body weight than most adults. Without it, they may have health issues like stunted growth, fatigue, poor concentration, and poor immune function. A severe lack of protein over time is life threatening and can cause coma, shock, edema (swelling in the ankles, feet, or belly), and organ failure. 

Unfortunately, it is still common for children to have protein malnutrition in developing nations where there is famine or a reliance on protein poor foods like maize. However, this form of protein malnutrition is very rare in the United States and other developed countries. 

Parents often worry about the protein intake (or lack of) when a child is a picky eater, especially if a child does not eat meat.  However, protein is found in a wide variety of foods, and these children are very often still getting what they need.  Of course, if you have concerns that your child isn’t getting enough protein, speak with your pediatrician or a registered dietitian, and keep reading to learn about how much they actually need.

3 year old boy with blonde curly hair in a red polo shirt raises his arms to show his bicep muscles with a smile and squinted eyes

Can my child eat too much protein?

Before you start to worry (even more) that your child isn’t eating enough protein, know that it’s more common in the United States and other developed countries, for children to eat more protein than they need. Only about 10-20% of all calories should come from protein. Most kids eat more than that, which isn’t always a problem, but could have some negative health effects if eaten in great excess.

The main problem with eating excess protein rich foods is that kids will miss out on other nutrients found in carbs and fats. Eating a wide variety of food is key to health, so if your child is stuck on protein foods, they’ll be missing out on antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and other important nutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Eating too much protein does carry other risks than just lack of variety. Kidney stones, dehydration, and weight gain can also result from eating too much protein. There is some evidence to show that eating a lot of red meat and processed meat can increase your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and cancer. But this likely due to the saturated fat, salt, additives and processing rather than the protein itself. Again, offering your child a variety of foods is essential, so they don’t get stuck on eating only one kind of food.

Say NO to Protein Powders and Shakes

Protein powder shakes have become a really popular supplement over the years. Common reasons for drinking protein powder shakes include:  trying to build muscle after exercise, attempting weight loss with meal replacement shakes, and wanting a boost while recovering from surgery or injury.

However, protein powders and shakes are not formulated for children. There are often additives like sugar, salt, unnecessary vitamins and minerals, and artificial ingredients. The more serious consequences of protein overload also increase when protein powders are used – risk of dehydration, kidney stones, and weight gain.

If you’re worried that your child isn’t eating enough protein, protein powder or a shake may seem like an easy solution. It can feel difficult to meet your child’s protein needs if your child only eats a handful of different foods, BUT it doesn’t address the big picture.  Drinking a shake inevitably replaces food, even if you only wanted to use it as a protein source.  It doesn’t allow them to learn to eat other foods.  Additionally, drinking something every day, puts them at risk to eventually get tired of it.  Then how will they meet their needs?

2 supplements are being compared, a homemade smoothie and a children's name brand supplement.  Both contain similar amounts of calories, protein, iron, potassium and zinc, but the name brand supplement contains 31 grams added sugar while the homemade contains 0.

On Your Table believes in a food first approach, meaning supplements should be used only when absolutely necessary. A homemade smoothie can provide many of the nutrients children need with real food, and can be customized to make different flavors.  This keeps it interesting for kids, exposes them to new food and flavors, keeps cost reasonable, eliminates unnecessary additives (especially less added sugar!) and decreases risk of too much protein.  

Recipe for homemade supplement to use as a protein food for kids.  Includes a fifth a block of silken tofu, half banana, half cup whole milk, 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, 1 tablespoon natural peanut butter, splash of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.  Offers flavor alternatives by eliminating peanut butter and cocoa powder and using fruit to flavor and adding extra tofu to maintain protein content.

Some medical conditions may warrant the use of a protein powder, supplement drink formulated for a child or vitamin/mineral supplement. Your pediatrician or registered dietitian nutritionist can determine what type of supplement is necessary and how much can safely be consumed to meet your child’s needs.

How much protein does your child need?

Okay, not eating enough protein isn’t good, and eating too much protein isn’t good either. So how much protein does your child need? 

1-3-year-olds need to eat on average about 0.5 grams per pound of their body weight per day, while children ages 4-13-years need roughly an average of 0.43 grams per pound of body weight per day.

To calculate for your child, multiply your 1-3-year-old’s weight by 0.5 or your 4-13-year-old’s weight by 0.43. This means if your 2-year-old weighs 25 pounds, they need about 12.5 grams of protein a day (25 x 0.5) and your 50-pound 7-year-old needs about 21.5 grams of protein per day (50 X 0.43).

Daily Protein Needs for Kids

AgeApproximate Amount ProteinExample
1-3 years old0.5 grams/pound of body weight25 pound child x 0.5 = 12.5 grams/day
4-13 years old0.43 grams/pound of body weight50 pound child x 0.43 = 21.5 grams/day

That’s all fine and dandy, but what does that look like? How can you ensure they eat exactly 12.5 grams of protein a day? The answer – you can’t (and there’s really no need to)!  It’s more important to look at what they’re eating over a longer period of time, like a week. Day to day, a child’s appetite fluctuates; one day they eat as much as you do and the next it seems like they subsist on air.

