To help reduce confusion about protein for kids and to offer the easiest, yummiest sources of protein for babies, toddlers, and big kids, I put together this guide for you. With tips, food sources, vegetarian protein, recipes, and more, this will make feeding your kids so much easier.
Protein for Kids
So many of us adults worry about our own protein intake, given all the cultural pressure on this nutrient, so it’s not surprising that we also worry about whether our kids are getting enough. Here’s the good news: Your toddler probably gets plenty of protein without you even having to worry about it. I was surprised to learn that, but yay, one less thing to worry about!
Here’s a refresher on the role of protein and protein recommendations, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Your child requires protein for the proper growth and functioning of his body, including building new tissues and producing antibodies that help battle infections. Without essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), children would be much more susceptible to serious diseases. Kids need protein to provide the building blocks for their muscles to grow.
Your toddler won’t eat? Help is here!
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How much protein do kids need?
As a starting point, without having to count grams, the average toddler only needs 2-3 servings of protein per day. That’s about the equivalent of:
- 1 egg and ½ cup of cow’s milk (or nondairy milk with pea protein)
- ¼ cup of Greek yogurt and 1 tablespoon nut butter
- 1-2 ounces chicken and ¼ cup peas or beans
- 1/2-1 string cheese and 1/2-1 cup milk
- 1/4-½ cup cottage cheese and 2 tablespoons-¼ cup beans or lentils
- ¼ cup beans and ¼ cup quinoa
- 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, ½ slice whole grain bread, ½ cup milk
- 3 ½ cup servings of milk
TIP: I am almost positive that the majority of our little ones are eating plenty by the time that they get to lunch … on most days, anyway!
High-Protein Foods for Picky Eaters
It can be helpful to include a protein-rich foods in most meals and snacks to help your child eat enough throughout the day. And this can also offer balanced energy—since a protein with a fruit or veggie will combine to help them stay full a little longer. (But remember that we don’t have to overdo it or push this too hard since most get enough anyway.)
It can also be a challenge to serve toddlers protein if their favorite foods don’t contain much. Here are some kid-friendly protein sources you can try:
TIP: If your family doesn’t eat dairy or your child is lactose intolerant, you may need to seek out some good protein-rich alternatives. Or be sure to regularly include other sources of protein in their meals.
Protein Sources for Toddlers Who Don’t Eat Meat
Meat and poultry are great sources of protein, but if your family is vegetarian or vegan, or your toddler simply doesn’t like meat, here are a few of our favorite non-meat sources of protein.
- Hemp seeds (blended into smoothies)
- Edamame beans
- Fish (salmon, fish sticks, poached fish)
- Crispy Baked Fish Sticks
- Milk (cow’s, plant milk with pea protein, or soy milk)
- Nut butter (spread thinly onto bread or crackers or stirred into oatmeal)
- Pasta (bean, lentil, and quinoa, along with regular wheat pastas)
- Yogurt, drinkable (or other similar dairy products)
- Yogurt smoothies
TIP: Find my full list of vegetarian and pescatarian protein options here.
Protein Powder for Kids
Most kids don’t need the quantities of excess protein found in adult protein powders, but ones made just for kids might be an option if protein elsewhere in the diet is lacking. Find my full guide to protein powder for kids, with recommended supplement brands and tips.
You can try my inexpensive Protein Powder Recipe as an option, too.
Protein-Rich Recipes for Kids
Below are some of my favorite kid-friendly recipes for kids that are packed with protein. This list will give you options for easy foods to make to share with your family that will help satisfy and nourish everyone at the table.
Baked Chicken Meatballs
Tender, moist, and with carrots right in the mix, these meatballs are delicious and easy to eat.
With just four simple and affordable ingredients, you can make tender Baked Chicken Meatballs to share with the kids. Bonus: You can tuck a veggie into the mix, and they are perfect to batch-cook and stash in the freezer!
You can bake them in the oven or cook in the air fryer, and they’re delicious with pasta or as meatball sandwiches.
