Dietitian-Recommended High Protein Foods for Picky Eaters

child eating chicken

Dietitian-Recommended High Protein Foods for Picky Eaters

Worried that your kiddo isn’t getting enough protein? In this blog, a dietitian shares her top high protein foods for picky eaters. This post is sponsored by Naked Nutrition. All thoughts an opinions are my own.


Are you worried that your carb-loving child doesn’t get enough protein? Join the club! As a pediatric dietitian, I often get questions about high protein foods for picky eaters. And as a mom of three, I understand the concern that your picky eater might not meet their nutrient needs. 

In this blog, I’ll discuss how much protein your child needs and the protein-rich food sources they may actually eat. First, let’s look at why your child needs protein in their diet.

Why is protein important for kids?

Proteins are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of the entire body. Muscles, organs, and the immune system all need protein. This cute video summarizes why our bodies need protein well.

And protein sources, especially animal proteins, come with other important nutrients children need, like iron, zinc and B vitamins. Here are some tips if your child won’t eat meat, and you would like them to try it. Of course, there are many vegetarian protein sources, and I’ll share those ideas below, too.

How much protein do kids need?

While parents are often worried their child isn’t eating enough protein, they most often are. It’s not hard to meet the minimum recommendations, which are lower than you might think. 

Often, kids will meet their intake through milk alone! But getting enough protein might be more of a struggle if your child doesn’t consume dairy or meat.

The Dietary Reference Intake shares adequate intakes of protein as a guideline. Adequate Intake is  “a value based on observed or experimentally determined approximations of nutrient intake by a group (or groups) of healthy people.” So basically, it’s how much protein healthy children get.

Here are the adequate protein intakes per day for children:

One to three-year-olds: 13 grams per day

Four to eight years olds: 19 grams per day

Nine to thirteen-year-olds: 34 grams per day

Another easy way to estimate how much protein your child needs is to take their weight in pounds and divide it by two. For example, a 40-pound child needs about 20 grams of protein daily.

Now, just because a suggested amount is “adequate” doesn’t mean it’s optimal. And there is no upper limit set for protein intake. However, there are guidelines for macronutrient intake ranges (carbs, protein & fat). 

The range of calories from the diet that should come from protein is 5-20% for children aged one to three. And 10-30% of calories should come from protein for four to eighteen-year-olds. I would rather see the percentage of calories from protein in the diet in the higher amounts of those ranges. 

But carbs and/or fat would be too low if the protein exceeds these ranges. So balancing all three macronutrients is important, so don’t focus on just one. What does this look like in terms of actual food intake?

Sample menu plan focusing on protein 

This meal plan shares examples of kid-friendly meal ideas. I’ve broken down a sample day of three meals and two snacks for a young child, with estimates of protein.

If your child ate all the food listed (maybe they eat more or less, and that’s okay), the day would provide 66 grams of protein. This is higher than the “adequate intake” numbers shared above. 

High protein meal plan for kids

High Protein Foods for picky eaters

Here are some more protein-rich foods and ideas for serving them so your child may actually try them!

Eggs

Eggs contain high-quality protein and are relatively inexpensive, making them an excellent option for families. They are also among the few foods containing Vitamin D and choline, both key nutrients that kids (and adults!) often don’t get enough of.

Protein content: 6 grams of protein per egg

 Ways to serve eggs:

  • Make a batch of hardboiled eggs and keep them in the fridge for grab-and-go snacks. I use my Instant Pot for 6 minutes to “steam-cook” boiled eggs. The peels come off so easily!
  • Whisk egg whites and add them to oatmeal while cooking. You can find pasteruized egg whites in cartons by the eggs at your grocery store.
  • Add pasteurized egg whites into smoothies for extra protein.
  • Make mini egg muffins for meal prep breakfasts that can be reheated quickly in the mornings.
  • Make an egg and cheese sandwich using English Muffins. You can batch-prep these and store them in the freezer.
  • Sauté veggies and add leftover rice, scrambled eggs, and soy sauce for a quick fried rice dinner. 

Lentils 

Lentils are not only high in protein but also high in fibre. Something else kids often don’t eat enough of. And cooked lentils can easily be blended into many dishes, from meat pasta sauce to baking.

Protein content: 4.5 grams of protein per 1/4 cup cooked lentils

Ways to serve lentils:

  • Add lentils to baking, like these banana lentil muffins.
  • Cooked red lentils can be added to a smoothie and blend up easily.
  • Lentil fritters or patties can be fried or air-fried for tasty, finger-friendly food.
  • Save money by adding lentils to a meatloaf or meat sauce. It still adds protein while extending the meat farther.

