Whether it’s pasta, bread, or rice, my kids love their carbs as much as any other kid. Yet kids need protein so I do my best to make sure they’re eating high-protein foods at every meal and snack.
Protein-rich foods satisfy their hunger, balance their blood sugar, and keep them on an even keel.
The good news is that most kids get plenty of protein in their diets, but if your kids are picky eaters or refuse to eat, you may be concerned if they’re getting enough.
Read on to find out the importance of protein in a child’s diet, how much they need and a list of 12 high-protein foods to try.
WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF PROTEIN IN A CHILD’S DIET?
Protein is one of three essential macronutrients (the other two are fat and carbohydrates) found in the muscles, bones, skin, hair and in every cell in the body.
Protein is important for a host of different functions. It helps to:
- Build and repair cells and body tissue
- Carry nutrients throughout the body
- Regulate hormones
- Strengthen skin and bones
- Fight infections
From a nutritional perspective, protein:
- Provides calories and energy for the body
- Is necessary for a child’s growth and development
- Satisfies hunger
- Balances blood sugar
- Can help to prevent weight gain and childhood obesity
- Is a rich source of other nutrients like B vitamins and iron.
There are three categories of protein:
Complete proteins which supply all of the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) the body needs. These are found in meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, seafood, and soy.
Incomplete proteins are imbalanced proteins because they’re missing or do not have enough of one or more of the essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins include vegetables, beans, peas, grains, nuts and seeds.
Complementary proteins are those that have two or more incomplete proteins but when eaten in combination, form a complete protein. Whole wheat bread and peanut butter is an example of complementary proteins.
PROTEIN FOR KIDS: HOW MUCH DO THEY NEED?
The body doesn’t store protein the same way it stores fat and carbohydrates, so it’s important that kids get enough every day.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend the following amount of protein based on age and gender:
- Ages 1-3: 13 grams
- Ages 4-8: 19 grams
- Ages 9-13: 34 grams
- Girls ages 14-18: 46 grams
- Boys ages 14-18: 52 grams
The good news is that experts say most kids get plenty of protein in their diets. “In most Western countries, children already get two to three times the protein they need daily. It’s uncommon for a child to need extra,” sports nutrition specialist Diana Schnee, MS, RD, LD stated in this article.
HIGH PROTEIN FOODS FOR KIDS
While most kids get enough protein in their diets, the key is to serve a mix of quality, high-protein foods instead of fast food and processed foods.
According to a 2019 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most kids aren’t eating enough fish, because parents have concerns about methylmercury pollution.
Yet not only is fish a great source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids and other key nutrients, exposure to mercury can be minimized or avoid, they say.
That’s why I love feeding my kids salmon. It’s high in protein—3 ounces has 18 grams—and it’s considered a safe type of fish for kids because it has the lowest levels of mercury.
Lately, I’ve been breading and baking salmon for my kids for a healthier—and more delicious—version of store-bought fish sticks. I also buy canned salmon, which is a good source of vitamin D, and pack sandwiches for school lunch.
Eggs are one of my favorite foods to eat and feed my kids because they’re a good source of protein: one large egg has nearly 7 grams and 9 essential amino acids.
They’re a good source of vitamins A, B12, and D, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids and choline—a nutrient that supports memory.
Eggs are also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids or plant pigments found in the eyes that can prevent macular degeneration, cataracts, and improve memory and processing speed, one study found.
Of course, the best thing about eggs is there are so many ways to serve them.
Scramble them for breakfast or a quick dinner, make a frittata, quiche or egg “fried” rice or make a batch of hard-boiled eggs for on-the-go snacks.
One of the best, plant-based, high-protein foods for kids is quinoa.
Quinoa is usually grouped with whole grains, but it’s actually a seed.
It’s a good source of protein: 1/2 cup has more than 4 grams—as well as fiber and B vitamins which support the nervous system.
If your kids like orzo or pastina, chances are they’ll take to quinoa too.
Serve it as a side dish, as a substitute for rice, or add some fresh fruit and cinnamon for a yummy breakfast.
4. GRASS-FED BEEF
When it comes to high-protein foods, beef tops the list. One ounce has more than 5 grams of protein.
Beef is also a good source of vitamins B12, D and E, iron, zinc and selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, saturated fat isn’t bad, but the jury is still out on how much saturated fat we should be getting in our diets.
That’s why I like his philosophy on not going overboard on beef and instead, serving it as a condi-meat: a small amount of meat on a plate that’s made up of mostly vegetables.
If your budget allows, organic, grass-fed beef is ideal because it has a better nutritional profile and is raised without antibiotics or hormones.
Your kids may refuse to eat them at first but if they see you eating sardines, they may grow to like them like mine did.
Sardines are an excellent source of protein: two small pieces have nearly 6 grams.
They’re also a good source of vitamins B12 and D, phosphorus and selenium.
I’ll make sardine sandwiches or sauté them and add them to pasta.
6. PUMPKIN SEEDS
Pumpkin seeds are also a great source of fiber, magnesium, iron, vitamin E, zinc, and other antioxidants.
They’re also a good source of plant-based omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, the heart-healthy, brain healthy fats kids need.
My daughters love eating cinnamon-sugar pumpkin seeds—Super Seedz are their favorite brand—but you can also make your own at home.
Add pumpkin seeds to breads, muffins, no-bake energy balls, and granola, make pumpkin seed butter (the Vitamix works wonders for nut and seed butters), or sprinkle them on top of oatmeal or yogurt for a sweet, satisfying crunch.
Other protein-rich seeds include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Chia seeds
7. BEANS AND LENTILS
If you’re looking for plant-based protein sources, it doesn’t get better—or easier— than beans and lentils.
Both beans and lentils are high in protein and fiber and many have other key nutrients like calcium, magnesium, iron and folate.
The best part about serving beans and lentils is that they’re so easy to make and can be served alone or added to almost any type of dish.
My kids love lentil chili and beans and rice, or I’ll add beans to soup or even serve them as an appetizer while I’m cooking dinner.
8. GREEK YOGURT
Greek yogurt is a protein all-star: a 1/2 cup has nearly 10 grams.
Plain, Greek yogurt has less sugar than the fruit-flavored and sweetened varieties, so be sure to read labels.
You can also add your child’s favorite fresh fruit or tasty add-ins like vanilla extract, cinnamon, or a hint of honey.
Related: How To Choose a Healthy Kids’ Yogurt
Tempeh is a plant-based food made with fermented soybeans that’s high in protein: one ounce has 5 grams.
Another plus about tempeh is that it’s a good source of calcium, and it’s rich in probiotics, the healthy bacteria in the gut that strengthen your kid’s immune system.
While tempeh has a mild, slightly nutty taste, the key to making it delicious is to find a recipe your kids will love. Here are a few to try:
10. BROCCOLI—AND OTHER GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES
When you think about high protein foods, broccoli probably doesn’t come to mind. Yet it, and several other green leafy vegetables, can be a great source of protein and so many other key nutrients in your kids’ diet. Take a look at 1/2 cup for each:
Another great seafood option that’s also high in protein is shrimp: a 3-ounce serving has a whopping 18 grams.
Shrimp is also an excellent source of vitamin B12, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
If your kids don’t immediately take to shrimp however, try cutting it into small pieces and make something that’s familiar to them like a shrimp risotto or garlic lemon shrimp pasta.
Almonds, cashews, pistachios and other types of nuts are excellent sources of protein, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Many types of nuts are also high in fiber.
Serve a handful of nuts as a snack, make homemade granola or trail mix, add them to oatmeal, overnight oats, breads and muffins, or make a nut butter.