Tender, flavorful, and easy to make and share, these Pesto Meatballs are a favorite family dinner. You can bake them in the oven or cook in the air fryer, and they’re delicious with pasta or as meatball sandwiches.
Homemade chicken nuggets (with sweet potato)
They’re packed with nutrition and have a veggie right in the mix for an extra healthy punch.
Crispy on the outside and tender in the middle, these Homemade Chicken Nuggets are both easy and delicious. You can prep the sweet potato up to 5 days ahead if that’s easier for you, too. Try serving these with ketchup, ranch, or marinara sauce.
Easy Yogurt Chicken
I usually make this recipe in the air fryer, but you can also bake it. It’s very flexible and quick to prepare.
The most tender, flavorful, delicious chicken? This Yogurt Chicken is in the running! The easy chicken recipe is delicious on its own, shredded for kids, or added to pasta, rice, or another favorite meal. Plus, it stores well and can be served cold or warm.
Crispy baked fish sticks
They’re a favorite and affordable way to serve fish to kids, and they’re so good that the adults at the table will love them, too!
Best Healthy Meatball Recipe (with veggies)
With three kinds of veggies and the texture and flavor your kids expect, this Healthy Meatball recipe is a perfect family dinner option.
With the texture you expect from a traditional meatball but added nutrition from three types of veggies, your whole family will love these.
Turkey sweet potato baby meatballs
Paired with sweet potato for extra nutrition and flavor, these meatballs are seriously delicious.
With just a few nutritious, flavorful ingredients, you can make a batch of Baby Meatballs (for a baby, toddler, or parent!) with turkey and sweet potato. They freeze well and can be served plain or in marinara sauce.
mini egg muffins with cheese and veggies
These savory muffins are packed with nutritious ingredients and are so quick to bake up—and they work so well to make ahead.
These tender Egg Muffins are packed with protein and vitamins—and can be made ahead of time! Add any veggie you like, whether carrots, butternut squash, broccoli, or spinach.
Quick Scrambled Eggs
Learn how to make eggs in the microwave (so you don’t even need to dirty a pan!) in less than 1 minute.
You can season the cooked egg with a little salt, butter or cheese if you’d like, but it’s very good as is. See the Note about the heat setting when cooking in a microwave.
Favorite spinach eggs
With a heaping pile of spinach and a super simple method, you can make these bright green Spinach Eggs in less than 10 minutes to share with the kids.
Packed with spinach (and iron!), these bright green eggs are fun and delicious. You can serve them as you would scrambled eggs, or use in a breakfast burrito or egg sandwich.
greek yogurt pizza dough
I love this as a seriously easy way to offer a protein- and calcium-rich meal to the whole family.
Amazingly tender and fast, this Greek Yogurt Pizza Dough is the easiest pizza dough ever. There’s no yeast, so it doesn’t need time to rise—and yet it bakes up perfectly. Use for personal pizzas, a big pizza to share, or pizza rolls—all in about 20 minutes!
Fluffy greek yogurt pancakes
These are a great way to fuel up in the morning, they are easy to stir together, and they work with just about any diced fruit your family likes.
With the most delicious fluffy texture and protein from Greek yogurt, these Greek Yogurt Pancakes are a breakfast win. You can add any fruit you like to the batter, too!
banana oatmeal pancakes (with extra protein!)
Serve up a balanced mix of complex carbs and protein with these delicious Banana Oatmeal Pancakes. Bonus: The leftovers reheat so well.
Very ripe (with brown spots) bananas will give these pancakes the best flavor. Dice them up or serve whole, according to how the kids prefer to eat them.
quick cottage cheese pancakes
They’re loaded with protein and healthy fats—and are also fluffy and delish.
These 4 ingredient pancakes are packed with nutrients and are so yummy. Double the ingredients to make a larger batch to feed a family of four as this recipe is on the smaller side.
chocolate protein muffins (with veggies!)
These flourless Chocolate Protein Muffins pack in the nutrients but taste like a brownie. They are quickly mixed up in a blender and have so many nutrients tucked inside.
These simple blender muffins pack a serious nutrition punch and are dairy-free, with a nut-free option. I prefer the flavor of these once they are fully cooled and chilled in the fridge.
