Learn why protein-rich foods are important for your child, how much they need and what to do if your child is a picky eater and struggling to get enough protein (plus: protein-rich meal and snack ideas to try!).
This post is sponsored by my friends at California Almonds. As always, opinions and recipes are my own.
I’m asked all the time about protein for kids. How much should I be serving? What are the best sources of protein? What if my child doesn’t eat meat?! You’re certainly not alone if you’ve wondered the same things and you’re not alone if you’ve struggled to come up with kid-approved protein-rich recipes either—especially if you’ve got a picky eater on your hands!
In this post, we’ll cover:
- Why is protein important for kids?
- How much protein do kids need everyday?
- What are the best sources of protein for kids?
- What if my child doesn’t like meat, or follows a vegetarian or vegan diet?
- Why protein-rich foods tend to be tricky for picky eaters
- Why protein-rich snacks are so important
- Protein-rich recipes and meal and snack ideas for your kids
Why is protein so important for kids?
Protein is important for kids for so many reasons – it’s an important part of every body cell and helps to build and maintain tissues such as muscles, bones, organs, skin, hair and nails. It also plays in important role in body processes such as maintaining fluid balance, blood clotting, immune system function, hormone and enzyme creation and more! If you think about it, our kids are constantly growing, so not only do they need protein to maintain general health but also for growth and development!
How much protein does my child need every day?
The amount of protein that a child needs every day varies from age to age. I certainly don’t want you to get hung up on numbers or count grams of protein (because this is unnecessary and way too time-consuming), but if you’re a numbers person, here’s a breakdown:
- 0 to 6 months: About 9 grams per day (coming from breastmilk and/or formula)
- 7 to 12 months: About 11 grams per day (a combo of breastmilk and/or formula + solids)
- 1 to 3 years: About 13 grams per day
- 4 to 8 years: About 19 grams per day
In my experience, parents often overestimate the amount of protein that their little one needs. It’s not a lot! For example, a 3-year-old needs about 13 grams of protein per day. This would look like 1 cooked egg, 1 tbsp of almond butter and a small glass of milk. Seems doable, right?!
What are the best sources of protein for my kids?
There’s certainly no shortage of foods that contain protein. Again, what I find is that parents often overestimate what their child needs in terms of protein every day. One of the first things that I do is reassure worried parents that they’re likely doing a great job of feeding and that their child is likely meeting their protein requirements (assuming that parents are serving a nice variety of foods at meals and snack times). I also reassure parents of children who don’t like or eat meat that “it’s 100% ok”. Meat is not the be all, end all of protein! Yes, meat is an excellent source of protein, but protein is also found in poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, eggs, dairy products, tofu and whole grains. That’s a lot!
What if my child doesn’t like meat, or follows a vegetarian or vegan diet?
One of my all-time favourite sources of plant-based protein are almonds. Almond butter is a go-to in our house as it serves so many purposes – to top toast, to mix into oatmeal, or add to our smoothies. And we top most of our salads and veggie dishes with sliced almonds for added crunch and flavour (not to mention nutrition). With one serving (about 23 almonds) containing 6 grams of plant protein, 4 grams of dietary fiber, “good” unsaturated fats, magnesium, antioxidant vitamin E, and so much more, almonds are the best addition to your child’s diet. They can help to keep a child fuller longer between snacks and make a great take-along-snack option when out and about too.
Why do protein foods tend to be tricky for picky eaters?
Meat, fish and poultry tend to be 2nd on the list for rejected foods next to vegetables. We’re not sure why, and this is usually a phase that passes in time (and with a lot of patience), but it likely has something to do with the texture and mouthfeel of meat. It can be tough, hard to chew and quite simply not appealing to more particular eaters at certain stages. Fish has a strong taste which also tends to be a tough sell with certain little ones. The trick is to (assuming you’re a family who serves and eats meat) continue serving these foods pressure-free, without expectation that your child will eat it. As tough as it is to drop your mealtime agenda, it’s so important. If your child feels pressure, they’ll be even more turned off.
Why protein-rich snacks are so important for picky eaters
Kids have small stomachs but big nutrient needs. I always suggest offering at least two protein-rich foods at meals (so that children have some options to choose from), but we all know that mealtimes can be a bit of a struggle for children going through a picky eating phase. This is why nutrient-rich snacks are so important. Kids should have eating opportunities every 2-3 hours, which means balanced meals with nutritious snacks in between. Make sure to offer protein-rich foods for snacks so that your kiddo has multiple opportunities to try and learn to love protein-rich foods. Our favourite protein-rich snacks are things like fruit + nut butter, homemade trailmix, cheese + crackers + fruit, or homemade protein-rich energy balls, granola bars or muffins. We also love Greek yogurt with berries or fruit and yogurt smoothies!
Here are some examples of protein-rich snack combinations
- Apple slices + almond butter
- Cottage cheese + berries
- Homemade muffin + Greek yogurt
- Fresh fruit + Greek yogurt dip
- Raw vegetables + dip (e.g., hummus)
- Pear slices + homemade granola bar
- Cheese, crackers + cantaloupe
- Cheese + apple
- Popcorn + slivered almonds or seeds (remember that these are a choking hazard for babies and toddlers)
- Banana + almond butter rolled in a tortilla