Hemp Hearts

Hemp hearts are a protein powerhouse and also high in fibre, protein, and omega-3 fats. Call them “sprinkles” and add them to hot or cold dishes, from oatmeal to curry.

Protein content: 3 grams of protein per 1 Tbsp hemp hearts

Ways to serve hemp hearts:

  • Blend hemp hearts into a smoothie.
  • Sprinkle on top of yogurt.
  • Slice a banana into bite-sized rounds, spread with nut butter and sprinkle with hemp hearts.
  • Bake with hemp hearts- try these flourless chocolate muffins.

Peanut butter

Peanuts are a good source of fibre, vitamin E, magnesium and phytochemicals (plant-based antioxidants). Peanut butter is a tasty, quick and inexpensive food that can boost your child’s protein intake. For babies, peanuts should be introduced early and often to prevent allergies.

Protein content: 8 grams of protein in 2 Tbsp of peanut butter

Ways to serve peanut butter:

  • Instead of just jam toast, try peanut butter and jam toast.
  • Make homemade granola bars or energy balls.
  • Mix peanut butter into your child’s morning oatmeal.
  • Sliced banana spread in peanut butter makes a tasty, quick snack.
  • Add peanut butter to a smoothie with chocolate protein powder (affiliate link) and a banana. 

Powdered Milk 

Dried powdered milk has a longer shelf life than liquid milk and doesn’t need to be kept in the fridge. It can be rehydrated, so keeping it on hand when you run out of milk is a good idea. Powdered milk can be added to various foods and recipes to provide a boost of protein and nutrients.

Protein content: 8.5 grams of protein in 1/4 cup of dried milk powder

Ways to serve dry milk powder:

  • Add to mashed potatoes.
  • Sprinkle on hot cereals.
  • Add a Tablespoon or two of powdered milk to a smoothie.
  • Some baking recipes like these “Dad’s double whole grain pancakes” use dried milk.
  • Add dry milk powder and water instead of plain water when rehydrating hot chocolate powder, canned soup, or puddings.

Chicken

Chicken is one of the most mild-tasting meats, so your picky eater may more readily accept it. Even if it’s in chicken nugget form! For tips on how to make meat easier to eat for your picky eater, check out my blog.

Protein content: 9 grams of protein in 1oz of chicken

Food chaining example chicken fingers to chicken wings

Ways to serve chicken:

Beef Jerky

Sensory-sensitive kids may like chewy foods, as they provide a lot of sensory feedback in their mouths. Beef jerky comes in tasty flavours like dill pickle or teriyaki if your child isn’t a fan of the beef flavour. No serving suggestions are needed!

Protein Content: 7g protein in 1 large piece of beef jerky (about 20g) 

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese is the trend online now, from making cottage cheese pizza crust to dips! It is very high in protein. But remember it’s also very high in sodium, so you might not want to offer it to your child daily.

Protein content: 11.5 grams of protein in ½ cup cottage cheese 

Ways to serve cottage cheese:

  • Bake into foods like these cottage cheese pancakes.
  • Top with fruit like berries or canned peaches for a sweet/salty combo.
  • Cottage cheese flatbread, which you can use for sandwiches or pizza crust.
  • Serve with jam or berries and granola. Chocolate chips might also be enticing!
  • Create a veggie dip with cottage cheese and herbs (blend if you don’t want chunks).

Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is made by straining some liquid from regular yogurt. This results in a thicker product that’s higher in protein. Like other dairy products, it provides bone-building calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamin D.

Protein content: 10 grams of protein in 100g yogurt 

Ways to serve Greek yogurt:

  • Add some maple syrup and berries to plain Greek yogurt.
  • Make a veggie Ranch Dip with Greek yogurt.
  • Try homemade frozen yogurt or frozen yogurt bark.
  • Blend into a homemade shake or smoothie, which can be used in a smoothie bowl or frozen into homemade popsicles.

Cheese 

Cheese is probably a food your little one actually eats! It’s high in protein as well as calcium and other nutrients. It’s also high in sodium, but you can find lower-sodium alternatives, like bocconcini. Note that cream cheese is much lower in protein than most types of cheese.

Protein content: 7 grams of protein in 1oz of cheese

Ways to serve cheese:

  • Spread ricotta cheese on toast and top with honey.
  • String cheese as a snack – yes it’s real cheese!
  • Make a bento box lunch with sliced cheese, crackers, hummus, and fruit.
  • Sprinkle grated cheese or parm other other foods you’d love your child to eat, like veggies or pasta.

Edamame

These soybeans are fun to eat! Microwave or steam the edamame, sprinkle with a bit of salt for flavour and have fun popping them out of the shell. Bags of frozen, shelled beans can be found in the freezer aisle.

