To continue my series of posts dealing with persnickety eaters out there (you can read the first two installments here and here), let’s talk today about those picky protein eaters. Most kiddos are happy to eat their carbs with a side of fruit, but I often have parents tell me that their child doesn’t like to eat meat. But before we get into my foolproof (well almost) means of bringing the protein lover out in your kiddo, let’s discuss the importance of getting protein in their diets and why its worth the struggle.
Protein is required for virtually every system of our body to function properly - whether you’re an adult or a child. If you want to run faster, have an immune system that can fight off illnesses, and even have the right amount of oxygen floating around in your blood, then your body must have dietary protein. Proteins are composed of building blocks called amino acids. We know that there are 22 different amino acids that can combine in all sorts of ways to form many different proteins that are required by all of our body systems. Our bodies are capable of making 13 of these amino acids, but the other 9 must be taken in through food sources. These 9 amino acids are called the “essential amino acids” because it is “essential” that we ingest these in our diets.
“This is why is it so important to have a variety of protein sources in your child’s diet.”
Now, can you take in all of your “essential” amino acids with just one type of food? Actually, yes, in fact you can. Foods from pretty much all animal sources - meat, fish, eggs, chicken, cheese, etc. - are complete proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids. So if you and your kiddos are on diets containing meat, and you can get them to eat it (a big if for some), they are “essentially” covered. Now if you choose for your family’s diets to be vegetarian or vegan or you just can’t get your kids to consume meats, there are other ways to get your essential aminos. Other non-meat sources of protein such as tofu, beans, nuts, rice and whole grains do contain some of the essential amino acids but they don’t contain them all. However, combinations of these foods can get the job done and may just be the dietary lifesaver you need for a kiddo going through a “no meat” phase. For example, beans and rice “add up” to make a complete protein. This is why is it so important to have a variety of protein sources in your child’s diet.
So exactly how much protein does a child need on a daily basis? Well, as in so many other cases, the answer is “it depends”. In this case, mostly on age and weight. A good rough estimate for protein needs is approximately 1 gram of protein for every 2 pounds of body weight (or just divide your child’s weight in half). Protein requirements level off as children get closer to the late teen years. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a 1-3 year old requires about 13 grams of protein per day, a 4-8 year old requires 19 grams per day, a 9-13 year old requires 34 grams, and a 14-19 year old requires 46-52 grams per day depending on gender.
“As you can see, most children are probably not deficient in their protein intake, even if they are not “steak and eggs” kind of kids.”
You may be surprised by how much protein is contained in foods that most children eat everyday (outside of red meats). One cup of milk has 8 grams of protein, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter has 7 grams of protein, 1 cup of beans has 16 grams of protein, and just 1 1/2 ounces of chicken has just over 10 grams of protein. As you can see, most children are probably not deficient in their protein intake, even if they are not “steak and eggs” kind of kids.
But as I said above, if you have the really picky and/or “meat avoidance phase” kiddos or you’re interested in doing an alternative vegan or vegetarian lifestyle with your brood, here are a few more suggestions of foods and approaches that can help to fulfill your child’s daily protein requirement in tasty (and in some cases stealthy) ways:
- Quinoa - This grain has become quite the popular food in the past few years mainly because it is one of the only plant-based complete proteins with all of those critical essential amino acids, but also because it is yummy and quite versatile. It has a texture similar to rice (and can therefore be swapped for rice in many dishes) but packs about 24 grams of protein per cup!
- Whole wheat bread - Pair a slice of your favorite whole wheat bread with a tablespoon of peanut butter (read my recent blog posting here about the latest in regards to peanuts in children) and sliced bananas and it provides about 10 grams of protein in a very kid-friendly form.
- Cottage cheese - The texture can take a little getting used to with your munchkins, but its worth it because it requires no prep, and mixed with sliced strawberries its a yummy treat and ½ cup can provide 12 grams of protein!
- Deli Meat and Cheese Rolls - Wrap a slice of deli meat around a stick of string cheese and you’ve got a quick, painless mini-meat-burrito kids devour that provides around 10 grams of protein (depending on your meat and type of cheese, of course). Just be careful not to overuse this one as most deli meats are loaded with sodium and/or preservatives and can be unhealthy if eaten too much.
- Almond Chicken Tenders - Use almond meal rather than cornmeal to coat chicken tenders prior to baking as ½ cup of almond meal will provide 6 grams of protein compared to less than 3 in cornmeal.
In short, even if your child isn’t requesting second and third helpings of scrambled eggs on a Saturday morning (like my two oldest do), there is a good chance your little one is getting their proteins through a whole host of sources. And as you can see, proteins can come in many different forms, and hopefully, with a little imagination and creativity, parents can find great protein sources for even the pickiest of kid palates.