Protein is an essential macronutrient that’s found in every cell of the body and is vital for building muscle, strengthening skin and bones, producing hormones, and transporting nutrients.
Although everyone needs it in their diets, kids in particular must get adequate levels of protein to support their rapid growth and development.
What’s more, eating meals with a combination of protein, fiber and healthy fats promotes feelings of satiety, staves off hunger, keeps blood sugar levels steady and can prevent overeating.
According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, protein needs for kids vary by age and gender:
- Children between 1 and 3-years-old: 13 grams of protein each day
- Children between 4 and 8-years-old: 19 grams of protein each day
- Children between 9 and 13-years-old: 34 grams of protein each day
- Girls between 14 and 18-years-old: 46 grams of protein each day
- Boys between 14 and 18-years-old: 52 grams of protein each day
Whether your kids are vegetarian or you’re cutting back on meat and trying to get more plant-based foods in their diets, here are some of the best meatless protein-rich foods for kids, plus healthy and delicious recipes to try.
A gluten-free, whole grain carbohydrate, a 1/2 cup of quinoa has more than 4 grams of protein. Quinoa is also high in fiber and a good source of B vitamins and magnesium.
A great substitute for rice and pasta, quinoa can also be served as a side dish, added to salads, incorporated into soups, stew, or chili, or even served for breakfast.
Try this recipe: Apple Quinoa Breakfast Muffins Perfect for Busy Mornings
With 9 grams of protein in every 1/2 cup, lentils are one of the best meatless protein-rich foods for kids.
Since they’re also high in fiber, they keep blood sugar levels steady and are super filling.
Use lentils to make a vegetarian chili, lentil soup or meatless burgers.
Try this recipe: Lentil-Chickpea Veggie Burgers With Avocado Green Harissa
In March, a new study came out, once again suggesting that eating eggs is linked to heart disease and premature death.
But experts say—and I agree—there’s no need to avoid them.
With nearly 30 grams of protein in one large egg, plus several key nutrients like potassium, vitamin D, B vitamins, lutein and omega-3 fatty acids, eggs are one of the healthiest foods you can feed your kids.
Scrambled for breakfast, in a quiche or frittata for lunch, or hard-boiled for snacks when you’re on the go, eggs are a food you can always find a place for in your kid’s diet.
Try this recipe: Egg and Bacon Muffin Cups
4. Pumpkin seeds
With more than 5 grams of protein in one ounce, plus magnesium and zinc, pumpkin seeds are a great addition to your kid’s diet.
Pumpkin seeds also contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that converts to serotonin, a chemical in the brain that’s responsible for sleep and a happy mood.
Add pumpkin seeds to breads and muffins, on top of yogurt or in homemade granola.
Try this recipe: Vegan Pumpkin Seed Pesto Pasta
5. Green peas
Serve them in meals or as a snack, these little green gems are also a perfect first food for babies.
With 5 grams of protein in a 1/2 cup, peas are also a good source of vitamins A, B6, C, K, folate and magnesium.
Try this recipe: Best Ever and Kid-Friendly Easy Split Pea Soup
6. Chia seeds
Chia seeds are a superfood and high in protein: 1 ounce has more than 4 grams.
They’re also a great source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and phosphorous.
Add chia seeds to smoothies, pancake batter, overnight oats, and breads and muffins.
Try this recipe: Overnight Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding
All beans are excellent sources of protein, but chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) in particular, stand out. With nearly 9 grams of protein in one cup, chickpeas also high in fiber and folate.
Pair chickpeas with brown rice, add them to salads or make your own hummus.
Try this recipe: Roasted Chickpea Snack
8. Peanut butter
The quintessential kid-friendly food, peanut butter is packed with protein: two tablespoons has 8 grams—plus filling fiber and healthy fats.
Top toast with peanut butter, add it into breakfast smoothies or mix with Greek yogurt for a healthy dip.
Try this recipe: Peanut Butter Oatmeal Energy Balls
Made with fermented soybeans, tempeh is an excellent source of protein: one ounce has 5 grams.
Tempeh is also high in calcium—a good thing if your kids don’t drink milk or you’re avoiding dairy—and rich in probiotics, the healthy bacteria that strengthen your kid’s immune system.
Although tempeh is a great swap for meat in almost any dish, it shouldn’t be a regular food in your kid’s diet.
Since high amounts of soy in a child’s diet is linked to a Kawasaki disease, a serious autoimmune condition that can cause damage to the heart, experts say babies under 1 should avoid consuming foods with soy and older kids should consume soy in moderation.
Try this: Easy Baked BBQ Tempeh