Protein content: 8.5 grams of protein in ½ cup of shelled edamame beans

Ways to serve edamame:

  • Make a dip out of edamame beans.
  • Add edamame beans to a stirfry. 
  • Microwave edamame beans in the pod. Dip the pod in soy sauce or sprinkle with salt and pop them into your mouth!

Tofu

Tofu (or bean curd) is made from soy and is a popular meat alternative. It comes in various textures, including soft (silken), medium, or extra firm. Tofu is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids. And if set in calcium, it is also high in calcium (check the nutrition facts panel). And yes – soy is safe to feed to your children regularly.

Protein content: 5 grams in ¼ cup of tofu

Ways to serve tofu:

  • Soft tofu can blend up easily into a smoothie.
  • Add small squares of extra firm tofu to a stirfry.
  • Silken or soft tofu can also be mixed with chocolate for a yummy Tofu pudding.
  • Fry or air-fry strips of extra firm tofu served with a dip, like sweet chilli sauce mixed with mayo. Tip: remove extra moisture from the tofu before frying by placing it between sheets of paper towel or clean kitchen towel underneath a heavy cast iron pot or some books for 10 mins.

Chickpeas

Chickpeas are a versatile legume high in protein and fibre (18g per half cup!). These little nutrient- bombs contain calcium, iron, and B vitamins and have a mild flavour. Your child might try hummus as a veggie dip (if they eat vegetables!) or crunchy roasted chickpeas as a snack.

Protein content: 10 grams of protein per ¼ cup cooked chickpeas

Ways to serve chickpeas:

  • Try chickpea-based protein pasta.
  • Mix chickpeas into this Spinach Chickpea Curry or a soup.
  • Hummus is an excellent dip for veggies or sandwich spread.
  • Roasted chickpeas are a yummy, crunchy snack. You can buy them or make them at home.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a grain that contains more protein than most grains. Technically, it’s a “pseudocereal,” or more of a seed. Quinoa contains all 9 essential amino acids, unlike most plant protein sources, making it a complete protein.

Protein content: 4 grams of protein in ½ cup cooked quinoa 

Ways to serve quinoa:

Fish

Fish (like all meat) is an excellent source of complete protein. However, it might not be a favourite among children! In that case, you might want to start with fish sticks. Sensory-sensitive kids often like crunchy foods, and it’s easy to pick up and dip in ketchup!

Protein content: 6 grams of protein per 1 oz of fish.

Ways to serve fish:

Safe Protein Powder for Kids

Naked Whey Protein Powder

What about protein shakes or powders? Should you offer these to your child if they’re limited in their food sources of protein? Many parents like the convenience of protein powder, which is understandable.

Whether your child could benefit from protein powder depends. If your child doesn’t consume dairy or meat/alternatives, they could likely use more protein. But avoid protein powders that are targeted to athletes. They contain adult vitamin and mineral fortification levels, and often artificial sweeteners, herbal extracts and caffeine.

There are better options. Like a basic whey powder that is free of additives and artificial sweeteners, such as Naked Whey. The Naked Whey unflavoured powder contains only whey. Even the flavoured versions have very simple ingredient lists. 

An adult serving of Naked Whey contains 25 grams of protein, so you could use half of a serving for your child for an added 12 grams. Or even one-quarter to provide 6 grams of protein. Blend the powder into a smoothie, mix it into oatmeal, or use it in my favourite home-made granola bar recipe.

What if my child won’t eat protein foods?

If your child’s eating is stressing you out, and you’re worried they’re not getting enough nutrients or you’re having dinnertime battles, consult a pediatric Registered Dietitian.

It can be difficult for kids to eat for many reasons beyond behavioural. These include pain, low iron status, enlarged tonsils, oral motor weakness, or sensory sensitivity. It’s important to know why your child is picky so that it can be treated.

Many strategies, from the division of responsibility to food play or food chaining, can also be used to support children in learning to try new foods.

To learn more, watch my free webinar, “How to teach your child to try new foods without yelling or making separate meals.”

How to teach kids to try new foods little girl eating at table

Final Thoughts on high protein foods for picky eaters

Protein is a crucial nutrient for your growing child. While they likely get enough (even if they are fussy eaters), regularly offer protein-rich foods to your child. 

Hopefully, this blog offered some new ideas for kid-friendly protein-rich food options. If you have a favourite I didn’t include, comment below and let me know!

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Founder of First Step Nutrition | Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Jen believes raising happy, well-nourished eaters who have a healthy relationship with food doesn't have to be a battle! She is an author and speaker with 18 years of experience specializing in family nutrition and helps parents teach their kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking, or bribing.

 

 

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