Protein-Rich Foods for Kids

Toddler eating yogurt

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Ensuring that your children eat a balanced diet is an important part of their growth and development. One essential dietary component is protein, and you might be wondering if your child is getting enough.

First, know that protein deficiency is extremely rare in the U.S. The majority of parents have no need to be concerned about their children meeting the daily recommended intake of protein. A 2018 analysis of Americans' protein intake found that all age groups met or exceeded their estimated daily requirements (EAR).

This is good news, considering all the important roles protein plays in the body. Including a variety of high-quality protein sources in your child's diet (especially if you have a picky eater) will help ensure that their body has what it needs for energy, growth, and a strong immune system.

The Power of Protein

Protein is an essential part of the diet due to its critical functions in the body. Most people are aware that muscles are made up of protein. A lesser-known fact is that the building blocks of protein, known as amino acids, compose virtually every cell in the body.

Proteins are also used in the transport of other molecules throughout the body. Specialized proteins act as antibodies that fight disease, and they serve as messengers in many different biological functions.

Nutritionally speaking, protein is important because it is digested more slowly than carbohydrate, so it can help steady the blood sugar response when you eat a mixed meal (with both protein and carbohydrate) and help keep you feeling satisfied longer after eating.

Kids' Protein Needs

Protein requirements depend on a child's age and weight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) published updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2020, in which they recommended the following daily protein intakes for children.

Until kids reach 14 years old, protein recommendations are the same for both boys and girls. In the later teen years (14–19), the protein recommendations increase slightly for boys, with the assumption that they are gaining more muscle mass and tend to weigh more than girls. The USDA and HHS' dietary guidelines are a great starting point, but adequate intake and nutrition needs should always be assessed individually.

Age Daily Protein Recommendation Food Equivalent
2–3 years 13 grams 2 ounces
4–8 years 19 grams 4 ounces
9–13 years 34 grams 5 ounces
Girls 14–18 years 46 grams 5 ounces
Boys 14–18 years 52 grams 6.5 ounces

Protein-Rich Foods

The amino acids that make up proteins can be divided into two categories:

  • Essential amino acids are not made by the body and must be provided by the diet
  • Non-essential amino acids can be made in the body

While animal proteins provide many of the essential amino acids needed for growth and development, a balanced plant-based diet can also provide plenty of quality protein. Children who are vegetarians or vegans have many protein sources to choose from, including grains, fortified plant-based milks, tofu, beans, and peas.

If your child's diet includes eggs, lean meats and/or fish, and dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt on a daily basis, then they are likely meeting their protein needs regularly. Soy, beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, and whole grains like amaranth and quinoa are also high-quality proteins that can serve as vegetarian sources of protein. Your child can meet daily protein needs from animal sources, plant sources, or a combination of the two.

One ounce of a protein-rich food generally provides about 7 grams of protein. An ounce is equal to:

  • A 1-inch cube of cheese
  • 1 ounce of meat, poultry, or fish
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup tofu
  • 1/2 cup cooked beans or lentils

The chart below shows how much protein a serving of each food provides and how it compares to your child's daily protein requirement.

Remember that serving sizes are not based on needs, meaning that the following chart is not stating that a 4- to 8-year-old needs to eat 3 ounces of chicken or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter in one sitting. Rather, they are just reference amounts to provide a sense of how much protein these foods offer.

It's also important to note that with a few exceptions for specific conditions, there is no need to track exactly how many grams of protein your child eats each day. Instead, familiarize yourself with higher protein foods and make sure to offer them to your child throughout the day along with foods with carbohydrates and fat.

High-Protein Food Sources
Food Serving Protein (grams) Age 4 to 8 Age 9 to 13
Chicken, meat, or fish 3 ounces 21 111% 62%
Lentils or beans, cooked 1/2 cup 9 47% 27%
Milk or soy milk 1 cup 8 42% 24%
Tofu 1/4 cup 7 37% 21%
Cheese 1 ounce/slice 7 37% 21%
Hummus 1/3 cup 7 37% 21%
Peanut butter 2 tablespoons 7 37% 21%
Eggs 1 large 6 32% 18%
Nuts 1/4 cup 6 32% 18%
Whole grain bread 2 slices 6 32% 18%
Yogurt 1 (6 ounce) container 5 26% 15%
Quinoa, cooked 1/3 cup 3 16% 9%
Rice or pasta, cooked 1/3 cup 3 16% 9%

As you can see, one peanut butter and jelly sandwich can provide 13 grams of protein, which is over half of the protein a 4- to 8-year-old child needs for the day. If your 4-year-old is more likely to eat half of a sandwich, then divide the amount of protein in half (6.5 grams).

Offering several higher protein foods (6 to 10 grams of protein per serving) throughout the day means that your child will have multiple opportunities to include these foods in meals and snacks and meet their daily protein needs.

Protein in a Balanced Diet

Keep in mind that only 10% to 30% of children's energy intake needs to come from protein, with the rest provided by carbohydrates and fats. Offering a variety of foods throughout the week helps to encourage a diet that includes a variety of nutrients. A healthy diet for your kids should also include foods high in calcium and iron, which are important for muscle and bone growth.

Remember, your child's nutrient intake should be evaluated over the course of a week or two, not a single day. There's no need to count or keep track. Rather, focus on establishing a trusting relationship with food as you expose your child to more variety.

When it comes to feeding kids—no matter what the food is—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 less at some meals and more at others. Just like with adults, it's normal for a child's appetite and preferences to fluctuate and the more adults can help preserve a child's ability to listen to their body's cues and respect them, the better.

With the wide variety of foods that are good sources of protein, this nutrient is not usually a concern in a balanced diet.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Berryman CE, Lieberman HR, Fulgoni VL III, Pasiakos SM. Protein intake trends and conformity with the dietary reference intakes in the united states: analysis of the national health and nutrition examination survey, 2001–2014. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2018;108(2):405-413. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy088

  2. Medline Plus. What are proteins and what do they do?. Updated September 18, 2020.

  3. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Protein content of common foods. Revised June 2019.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. Beyond chicken nuggets: protein-rich alternatives for picky eaters. January 27, 2021.

Additional Reading
  • Kleinman RL. Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, 7th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics. 2014.