Protein for Kids: Why Protein Should Be on Your Shopping List
By Jenna Braddock, MSH, CSSD, RD, ACSM-CPT, a mom and consultant dietitian who works with Clif Bar & Company.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.
Of all the challenges I knew I would face as a parent, I’m most surprised by the challenge of feeding my boys, even as a registered dietitian. Between the frequent, inconvenient cries for food due to hunger and the unexplained, recurring change in food preferences, there are many days where I’d like to throw in the towel.
It’s a big job to be a parent. We all want our kids to do well in school, activities, and relationships so they can grow up to be strong, smart, and kind. Beyond the worry of ensuring they are growing and developing, wondering what to feed your kids throughout the day can also be a big challenge. As a parent, it’s likely you are balancing a busy schedule that leaves you with little time or energy to investigate what’s really happening on your kid’s plate.
A common question I often get from parents is about protein — how much do kids need, what types are best, and how do I know my kid is eating enough? Perhaps you have these same questions. So, let’s dive into some answers.
Why Do Kids Need Protein?
Kids seem to grow like weeds! It’s almost comical how quickly they outgrow pants or shoes that fit only a week or two earlier. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that until age 10, most kids are in a state of constant growth.1 And between ages 11 and 13, growth significantly accelerates.2
Protein is a crucial nutrient for kids during these times of intense growth spurts because protein provides the building blocks, or amino acids, for all the new tissue being created.2 I like to compare amino acids to interlocking toy bricks. Amino acids (individual bricks) link together and form proteins (different creative combinations) that make up the foods we eat. When we eat protein-containing foods, our digestion process breaks down the creative combinations (protein) and makes each individual brick (amino acids) available to our body to build new substances like muscle, bones, and brain tissue. Beyond the incredible role of building bodies, protein from food is a parent’s secret weapon for happier, and perhaps more focused, kids. Meals and snacks that include protein have been found to decrease hunger and manage appetites better than meals without protein.3 This means fewer distractions from learning or playing because of the dreaded “I’m hungry!” complaint.
How Much Protein Do Kids Need?
It’s important for parents to know that kids and adults have different protein needs. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides recommendations for the protein intake for kids of all ages based on age and calorie level.4 These guidelines are given in ounce equivalents per day or total grams per day and are a good starting place for understanding adequate protein needs for your child. However, some children, like those who are very active in sports, may require more protein.2 Some children may also require less. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s protein intake, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian.
Daily Protein Needs for Children Ages 4–184
|Age (years)||Protein (grams/day)|
Most children can meet these protein needs with a “normal” day of eating nutritious meals and snacks. Here’s a real-life example of protein intake for a child aged 9–13, based on three meals and one snack.
- 1 slice whole wheat bread = 4 g
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter = 4 g
- ½ cup strawberries = 0.5 g
- 1 turkey roll-up
- wheat tortilla = 4 g
- Tbsp hummus = 1 g
- lettuce = 0 g
- 1 oz turkey deli meat = 5 g
- ½ cup blueberries = 0.5 g
- 1 Clif Kid Zbar® Protein bar = 5 g
- 1 oz grilled chicken = 9 g
- 1 oz pasta = 1.5 g
Protein Total = 34.5 grams
What Type of Protein Should Kids Eat?
Parents have a wide assortment of protein options to consider, and there is a lot of confusion around the “best” type. Ultimately, I believe one of the most important things parents can teach their kids is how to enjoy a wide variety of foods. Exposing them to diverse ways to meet their nutritional and enjoyment needs equips them with knowledge and experiences to later make their own balanced decisions as adults.
Both animal and plant sources of protein offer important benefits for growing kids. Dairy protein, and most notably whey protein, provides amino acids that are helpful in muscle growth.2 In addition to protein, animal-based foods also provide a complete package of vital nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, and iron, all of which are necessary for optimal growth and development. Plant-based protein options can also help kids meet their nutritional requirements. In addition to protein, plant-based foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and soy also provide important nutrients like fiber, which many kids don’t eat enough of and which supports healthy digestion.5
Exposing your child to many types of protein can help them identify the ones they really enjoy and help ensure they are getting the nutrients they need to support their growth and development.
Sources of Protein for Kids6
|Food||Serving Size for Ages 4–6||Grams of Protein||Serving Size for Ages 7–10||Grams of Protein|
|Black beans||⅓ cup cooked||5||½ cup cooked||7|
|Meat (chicken)||1 oz||7||2-3 oz||14–21|
|Large egg||1 egg||6||1-2 eggs||6–12|
|Milk||½ cup||4||1 cup||8|
|Cheese (mozzarella)||1 oz||9||1 oz||9|
|Whole-grain bread||½ slice||2||1 slice||4|
|Nuts (pistachios)||½ oz||3||½ oz||3|
|Tofu||1 oz||2||2–3 oz||4–6|
|Peas (cooked)||¼ cup||2||½ cup||4|
|Peanut butter||1 tbsp||4||1–2 tbsp||4–8|
|Protein pasta||⅓ cup||5||½ cup||8|
How Can Parents Help Kids Meet Their Protein Needs Throughout the Day?
