Protein-Rich Foods for Your Kids

Child Nutrition Basics

Toddler eating yogurt
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Surprisingly, some parents don't worry about finding calcium-rich foods or iron-rich foods, which kids often don't get enough of. Instead, they worry that their kids don't get enough protein in their diet because they don't like to eat meat.

Most can be reassured that their kids are getting plenty of protein in their diet, though, especially when you consider that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "protein is so abundant in the foods Americans eat, that most of us, children and adults alike, consume more than we need."

Keep in mind that only about 10 to 20 percent of your calories are supposed to come from protein, with the rest coming from carbohydrates and fats.

Protein Requirements

Protein requirements depend on a child's age and weight. For example, the average 4- to 6-year-old preschooler requires about 22 grams of protein a day, while an older 7- to 10-year-old requires about 28 grams of protein a day.

Making things a little more complicated, protein requirements also depend on the quality of protein your child eats and how easily digestible it is. In general, animal proteins, such as from milk, eggs, and meats, are considered highly digestible and higher quality than plant sources of protein.

You don't have to worry about this, as long as you vary which protein foods your child eats. Even if your child only eats plant sources of protein, as long as you pair them, such as by eating grains and legumes, you can get the right amounts of proteins in your child's diet.

Protein-Rich Foods for Your Child

One of the reasons that parents don't think that their kids get enough protein in their diets is that they simply aren't aware that protein is in so many different foods. Many foods besides red meat are high in protein, which means that your kids are likely getting much more protein in their diet than you think.

Even if you think your kids are getting enough protein in their diet, understanding which foods have protein can be a good idea because nutrition experts often recommend that we vary our protein sources.

Here is a chart of protein-rich foods and how much a serving provides of your child's daily requirement.

Food

Serving

Protein
grams

Age 4 to 6

Age 7 to 10

Milk or soy milk1 cup836%29%
Eggs1 egg627%21%
Yogurt1 8-ounce container941%32%
Peanut butter2 tablespoons836%29%
Nuts1/4 cup731%24%
Chicken4 ounces30136%107%
Chicken tenders4 pieces1150%39%
White bread2 slices523%18%
Tuna (canned)3 ounces1672%57%
Wheat bread2 slices732%25%
Hamburger bun1 bun418%14%
Pasta2 ounces314%11%
Tofu1/2 cup1045%36%
Beans (pinto, black, etc.)1/4 cup1045%36%
Cheddar cheese1 ounce/slice732%25%
American cheese1 ounce/slice523%18%

It can also be easy to find high protein foods by reading food labels and looking for foods with a higher protein number than other foods, such as from 6 to 10 grams or more.

As you can see, peanut butter on toast or on a PBJ sandwich can provide over half of the protein a child needs for the day. As 2 cups of milk or servings of dairy are also recommended per day for ages 4 to 8, and 3 cups or servings for ages 9 to 13, your child's protein needs would be easily met.

In addition to foods that naturally have a lot of protein in them, parents can also buy protein supplements. These include protein-fortified drink mixes such as Pediasure or Carnation Instant Breakfast.

Protein Foods Kids Like

Some ideas for high protein foods that can combine more than one protein-rich food, such as a cheeseburger, which includes meat, cheese, and a bun, include:

  • Tuna sandwich
  • Turkey roll-ups
  • Hummus dip with carrots, celery, pretzels, or crackers
  • Veggie burger
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Pasta with chicken or turkey
  • Quesadilla or burrito with beans and cheese
  • Cheese pizza
  • Grilled cheese sandwich

    Make Healthy Choices for Protein-Rich Foods

    Remember to stick with healthy choices as you look for protein-rich foods. Foods should be low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.

    The total fat content should be between 25 to 35 percent of calories for children age 4 to 18. It's best for this fat to come fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. Dairy products should be low-fat or fat-free.

    Avoid overfeeding your kids. Let them decide how much they want to eat without being forced to finish their meals. Children will eat little at some meals and more at others. Until puberty, they need far fewer calories than adults.

    Sources:

    Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/Dietary-Recommendations-for-Healthy-Children_UCM_303886_Article.jsp#.

    Kleinman RL. Pediatric Nutrition Handbook. Elk Grove Village: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2009.

    National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search.