Every Bit Counts

How Do I Get Protein Into My Carb-Loving Kid?

After all, protein can be found in the darndest of places.

by Elizabeth Narins
Rise & Shine

If you’ve birthed a carb monster and can’t quite crack the code on why they won’t just eat the bun *and* burger, you’re not alone. “Kids have an intrinsic motivation to seek certain types of food,” says Taylor Arnold, PhD, RDN, of Growing Intuitive Eaters on Instagram, and YouTube.

For my offspring, that means entire meals made up of toast, pasta, or, when I’m out and about and feeling particularly desperate, French fries. And I don’t even want to talk about the number of uneaten nuggets, meatballs, and burger patties that have been left uneaten.

Despite the fact that itty bitty bodies need protein to obtain the amino acids required for immune system functioning and growth during a pivotal time in their development, the truth is that many kids would happily live on carbs... and do. Although this keeps many parents up at night, it shouldn’t: “Only in rare situations like certain medical or feeding disorders do kids truly have trouble consuming adequate protein,” Arnold assures me. And despite picky eating? “Most kids get adequate protein.”

If the math here seems... questionable — pasta plus pasta equals... huh? — remember: Protein is found in the darndest of places. (Yes, even noodles, bagels, and bread!) “Every bit of protein counts towards a child's daily intake goals,” Arnold insists. “There is no minimum amount of protein that a food has to have to ‘count’ as a protein source.”

Why Parents Obsess Over Protein

If protein is found in macaroni and muffins and toast toppings, why are we losing sleep over our kids getting enough of it?

Anecdotally, I’ve found that toddler hanger is to blame for my toughest parenting moments. Protein seems to fend off my kids’ meltdowns, hence my personal obsession. But Arnold hints that much of this might actually be in my head thanks to the diet culture that gave “carb” a bad rep during my formative years. Or perhaps, it’s a factually inaccurate projection of my own energy deficit and resulting moodiness.

Either way? “Some parents look to increase their own protein intake and then think this same principle needs to be applied to their kids,” she says. “But we can’t just copy and paste, then shrink adult nutrition recommendations and apply them to kids. A child's nutrition needs are very different from an adult's.”

Nevertheless, variety is key to ensuring kids get a good mix of the amino acids they need to thrive, Arnold tells me. With that in mind, here are some practical ways to amp up the protein on your little people’s plates. Balance, here you come!

How to Get Carb-Loving Kids to Eat More Protein

  1. Smear nut butter on literally anything they will eat. Peanut butter and almond butter can have upwards of eight grams of protein per two-tablespoon serving. My kids are made up of approximately 75% almond butter thanks to the hearty dose I stir into their oatmeal daily, but sunflower spread ticks the same boxes for kids who have allergies or attend nut-free schools — so stir, spread, or dip away!
  2. Dip fruit in yogurt. It’s an easy way to add a food group rife with protein into the mix...and save yourself from washing yet another spoon.
  3. Have hummus on hand. Chickpeas do not mess around in the protein department, with 10 grams per 1/4 cup and about two grams per two-tablespoon serving of the chickpea-based dip.
  4. Give them allll the dairy. Cheese sticks, cottage cheese, yogurt, and milk all deliver, Arnold says, with one cheese stick providing over 50% of a typical toddler’s daily protein needs.
  5. Get sneaky with smoothies. Add silken tofu, beans, or the aforementioned yogurt or milk to watch them suck their protein through a straw. In my house, a healthy scoop of yogurt swirled with frozen mango, banana, spinach, almond milk, and ginger never disappoints.
  6. Embrace edamame. Whether you let these green beans defrost overnight in their lunch box or serve the crunchy dried ones on their own as a convenient snack, you can bank on about four grams of protein per 1/4 cup.
  7. Give in to granola bars. While some options are full of sugar, others include ample protein for a substantial snack on the go. And if you’re feeling all Marthat Stewart, homemade granola bars are simple and satisfying.
  8. Embrace chicken nuggets. “I would rather a child get protein from processed meats than no protein at all,” says Arnold, who doesn’t blink twice at salami or meat sticks — she serves both to her kids from time to time, with a focus on variety.
  9. Sneak beans into baked goods. Are black bean brownies as delicious as regular brownies? No, no they aren’t. Would you kid prefer a black bean brownie to no brownie? You betcha. And with four grams per 1/4 cup, beans are a great protein source.
  10. Don’t discount packaged snacks. Important public service announcement: Protein is found in kid-friendly snacks such as Hippeas Chickpea Puffs (four grams per serving), Pirate’s Booty (two grams per serving), hell, even Goldfish (three grams per serving).
  11. Throw in the towel and warm up a pizza. Some frozen brands have as many as 17 grams of protein per serving. Talk about a crowd-pleaser!
  12. Let it go. “If your kid struggles with meat, lean into plant-based protein sources and dairy,” she says. No harm, no ~fowl~ (Sorry! Had to!).

Protein FAQs

How much protein does my kid actually need?

This depends on the age, gender, and size of the child, Arnold notes. If you’re an almond mom (and my prayers go out to your children), you can use this chart to calculate the number of grams of protein your child needs per kilogram of body weight. Otherwise, proceed:

What are some signs my kid needs more protein?

Inadequate growth is a telltale sign that your child isn’t getting what they need. If your kid’s outgrowing pants faster than you can buy them — just me?! — then they’re probably in the clear. But you can always ask your child's pediatrician to take a peek at their growth charts if you’re worried.

Other signs that protein intake is lacking are fatigue, brittle hair and nails, and slow wound healing. But before you prescribe chicken fingers, know these can also be signs of iron deficiency — and remember, your kid’s doc really is the best person to make the call on what’s going on, Google be damned.

Should I be force-feeding my kid traditional forms of protein like meat, fish, and chicken?

The good news is NOPE. “Kids can absolutely thrive on a plant-based diet,” Arnold says—although parents of vegans do need to be a bit more conscientious of their child's protein intake and protein variety.

I cannot with the food battles. Can I just give my kid gummy vitamins and call it a day?

Some picky eaters do need supplements, says Arnold: “But there isn't a hard line like, ‘if your child eats fewer than 30 foods, they need a supplement."

Mini vegans typically need a B12 supplement or a B-12-fortified plant-based milk, she says. They may also need iodine, iron, and DHA/EPA omega-3 fatty acids, but it depends on the kid and their doctor’s orders. GL!