Protein is an essential part of every person’s diet—and especially growing kids. Protein helps build muscle and makes for healthy skin and bones. But how much do kids really need? Is it easy to get enough? Do parents have to keep track?
Because there’s protein in so many foods—meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, beans, and even some veggies and fruit—most kids don’t have a problem getting their daily recommended amount. However, if your child is an especially picky eater or has a special diet because of a food allergy, it can be a good idea to make sure they’re getting enough. If they’re not, there are plenty of easy meal changes you can make.
In this installment of our “What’s a Parent to do” blog series about children’s nutritional health, dietitian Lauryn Smith helps us better understand why protein is so important, how much protein kids need, and how even picky eaters and vegetarians can get enough protein in their diets.
“Protein is a macronutrient in every tissue in the body—from our skin and our muscles to our brains, hair, and nails,” says Lauryn. “It’s critical to supporting overall growth and development.”
Q: Why is protein important for my child’s diet?
Protein is a key nutrient everyone needs to build and repair muscle, for strong skin and bones, to make hormones, and to transport nutrients throughout the body. It’s especially important for kids, to support them as their bodies grow and develop, Lauryn says. Protein also helps support the immune system, the body’s tool to help fight off infection.
With protein in so many foods, it is rare for people to have a severe protein deficiency. When a rare protein deficiency does happen, signs in children could include stunted growth, a weak immune system, or even fatigue and poor concentration (again, all rare symptoms, any of which call for a visit to your child’s pediatrician).
Q: How much protein do kids really need?
According to the Institute of Medicine, kids should consume the following amounts of protein daily:
- Ages one to three: 13 grams
- Ages four to eight: 19 grams
- Ages nine to 13: 34 grams
- Teens: 46 grams for girls and 52 grams for boys
These numbers are guidelines, says Lauryn. They depend, to some extent, on each child.
For example, kids who are actively involved in sports may have greater overall caloric and protein needs. Most kids who eat a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats and oils will easily achieve this.
For picky eaters, kids with food allergies, or a medical condition that affects how they digest or absorb food, getting enough protein might be trickier. In general, though, if your child is healthy and eating two servings of meat (lean beef, fish, or chicken), dairy products, lentils or beans, or other protein rich food each day, they should be getting enough protein.
Q: My child hardly seems to eat any protein at meals. What should I do?
There’s really something for everyone, says Lauryn. If your child doesn’t like something you serve, make sure you’re exposing them to the food multiple times—it can take many exposures for kids to warm up to a food, she says.
Also, get creative with preparation. Make meatballs instead of a hamburger patty, for example. Or let your kids make “munchable boxes” with their favorite protein rich snack. Kids who have a say in what they’re eating are more likely to eat what’s served, Lauryn says. So, let your kids pick their favorite protein for mealtime.
There are plenty of great ways to incorporate protein into a child’s diet outside of mealtime, too.
For example, low-fat or nonfat milk is a great source of protein for kids. Every eight-ounce glass of milk contains eight grams of protein. Milk also has calcium and vitamin D, which are key for bone growth. (Soy milk has almost the same amount of protein, but almond milk lags far behind).
Other good options outside of mealtime include drinkable yogurts or cottage cheese as a snack. If your child has a dairy allergy, you could add a scoop of peanut or almond butter to smoothies or oatmeal—or spread it over whole wheat toast for an after-school snack.
Q: My child doesn’t like meat. Should I worry they’re not getting enough protein?
Kids who are vegan or vegetarian (by choice or by preference) may need a bit more protein to match what meat eaters get since red meat, chicken, and fish pack a punch when it comes to grams of protein. One ounce of meat equals about seven grams of protein!
But it’s no cause for alarm if they don’t like meat, Lauryn says. Just make sure they’re getting enough protein on their plate from other sources.
Eggs or cheese are a great option. Other good sources include beans, oatmeal (½ cup of plain oatmeal has five grams of protein), peanut butter (1Tbsp nut butter has about four grams of protein), and veggies like spinach or peas.
Quinoa is a versatile grain that contains protein and can be served as a side or in a salad.
In general, it’s a good idea to get protein from a variety of sources, to expose children to different tastes and textures, and to give them a variety of nutrients.
Q: My kid loves hot dogs, bacon, and other processed meats. Are these okay as their main protein source?
These types of foods are okay to eat and enjoy occasionally as a treat, Lauryn says. However, they shouldn’t be the primary source of protein for kids. While hot dogs and bacon and other processed meats do have protein, they also have been shown to have health negatives like sodium, saturated fat, and other processing additives.
If you’re serving your child processed meat like a hot dog as a treat, try to include healthy options on the side like veggies, fruit, or a glass of milk.
Balance and moderation are key. All foods fit as part of a balanced diet. Prioritizing nutrient dense foods is associated with positive health outcomes in the long run.
Q: What about protein bars or supplements?
In general, most healthy kids don’t need to take a protein supplement, and unless prescribed by their doctor, doing so can negatively impact their health if protein intake gets too high.
There are some cases, though, when a child might need extra protein, for example, if they’re underweight or not hitting their developmental goals.
Still, for most healthy kids, the best way to get protein is from food first. This also helps build good eating habits focused on fresh, natural foods and a balanced diet.
Bars or protein enriched snacks can be a back-up or eaten as an occasional snack on-the-go. If you’re worried about your child’s protein intake, or your teen is asking about taking a supplement, talk to your pediatrician.
Q: Can my child eat too much protein?
It’s possible. There has been a recent trend of kids across the globe, and especially in developed countries, getting more protein than they need.
Part of the reason, says Lauryn, is that people in general are overeating. Adding extra protein on top of what they’re getting from their diet isn’t usually necessary and can lead to issues like weight gain, or at very high levels lead to other health issues, since too much protein can make the kidneys work harder than they have to. More protein isn’t necessarily better—and can even be harmful.
Still, Lauryn says, unless you’re purposely supplementing and overconsuming protein, the likelihood of issues is low. Parents should strive for their kids to hit the daily recommended amount. And, whenever in doubt, talk it over with a pediatrician.
What’s a Parent to Do?
Try some of the following tips to help make sure your child is getting enough protein as part of a balanced meal:
- Spread it out. Don’t try to pack all their needed protein into one meal. Rather, spread it out across breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
- Shop smart. Make a weekly grocery shopping list and ensure there are a variety of protein rich options on it to last your family all week.
- Model healthy eating. Expose your kids to new foods by exploring the foods yourself. If you’re a picky eater, try to be more flexible for your kids to be a role model.
- Don’t “yuck my yum.” Even if you don’t like a food, such as fish, make sure you don’t talk negatively about it. Let your child try it and form their own opinion.
- Talk about your foods. Make conversation about what’s on your plates a regular part of family meals, Lauryn says. Look for more about the topic of talking to your children about food and nutrition in an upcoming “What’s a Parent to Do” blog.
Lauryn Smith is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and part of Aramark’s Nutrition Network, a community of dietitians within Aramark Student Nutrition. The Nutrition Network connects and engages Aramark Student Nutrition RDNs and other nutrition experts in ways that benefit school students, parents and caregivers, and their district’s health and wellbeing initiatives.
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.