Protein-Rich Foods for Your Kids

Kids Love High-Protein Foods

Toddler eating yogurt
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Ensuring that your children eat a balanced diet is an important part of their growth development. One essential part of that is protein and you might be wondering if your picky eater is getting enough protein. Luckily, most kids naturally eat protein-rich foods because it includes many of their favorites like grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, and peanut butter and jelly.

Most parents can be reassured that their children are meeting the daily recommended amount of protein. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, "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 percent to 20 percent of your calories are supposed to come from protein, with the rest coming from carbohydrates and fats. It is also good to consider calcium-rich foods and iron-rich foods, which can contribute to an overall healthy diet for your kids.

Protein Requirements

Protein requirements depend on a child's age and weight. The 2015–2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend the following amount of protein each day for children based on their age group. Until they reach 14 years old, the recommendations are the same for both boys and girls. In the later teen years, boys should be eating more proteins because they are still growing and tend to weigh more than girls.

AgeDaily Protein Recommendation
1–3 years13 grams
4–8 years19 grams
9–13 years34 grams
Girls 14–18 years46 grams
Boys 14–18 years52 grams

Quality Proteins

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 are "complete" proteins because they include all of the essential amino acids.

They are highly digestible and considered a higher quality than plant sources of protein.

This means your child's diet should include plenty of milk, eggs, and meats. Soy, hemp seeds, and quinoa are also complete proteins and serve as a vegetarian alternative.

You won't have to worry about this too much as long as you vary which protein foods your child eats. Even if they only eat plant sources of protein, you can get the right amounts in your child's diet. For instance, simply pair different proteins, such as grains and legumes, and it should be a sufficient variety.

Protein-Rich Foods for Your Child

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

The chart of protein-rich foods shows how much a serving provides of your child's daily requirement.

FoodServingProtein (grams)Age 4 to 6Age 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%

As you can see, peanut butter on toast or on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can provide over half of the protein a child needs for the day. Since 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.

It can also be easy to find high protein foods by reading food labels. Look for foods that have between 6 and 10 grams or more and you're sure to have a high-protein food.

In addition to foods that naturally have a lot of protein in them, you can also purchase protein supplements.

These include protein-fortified drink mixes such as Pediasure or Carnation Instant Breakfast.

Protein Foods Kids Love

A cheeseburger, which includes meat, cheese, and a bun, is a favorite among kids and a high-protein option. There are a number of other things that combine more than one protein-rich food that most kids enjoy.

  • Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Scrambled eggs with cheese
  • 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
  • Meatballs with pasta or in soup
  • Quesadilla or burrito with beans and cheese
  • Cheese pizza
  • Yogurt parfait with layers of fruit
  • Protein-enriched cereal

Make Healthy Choices

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

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

The American Heart Association reminds parents to avoid overfeeding kids. Let them decide how much they want to eat without being forced to finish their meals. Kids are actually pretty good at self-regulating and may eat little at some meals and more at others. Until puberty, they need far fewer calories than adults.

A Word From Verywell

While it's important to ensure your kids eat a healthy diet, protein is usually not an issue. However, keep in mind that the quality of proteins does make a difference, as does the other nutrients found in the high-protein foods. It's best to avoid junk food and opt for nutritious, well-balanced foods instead.

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Article Sources
  • American Heart Association. Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children. 2014.
  • Kleinman RL. Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, 7th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2014.
  • United States Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations. 2015.