How much protein does my child actually need?
At HNK this is a question we often receive from worried parents of children (especially those refusing to eat meat). Firstly, it can be helpful to know it's common for us to see food refusal or chewing and spitting (including meat) during the toddler and early childhood years. Meat often requires more chewing, meaning more time in the mouth, meaning more sensory processing for a child. Some children have more intense sensory responses too, making meal times tricky for everyone involved.
Recently over on Instagram (@her.nourished) I shared how a humble jam sandwich with a sprinkle of hemp seeds provided almost half of my six year old's protein needs. HALF! From a simple jam sandwich! Is your mind blown?
So today I'm here to offer some comfort by sharing the current guidelines AND how you are likely already achieving this with ease (and hopefully, now less worry!).
Before we dig in I want to CLEARLY remind you that as a parent you do not need to worry about calculating numbers (that's a job for nutritionists, dieticians and doctors). Tuck this information into your meal time toolbox to reassure yourself that you're likely providing enough opportunity for your child to meet their protein needs each day. If you feel things are a little off, seek support from someone who can worry about the numbers for you (like us HNK).
What are the guidelines for protein?
Current dietary intake guidelines for children (as from our Meal Time Success program for 1-6 year olds, NRV 2018):
1-3 years old: 14g/day
4-8 years old: 20g/day
How can we ensure a child meets their protein needs?
Firstly, before we chat numbers any further I want to assure you that it's VERY unlikely that a child eating a reasonably balanced diet (even with some food refusal) is protein deficient. This is because almost all foods contain some protein (yip, even those favourite foods such as bread, pasta and milk)!
The simplest way to ensure a child meets their daily protein needs is to provide them meals and snacks across the five food groups each day. The five food groups include:
- Grain/cereal foods
- Lean meat/poultry/fish/eggs/nuts/seeds/legumes/beans
- Milk/yogurt/cheese and/or alternatives
(our programs cover this in detail, including the recommended serves per day based on age and gender).
If you're still like 'but how does my child get protein without meat?' let me share with you the numbers from some basic pantry items:
- 2 slices wholemeal bread: anywhere from 6-8g protein
- 1/2 cup natural greek yogurt: around 3.8g protein
- 1 cup full cream milk: around 8.2g protein
- 1 cup regular soy milk: around 8g protein
- 1 cup fortified pea milk ('like milk'): 8.3g protein
- 100g frozen spinach: 4g protein
- 1 tbsp chia seeds: around 3.1g protein
- 2 eggs: around 12.7g protein
- 1/3 cup chickpeas (drained, no salt): around 5.6g protein
- 2 tsp almond butter: around 2g protein
- 1 banana: around 1-1.5g protein (yes, even bananas are a source of protein!)
- 2 weetbix biscuits: 4.1g protein
- 1/4 pack (62g) cooked pulse pasta (our family fav san remo red lentil pasta): around 14.4g protein
- 1/2 an adult serve (around 50g uncooked) regular white pasta: around 6.2g protein
- 1/2 cup chicken: around 19g protein
You can see from this short list how quickly a child can meet their protein needs in a day (EVEN without meat and EVEN if they reject some foods).
I hope you've reached the end of this short article and feel some relief and comfort as a parent at meal times. I know food refusal is exhausting, worrying and frustrating at times. Please know you're not alone and that I am here to help you navigate meal times with our kind, realistic and evidence-based programs during these wild and wonderful years!
BScPsycHons, CHC, Nutr