Favorite yogurt muffins (6 ways!)
This muffin recipe works so well because the addition of yogurt makes them moist and tender, and it also adds a nice dose of protein, calcium, and probiotics.
This is an epic of a basic muffin recipe that you can then add flavor to in all sorts of ways—from fruit to veggies to chocolate chips. The batter is packed with protein too, so the muffins are great for breakfast or snack. (The allergy-friendly substitutions are listed in the Notes section at the bottom.)
Protein Banana Bread
Bursting with natural sweetness and a moist, tender texture, this quick bread is both easy and seriously yummy.
Make quick work of breakfast or snack time with this satisfying (and so yummy) Protein Banana Bread. It’s a delicious mix of nutrients and perfect to make ahead and share with the kids.
how to make overnight oats
Overnight Oats are a perfect breakfast recipe to make ahead. They pack protein, probiotics, vitamin C, fiber, and healthy fats!
You can easily double (or triple!) the recipe to make more servings. It uses a 1 to 1 ratio of yogurt to applesauce so you can easily scale it up. Mix these up the night before you plan to serve them.
fruit and nut bars (copycat larabar)
These are a great preschool snack (there’s a nut-free option if needed), after-school snack, and pregnancy snack. My whole family enjoys them!
With just 5 simple and nutritious ingredients and no baking, these Fruit and Nut Bars taste like store-bought Larabars but for less cost. You can customize the flavors and store them in the fridge or freezer for weeks.
favorite bliss balls
I am a huge fan of no-bake snacks, including all manner of energy bites and energy balls, and these Bliss Balls are 100% my newest favorite.
These no-bake Bliss Balls have bright berry flavor, are packed with protein and beneficial fats, have only 5 ingredients, and store ridiculously well in the fridge for weeks. They are a satisfying snack to share with the kids.
peanut butter oatmeal energy balls
They taste so good and are filled with nutritious ingredients. Plus: They’re ready in under 10 minutes!
These no-bake bites taste like a cross between oatmeal raisin and peanut butter cookie dough. I use natural creamy peanut butter (like the kind from Smuckers), and it works really well.
soft roasted chickpeas recipe
This roasted chickpeas recipe is an easy and delicious way to add nutrition to your toddler’s diet.
If you start with dried beans in this salty-sweet snack, make sure to cook them until they are very tender. If making these for a kiddo under one, use maple syrup instead of honey or skip the sweetener all together.
favorite yogurt drinks
I love these since they are a great way to serve up protein and calcium (especially when the littles aren’t so into milk)—and making them at home when I can is one of my favorite ways to reduce my grocery bill.
Learn how to make homemade Yogurt Drinks to save money, customize them just for your kids, and make a nutritious breakfast or snack to share with the kids in under 5 minutes. See the Notes at the end for flavor options.
favorite protein shakes for kids (with veggies!)
With simple ingredients, naturally sweet flavor, and about a third of your kiddo’s protein needs for the day, these protein shakes for kids are a great breakfast or snack option.
Serve up a simple, yet nutritious protein smoothie with three flavor options to choose from.
kids weight gain shake
It has a subtle cocoa flavor, is lightly sweet, and has a solid amount of protein, fat, and calories for kids.
Blend up a weight gain smoothie with accessible, nutritious ingredients for a fraction of the cost of store-bought—and with Ia flavor that’s designed to please the kids!
easy homemade strawberry popsicles
These homemade Strawberry Popsicles are a staple in our house. They are sweet, a tiny bit tangy, nutritious, and a cinch to make.
With bright berry flavor and a creamy texture, these freezer pops are a delicious and nutritious dessert or snack. If making these for a baby, omit the optional sweetener.
Downloadable Protein Chart for Kids
To help you vary the protein sources you offer, and to remind you of all of the options when you forget, you can download this Toddler Protein Guide for free. Keep it on your phone or print it out and hang it on the fridge!
I’d love to hear any questions or comments you have on kids and protein, so please comment below!
This post was first published January 2018.