How to Get a Toddler Protein Without Them Eating Too Much

Protein intake is a common concern for parents, but given protein-packed Western diets it may be time to just calm down.

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Protein comes in bars, shakes, and bacon. It’s how bodybuilders bulk up and fad dieters slim down. And given proteins oversized place in America’s national nutrition conversations — specifically the version of that conversation taking place in gyms — it’s not surprising that parents would stress out about toddlers and young kids not getting enough of the stuff. Add the politics of early eating, all those demands for apple slices and french fries, and concerns about raising a weakling compound.

“The thing about protein is that you don’t want to give them too much, especially when they’re babies or toddlers,” explains Dr. Michelle Davenport a registered dietician and co-founder of homemade baby food company Raised Real. Yes, “too much protein” may be a bit of a difficult concept for parents to comprehend, but Davenport notes that a moderate approach is actually crucial to a kids health. “Their kidneys are much smaller than ours and can’t handle the protein load,” she explains.

That’s why parents should be conscious of the maximum recommended daily protein intake, as well as the minimums. For children 6-months-old to 2-years-old, protein should only account for 15 percent of their diet. The recommended intake for babies is about 11 grams per day between 7-months and a year old. For toddlers, the amount increases to 13 grams for toddlers. By the time kids hit school protein intake should be around 19 grams per day.

“Which is still pretty low,” Davenport explains. She notes that the amount of protein consumed in a day can add up quickly. “Just to give you an idea, one cup of breastmilk or formula is already two and a half grams of protein. If you had a cup of milk that would be 8 grams of protein. If you had one ounce of chicken, the size of your thumb, basically that would be 8 grams right there.”

Managing a Toddler’s Protein Intake

  • Be aware of both age-appropriate protein intake maximums and minimums because too much protein can be damaging to children.
  • Protein amounts can add up quickly. A cup of milk and a thumb-sized piece of chicken exceeds toddler’s daily recommended protein intake by 3 grams.
  • There’s no need to push protein unless a pediatrician has asked you to do so because a child is underweight or has eating habits that have compromised their nutrition.
  • Relax and consider the experience of the meal rather than macronutrients.

It’s also important for parents to understand that there are unlikely sources of protein that can be found in a kids diet. Kale and spinach? They have protein. A cup of broth? It has six grams of the stuff. “In western countries, kid’s are actually getting two to three times the protein they actually need,” Davenport says. “It’s really uncommon for kids to be malnourished when it comes to protein. They’re mostly hitting what they need per day.”

However, there are times to be concerned. If for instance, a pediatrician is concerned about a child being underweight, it might be time to think about supplementing protein. The same goes for if a child is so food averse that their entire nutrition intake is compromised.

What’s not on the concerns list? Kids being raised vegetarian and vegan. They only need maybe ten percent more protein than kids who now chicken nuggets and hot dogs. “They’re probably getting most their protein from peanut butter and oatmeal, but it’s enough to cover their bases,” Davenport says. However, she does note that veg kids may need more missing nutrients like the iron found in meat.

The takeaway, according to Davenport, is for parents to jettison their concerns about macronutrients. “You want kids to develop a healthy relationship with food,” she says. “And how unappetizing is it if I told you to do get some protein for lunch? We want kids accustomed to tastes and textures, and to build their palettes.”

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