A good thing to focus on instead of exact amounts eaten, is the food you offer.  A general rule of thumb is to try to serve a protein food at all meals and snacks. It may not always be possible, and that’s OK, but it’s a good baseline goal.  

Protein is great for satiety, meaning it helps us feel full for longer. Your child’s constant snack requests could be due to only eating carbohydrates like pretzels, goldfish crackers, or even a piece of fruit. Carbohydrates tend to digest quickly, leaving your child hungry after an hour. Pair those carbs with a protein food to keep the snack requests at bay (and consider adding fat as well, which helps with satiety, too!).  

Need even more inspiration for well rounded lunch and snack ideas? Check out the post, one formula that gets you endless lunch ideas for picky eaters

The Best Protein Foods for Kids

Because I often get the question, ‘what are the best protein foods for kids?’ let’s dive a little deeper into what a day of protein could look like for a child. It’s hard to visualize what 12.5 grams of protein looks like, instead let’s look at the protein content of different foods. Hopefully by seeing the variety of foods that contain protein, the charts below show you that your child is likely getting enough, so your mind can be at ease.

Animal-Based Protein Foods for Kids

FoodProtein Content
1 medium egg6 grams
3 chicken nuggets9 grams
1 cheese stick6 grams
1 cup milk7 grams
1 small hamburger20 grams
½ cup whole milk yogurt4 grams
3 pieces of shrimp4 grams

Many of these foods are childhood favorites and you can see that it’s quite easy to meet your child’s needs in just one meal. Your 25-pound toddler can get enough protein throughout the day by eating one egg and one cup of milk. Even just two cups of milk will provide them with 14 grams of protein!

Some kids are averse to eating meat for a multitude of reasons. Meat can be hard to chew, so kids may avoid it because it’s too tiring to eat. Others may be averse to the texture (for more information about this check out the sensory food aversion post.)  Some families choose not to eat meat or animal products at all. Not to worry, there are many plant-based protein foods for kids, too!

Whether your child is still learning to like meat, or your family chooses not to eat animal products, it only takes a little bit of planning to make sure your kids are getting enough protein.

Plant-Based Protein Foods for Kids

FoodProtein Content
½ cup spaghetti4 grams
1 tablespoon peanut butter4 grams
1 slice whole wheat bread3.5 grams
½ cup tofu10 grams
½ cup lentils9 grams
1 tablespoon hemp seeds5 grams
½ cup oat bran8 grams
½ cup peas4.5 grams
½ cup quinoa4 grams
¼ cup shelled edamame4.5 grams

Your 50 pound 7-year-old needs to eat just one peanut butter sandwich (two slices of whole wheat bread with one tablespoon of peanut butter) and ½ cup of oat bran sprinkled with 1 tablespoon of hemp seeds to get 24 grams of protein. (P.S. oat bran is the outer covering of the oat grain, contains more fiber & protein compared to oatmeal, and is oh so creamy and delicious).

Other great plant-based protein foods for kids:

  • Nuts/nut butter
  • Seeds/seed butter
  • Beans/chickpeas
  • Seitan
  • Tempeh
  • Grains – spelt, teff, buckwheat, oats
  • Wild rice
  • Chia seeds
  • Vegetables- broccoli, artichokes, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, corn
2 girls, ages 5 and 8 with long dark hair pulled half up, wearing pink and yellow respectively, are at the kitchen counter making and eating a protein food for kids, peanut butter  and honey sandwiches.  They are smiling with their mouths closed, as if they have peanut butter sticking their mouth shut.

Other Key Nutrients

Protein is essential for your kid’s body to grow and stay healthy, but there are other key nutrients found in protein foods that kids need. Iron, calcium, and zinc are very important minerals for growing children. Luckily all of these nutrients are found in protein foods.

Iron helps blood transport oxygen throughout the body and if your child doesn’t get enough, they could develop anemia. Anemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiency conditions in the world. Luckily most protein foods have iron – red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, dark leafy greens, and iron fortified cereals are all great sources.

Calcium is needed for healthy bones, teeth and growth for children. The risk of osteoporosis increases later in life if enough calcium isn’t eaten during childhood. To set your child up for healthy bones, protein foods like dairy, tofu, chia seeds, and kidney beans pack a punch of calcium.

Zinc plays a critical role in the body making new cells and helping the immune system function. Children’s growth will be restricted if they don’t have enough zinc. Shellfish and meat are great sources of zinc, and plant-based sources include beans, lentils, and whole grains.

If you are worried about your child meeting their other nutrient needs, check out the Mastering Mealtimes Membership where you’ll get all the tools to evaluate and boost 8 key nutrients.

Take Away

Feeding children is no small task! Hopefully your worries have been eased after learning that protein foods for kids are plentiful, whether they eat animal products or not. Try serving a protein food at every meal and snack and go for a variety throughout the week. 

Don’t worry if your child goes a day choosing not to eat much protein; appetites fluctuate! Look at what they’re eating throughout the week and if you have concerns, talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist to help troubleshoot.

Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian and founder of On Your Table LLC.  She coaches parents on feeding strategies and parenting styles that support children to expand the foods they eat.  Kim has helped many families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters.  Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home.  Learn more about her here.

Helping picky eaters starts with EXPOSURE!

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