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How Much Protein Kids Actually Need

Cute toddler boy eating cereal with hand over his eye

If you have a little one that you feel doesn’t eat much food, you may have wondered if they are getting enough protein in their diet. We have good news for you… it’s really hard to become protein deficient (especially if you live in the U.S.).

Parents are often surprised to learn how much protein their child actually needs- it is a lot LESS than they assume. Here’s the breakdown:


In order to learn how to exactly figure out the math on how much protein your child should be having, check out our last post about protein needs for kids. To keep things more simple, we will say that as a rough estimate, if you take half your child’s weight (in pounds) this will give you the estimated protein needs. It may technically be a little less, or perhaps a little more, but this quick shortcut will get you in the desired range.


To know your child's protein needs: Divide your child’s weight (in pounds) by 2


When we compare a toddler’s protein needs to an adults- there is a big difference. Which is why it is NOT recommended that you give your child protein shakes, protein mixes, or protein bars that are meant for adults. They usually contain MORE than a toddler needs in a day of protein.

Average American children typically eat about 2-3 times the recommended amount of protein needed. It’s easy to see how when they need so much less than we may realize and when we learn where protein can be found in foods.

Large cooked steak with salt, pepper, and rosemary on top

If Your Child Won't Eat Meat

There are so many types of food that contain protein. We are most familiar with any type of meat, as animal protein has often been touted as being the best for building muscle and containing protein. While meats can be part of a healthy diet, you and your child do not have to eat meat in order to reach their protein needs.

We list out some food groups below and the types of foods that you can find protein in. For more ideas on where to find protein rich foods (that aren’t meat) check out this blog post.

Five glass bottles filled with milk


  • Milk

  • Cheeses

  • Yogurt

  • Eggs

Variety of grains in burlap bags


  • Breads

  • Bagels

  • Waffles

  • Cereals

  • Oats

  • Quinoa

  • Rice

  • Pasta

Pile of cashew nuts

Nuts and Seeds

  • Peanut Butter

  • Alternative nut butter

  • Cashews

  • Pecans

  • Walnuts

  • Chia Seeds

  • Hemp Seeds

  • Flax Seeds

Roasted garbonzo beans in a glass bowl

Beans and Legumes

  • Red kidney

  • Pinto beans

  • Black beans

  • Chickpeas (garbonzo beans)

  • Refried beans

  • White beans

  • Lentils

Toast with variety of fruit toppings

Fruits: Most all fruits contain some protein, just usually much less than other types of food. But for little children, 1 or 2 grams of protein can make a big difference!

  • Avocado

  • Guava

  • Apricots

  • Kiwi

  • Oranges

  • Blackberries

  • Bananas

Woman picking vegetables from the grocery store


  • Edamame

  • Green peas

  • Brussel sprouts

  • Yellow corn

  • Potatoes

  • Asparagus

  • Broccoli

Fresh vegetables on a cutting board with people cooking in the background

Is Animal or Plant Protein Better For Us?

There is a difference in protein that is found in animal food products versus plant based protein foods. Animal meats are considered a complete protein because they contain all 9 essential amino acids (AAs) that humans must eat (because the body does not make these 9 AAs). While animal protein may be complete, it also comes with increased risks of Cardiovascular Disease, hypertension, and strokes which are big concerns as Americans age.

Plant proteins, on the other hand, do not all contain the 9 essential AAs our body needs. This makes it a little harder to never eat meat because intention needs to be given that the right plant based foods are consumed to get all the AAs needed. However, there are a few plant foods that do contain all the essential amino acids- Quinoa and Soy.

More Protein is Better, Right?

In short, no. More protein is not necessarily better for your child’s body. When excess protein is taken in, the body stores it as fat and remaining protein is cleared out of the body. This clearing of excess protein can cause stress on the kidneys and other vital organs. Usually, healthy children and adults would have no adverse side effects, but for those at higher medical risk or with certain diseases or medical diagnoses, this can cause harm to their body.

Oftentimes, if we are getting an excess of protein, our child may be taking a protein supplement of some sort. These products can be very harmful to children and adolescents if not properly administered.

Protein Powder Container with banana, almonds and blended pink shake drink

Protein Supplementation for Toddlers and Children

Most young children do not need to be taking a protein supplement, like a powder or shake. There are some medical indications for needing the additional protein, calories, and nutrients found in some supplemental drinks made for children. Your doctor may have recommended giving your child a shake or Pediasure drink to help your picky eater or your underweight child grow. If that is the case, check out our post all about How to Help Your Underweight Child (coming soon).

Teen girl getting ready to pole vault

Should Adolescents Take Protein Supplementation for Performance Enhancement?

Many adolescents may try protein supplements, especially if they are involved in any type of athletic sport. There can be many concerns with teens taking these supplements.

First, Performance Enhancing Substances (PEs) are not regulated for safety and efficacy by the FDA. This means that there is no governing board checking on their production. We don’t know if a company is manufacturing their product in safe and clean conditions. We don’t know if the nutrients listed on the label are actually even IN the protein powder. Several studies tested protein supplements and revealed that 8-20% were contaminated with significant amounts of heavy metals. A 2007 analysis of retailers found that 25% were contaminated with anabolic androgenic steroid & 11% with stimulants.

The other point to mention is that protein powders and supplements have not been proven to enhance athletic performance in adolescents. There have been studies done on creatine, a protein found in meat and fish. Creatine works in athletes to delay the onset of muscle fatigue. The data has shown only minimal benefit in short-duration maximum-intensity resistance training. There was no benefit seen with on-field athletics. The studies have shown that while creatine has been safe for short term use in adults, there isn’t any research done on adolescents or children to encourage its use.

Use any protein supplementation, performance enhancing powders or shakes with great care. There isn’t much evidence for their benefit and there are several potential risks.

Young girl eating large piece of watermelon

Bottom Line for Protein for Kids

Are you still with us?? We covered a lot just now! If you need a quick recap, here you go:

  • Your Child is probably getting enough protein.

  • The amount children need is less than adults.

  • Lots of foods (both animals and plants) contain protein.

  • Supplement powders are not necessary for most to meet needs, even elite athletes.

Have concerns about how your little one is eating? Are meals stressful or is your little one a picky eater? If so, join our Family Feeding Coaching. We take you through six weeks of content and resources designed to move you from frustrated to feeding with freedom and grace! Learn more about our coaching service here and book a FREE Discovery Call to talk to Heather about how we can help reduce your feeding stress!

© 2021 The Doctor and The Dietitian. All Rights Reserved.

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