Proteins are essential nutrients that work as the building blocks of our bodies. Protein helps make blood, bone, enzymes and supports our bodies as we constantly make new cells. It also provides the fuel and energy our bodies need to move and be active every day.
"Protein is really important for a child's growing body, and parents should realize that not all sources of protein are created equal," explains Mikie Rangel, clinical dietitian at Children's Health℠. "Choose high-quality, healthy sources to help your child be healthy and strong."
Rangel shares her insight on how parents can make sure their children are getting the right amount of healthy protein.
How much protein do kids need?
Kids usually need about 3-5 ounces of protein (20-35 grams) in a day, depending on their age, gender and weight. For reference, a palm-sized portion of meat is 3 ounces or about 20 grams protein; an 8-ounce cup of milk is 8 grams protein; and 1 tablespoon of peanut butter is 5 grams protein. Your child's pediatrician or a dietitian can discuss your child's specific needs.
Fortunately, protein intake isn't something most parents need to worry about. "Most kids get enough protein in a day without putting too much pressure on them," reassures Rangel. "Parents should really shift from worrying about how much protein their child is getting and focus more on where they are getting if from."
What are the healthiest sources of protein for kids?
The healthiest sources of protein aren't always the first things parents and kids reach for. Instead, kids – particularly those picky eaters at your table – often pile plates with processed or fried foods like lunch meat and chicken nuggets. Rangel encourages parents to stick to the basics when it comes to the best sources of protein.
"The more we can get back to basics and eat the foods that have been around for a really long time on this planet, the healthier we all will be," she says. "Meats, beans, fruits and vegetables were available 1,000 years ago. Deli meat and chicken nuggets weren't."
Parents who want to load their child up with healthy protein-rich foods should stick with plant-based proteins, seafood and lean meats.
Plant-based or vegetarian protein
Protein sources from plants are among the healthiest options for kids.
"It can be confusing for parents to navigate all the latest news and marketing claims, but plant-based food – food that grows from the ground – is always a healthy bet," explains Rangel.
Start introducing these plant-based protein sources into your child's diet:
- Beans: Mix beans into meals or offer up hummus to dip veggies
- Nut butters: Reach for peanut butters and other nut butters that don't have added sugar
- Nuts: Peanuts, almonds, pistachios and walnuts are great sources of protein
- Whole grain bread: Swap white bread for whole grain slices
Some children may turn up their noses at seafood, but it's a great source of protein. Rangel encourages parents to keep offering kid-friendly seafood, such as:
These fish have a softer texture that may be more pleasing to your child's taste buds. Parents can aim to serve up to two 2-ounce servings of fish per week for children ages 2 and older.
Lean protein, like turkey and chicken, are among the most popular sources of protein for kids. Rangel reminds parents to choose lean sources of meat that are lower in saturated fat, and to limit the amount of red meats such as beef or pork. She suggests the following tips to keep lean meats healthy:
- Bake or sauté meat instead of frying
- Remove skin from chicken
- Use herbs and spices for seasoning instead of salt and butter
What are healthy protein options for picky eaters?
Picky eaters can derail even the most dedicated parents' attempts for healthy eating. Some ideas to encourage children who are picky eaters eat enough protein include:
- Involve your child in meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation
- Limit snacks one to two hours before meal times
- Offer healthy foods without any other option so they learn the importance of a healthy diet
Learn more picky eater tips to help your child develop healthy habits that last a lifetime.
Does my child need protein powder?
Children generally get enough protein from the foods that they eat. Protein powder, shakes or supplements are not recommended unless your child has a specific need.
"Protein powder isn't regulated so parents won't always know the ingredients in the product," cautions Rangel. "It's a much better and healthier approach to teach your child the importance of a healthy, well-balanced diet that doesn't rely on shortcuts."
The dietitians at Children's Health are here to help develop a nutrition plan that is best for your child. Our team offers expert knowledge and can coordinate diets for common conditions, complex medical conditions and help you create healthy eating habits for your family that last a lifetime. Learn more tips to encourage a healthy, balanced diet.