Do Kids Need More Protein? (Plus 20 Protein-Rich Foods For Lunchboxes!)
A question we get a lot is, “do kids need more protein?” A lot of parents worry that their children aren’t consuming enough protein or iron, especially when they go through the anti-meat phase. Mom and dietitian, Sally, has put together this guide to help! Plus, she’s included 20 protein-rich foods for school lunches.
How To Get Your Kid To Eat More Protein
A lot of parents worry about protein. They’re concerned their kids aren’t getting enough, especially if they don’t love meat but really, REALLY love carbs. And it’s no wonder parents worry, since there seems to be an obsession around protein in food marketing.
Why do kids need protein?
Protein in food does a lot of important things for kids’ growing bodies. The building blocks of protein in food (called amino acids) can be arranged in the body in different ways to make all kinds of proteins like enzymes and hormones. Proteins are needed to make and repair muscle, build bone, and are components of skin, blood, and organs. The body can also use protein for energy.
How much protein do kids need?
Here’s some reassurance: Though protein is crucial for growing kids, most kids get plenty of it every day, even if they don’t eat meat.
These are the RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances), the levels that meet the needs for most healthy people of that age and the minimum amounts to meet basic needs:
Ages 2-3: 13 grams
Ages 4-8: 19 grams
Ages 9-13: 34 grams
Ages 14-18: 52 grams (boys), 46 grams (girls)
That gives you a rough guideline of how much your child needs, but there’s no need to count up grams or stress about the exact numbers. Protein actually adds up pretty fast in a child’s day because it’s found in so many different foods.
For example, a peanut butter sandwich (two tablespoons of peanut butter between two slices of white bread) and a glass of milk contains about 21 grams of protein.
What about vegetarian and vegan kids?
There’s no doubt that meat is an easy source of high-quality protein. A three-ounce piece of beef has 26 grams of protein–that’s more than a day’s minimum for a 9-13 year old child!
But protein is found in lots of foods beyond meat. Beans and lentils, soy foods like soy milk, edamame and tofu, and protein-rich grains like quinoa are all good sources of protein. Vegetables contain some protein too. Vegetarians can get protein from eggs and dairy as well.
What about protein powder?
It’s an easy way to boost protein in things like smoothies and baked goods. Just keep in mind that most protein supplements like powders have lengthy ingredient lists and contain ingredients like added sugar, sugar alcohol, or artificial sweeteners. They can be pricey too. Most kids can get more than enough protein from real, whole food.
But if you have an extremely picky eater or a child with poor growth, talk to your pediatrician or pediatric dietitian about whether a protein powder or other drink mix or bar can help right now.
Are meatless burgers healthy?
There’s been an explosion of meatless burgers and plant-based protein products–everything from faux beef and chicken to plant-based tuna and even eggs! These plant-based products will deliver a lot of protein–and are likely easier on the environment too.
But unlike traditional veggie burgers, which are usually made from beans and whole veggies, some of these are made from highly processed ingredients. And some have nutritional stats similar to regular fast food burgers.
Bottom line: Just because something is plant-based doesn’t mean it’s automatically wholesome and healthy. So it’s always smart to read labels and ingredient lists, focus on mostly whole foods, and treat any highly processed food like an occasional item, not an everyday thing.
And if you’re worried about protein, here’s some reassurance: Though protein is crucial for growing kids, most kids get plenty of it every day, even if they don’t eat meat.
Beans are a great source of protein. Learn how to add protein to meals using canned beans here!
20 Protein-Rich Foods That Are Totally Lunchbox-Friendly
While those averages listed above offer parents a rough guideline of how much protein a child needs, there’s no need to count up grams or stress about the exact numbers. Protein actually adds up pretty fast in a child’s day because it’s found in so many different foods.
Want proof? Here’s a list of 20 protein-rich foods. Get even more protein ideas here.
- Hummus, 2 tablespoons: 2 grams
- Broccoli, 3/4 cup: 2 grams
- Popcorn, 2 cups: 2 grams
- Avocado, 1/2: 2 grams
- Whole grain crackers, 15 crackers: 3 grams
- Tortilla, 8-inch: 3 grams
- Yogurt, half cup: 5 grams
- Roasted chickpeas, 1/4 cup: 5 grams
- String cheese: 6 grams
- Cheddar cheese, 1 ounce in cubes: 6 grams
- Whole grain bread, 1 slice: 6 grams
- Hard-boiled egg, 1 large: 6 grams
- Vegetable roll, 5 pieces: 6 grams
- Sunflower seed butter, 2 tablespoons: 7 grams
- Milk, dairy or soy, 1 cup: 8 grams
- Vegetarian burger or vegetarian “chicken” patty: 9 grams
- Edamame, 1 cup in pods: 9 grams
- Tofu, 3 ounces (about a quarter of a block): 9 grams
- Cheese tortellini, 3/4 cup: 10 grams
- Slice of leftover cheese pizza, from 14″ pizza: 12 grams
If you’re stumped for protein ideas when packing lunches — especially if your kid doesn’t like sandwiches, attends a nut-free school, or is gluten-free — some of these ideas might work for you! And you can find even more protein ideas here.
Protein Lunchbox Ideas
Need some lunchbox inspiration? In addition to the list above, check out these protein-packed lunchbox ideas:
- Protein Power Lunchbox
- Freezable Pizza Pockets (Empanadas)
- Make-Ahead Breakfast Burritos
- Ham and Spinach Wraps
- Mandarin Chicken Stir-Fry with Green Beans
- Italian Sausage and Veggie Sheet Pan Meal
Check out these lunchbox combo ideas that each pack about 20 gram of protein:
- Tortilla spread with sunflower seed butter and jelly, rolled up and cut into pinwheels
- Carrot Sticks
- Flavored Greek yogurt cup
- Total = 21 grams of protein
- Hard-boiled egg
- String cheese
- Whole grain crackers
- Sliced strawberries
- Chocolate Milk
- Total = 23 grams of protein
- Turkey sandwich with cheese and lettuce
- Sugar snap peas
- Total = 22 grams of protein
If you are looking for the perfect after-school snack that is loaded with protein, check out our dairy-filled kid-friendly snack board.