Protein for Kids: Why Protein Should be on Your Back to School 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.

Here we are at this very familiar time of year called “back to school.” Our internal clocks are telling us it’s time to buy backpacks and pencils, lunchboxes and school clothes, but it’s not unfolding how it has in years past. This year, we are clearing the kitchen table, putting on our teacher’s hat, and preparing to play a different role in our children’s learning.

It’s a big job to be a parent. We all want our kids to do well in school so they can grow up to be strong, smart, and kind. Beyond the worry of ensuring their brains are growing and developing, wondering what to feed your kids throughout the day can also be a big concern. The challenge of balancing school and work schedules can leave you with little time or energy to investigate what’s really happening on your kid’s plate or in their lunchbox.

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 up 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 protein intake for kids of all ages.4 These guidelines 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)
4–819
9–1334
14–1846–52

Most children can meet these protein needs with a “normal” day of eating with 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.

Breakfast

  • 1 slice whole wheat bread = 4 g
  • 1 tablespoon butter = <0.5 g
  • ½ cup strawberries = 0.5 g

Lunch

  • ½ cup baby carrots = 0.5 g
  • 2 tablespoons of hummus = 2 g
  • 1 cheese stick = 7 g
  • 8 wheat crackers = 1 g

Snack

Dinner

  • 1 oz grilled chicken = 9 g
  • ½ cup mac ‘n’ cheese = 7 g
  • Green salad + ranch dressing = <0.5 g

Protein Total = ~37 grams

What Type of Protein Should Kids Eat?

Parents have a wide assortment of protein options to consider, and there’s 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 different 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.

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.

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.

References

  1. 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.
  2. Volterman KA, Atkinson SA. Protein needs of physically active children. Pediatr Exerc Sci. 2016 May;28(2):187-93.
  3. 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.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at: https://health.gov/our-work/food-and-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/.
  5. 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.