Kids begin forming their lifelong perception of food and how to appropriately feed themselves in their early years. So it’s important for parents to introduce tasty ways for kids to incorporate protein into their diet.
From my own practice as a registered dietitian and observations as a parent, I’ve found that protein may not become fully accepted into a child’s diet until later in their development. This can mean picky eaters and frustrating mealtimes.
I encourage parents to step back from focusing on just one meal and look at the bigger picture. Offer foods throughout the entire day that contribute small amounts of protein.
For snack time, look for snacks that contribute not only protein but great overall nutrition. Clif Kid Zbar® Protein bars are made with organic oats and provide a good source of protein (from dairy and plant-based pea protein) to fight hunger and support growing bodies. Dips are another great way to get kids to eat protein. Pack chopped veggies with a to-go cup of roasted carrot & ranch hummus or sliced fruit with this peanut butter frosting dip.
In addition to snack time, lunches can play a role in helping kids meet their protein needs too. Check out these simple bento box ideas for lunches that deliver on ease, nutrition, and deliciousness. Or for a stay-at-home lunch, try my simple Make Healthy Easy taco meat recipe that blends plant and animal proteins together in one delicious bite.
How Can I Increase the Protein in My Child’s Diet?
It’s helpful for parents to keep their eyes on the long game of feeding their child, and not just the immediate meal before them. Since children’s protein needs aren’t that high, any small increase can be significant.
Think about adding a “dash” of protein to a food or meal you know your child likes. For instance, setting a couple of kidney or black beans on the plate at dinner or stirring in a little plain Greek yogurt to mac and cheese could be small but meaningful ways to up protein.
Smoothies are another option for tucking in a variety of nutritious ingredients. You can easily add protein to a smoothie by blending in yogurt, powdered milk, hemp seeds, rolled oats, or nut butter.
Lastly, serving a protein-rich beverage with a meal can help fill in some protein gaps. Dairy milk, soy milk, and some nut-based milks are a good source of protein and other important nutrients.
How Do Picky Eaters Get Protein?
If you are working with a picky eater, or “particular eater” as I prefer to call it, then take heart. This is definitely about the long game! Any small step toward a wider acceptance of foods is positive.
When appropriate, allow your child to play with their protein-rich foods to experience their shapes, colors, smells, and textures. Encourage any positive reaction to it. These are important times for kids to have a positive interaction with food they may not be interested in tasting, yet!
It’s also important to be mindful of how you talk about your child’s eating preferences and respond to their heightened reactions to foods they dislike. I think it’s important to plant seeds of potential in their minds, even if they don’t grow for many years. When one of my sons expresses their displeasure with a food (that’s a nice way of saying it), I will quickly add “You may not enjoy it now but one day you might” to simply leave open the door of possibilities.
If you struggle with a picky eater, I highly recommend these free resources by Registered Dietitian Sally Kuzemchak. The USDA also offers a free Food Critic Activity printable to help picky eaters be more adventurous.
Stick With It!
It’s important to understand that kids’ food preferences change daily. Presenting a variety of nutritious protein options at meal and snack time and modeling balanced eating habits in your own choices will set your kiddos up for success.
- Karagounis LG, Volterman KA, Braille D, Offord EA, Emady-Azar S, Moore DA. Protein intake at breakfast promotes a positive whole-body protein balance in a dose-response manner in healthy children: A randomized trial. J Nutr. 2018 May;148(5):729-737.
- Volterman KA, Atkinson SA. Protein needs of physically active children. Pediatr Exerc Sci. 2016 May;28(2):187-93.
- Baum JI, Gray M, Binns A. Breakfasts higher in protein increase postprandial energy expenditure, increase fat oxidation and reduce hunger in overweight children from 8 to 12 years of age. J Nutr. 2015 Oct;145(10):2229-35.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. Available at: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
- Kranz S, Brauchla M, Slavin JL, Miller KB. What do we know about dietary fiber intake in children and health? The effects of fiber intake on constipation, obesity, and diabetes in children. Adv Nutr. 2012 Jan; 3(1): 47–53.
- Energy In Energy Out: Finding the Right Balance for Your Children. Copyright © 2014 American Academy of Pediatrics. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Portions-and-Serving-Sizes.aspx