Inside this article: If you’ve ever wondered if your kid is getting enough protein in their diet, or if you simply need some protein ideas for a picky eater, you’ve landed in the right spot. In this article, I’m going to review everything you need to know about high-protein foods for picky eaters.
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Table of Contents
What is protein
Protein is an essential macronutrient made up of amino acids and is found throughout the body. It is in the skin, hair, nails, muscle, and pretty much every other tissue in the body. Our bodies need protein from the foods we eat in order to grow and function on a daily basis.
Kids are growing at a rapid rate, so ensuring they are getting the right nutrients they need for growth and development is key. Luckily, most kids in developed countries get more than enough protein from the foods they consume. However, the bigger challenge is getting kids to eat high-quality proteins, this is especially challenging for picky eaters.
How much protein do kids need?
The amount of protein that kids need really varies based on their age, weight, and other factors such as activity level. This said, there are some basic guidelines parents can follow based on the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI).
|6 months-1 year||1.6 g/kg or 0.7 g/pound|
|1-6 years||1.2 g/kg or 0.55 g/pound|
|7-14 years||1 g/kg or 0.45 g/pound|
Example: a 5-year-old who weighs 40# would need ~22 grams of protein each day (40# x0.55g/pound)
High protein foods for picky eaters
There are many different types of foods that contain protein. Some contain essential amino acids (the ones that our bodies can’t make) and some contain non-essential amino acids (the ones our bodies can make.)
Kids who eat a variety of foods from different food groups are likely getting all the essential amino acids they need, therefore, this isn’t something you should stress over. If you have an extremely picky eater, missing out on multiple food groups, be mindful of what protein sources they do consume.
Protein foods for kids that contain all 9 essential amino acids
- Milk (animal and soy)
- Animal meat
- Chia seeds
- Ezekial Bread (combo of sprouted grain and legume)
- Beans with rice (together they are a complete protein)
- Peanut butter sandwich (bread & PB together makes a complete protein)
Protein foods that contain some but not all essential amino acids
- Peanut butter
- Almond butter
- Seed butter
- Pastas (regular and legume pastas)
- Bread/other grains
Getting a mixture of protein sources each day will ensure your kids are meeting their essential amino acid/protein needs. Some protein sources are also more iron-rich than others. If you have a picky eater that doesn’t eat much meat, this post on iron-rich foods for kids may be helpful.
Protein content of common kid favorites
I don’t recommend counting protein grams for your kids, that would just be stressful. However, it is nice to have a general idea of how much protein is in some of your picky eater’s favorite foods.
Here is a list of the protein content in foods commonly liked by picky eaters, the actual amount does vary some by brand:
|Food Item||Grams of Protein (approximate)|
|Peanut butter (1 Tbsp)||4 g|
|Chicken nugget (1)||3 g|
|Meat (1 oz)||7 g|
|Milk (Animal-based/soy) (1 cup)||8 g|
|Egg (1)||7 g|
|Yogurt cup (6 oz)||8 g|
|Yogurt tube (1)||2-3 g|
|Drinkable yogurt (1)||3 g|
|String Cheese||7 g|
|Cheddar cheese (1” cube)||4 g|
|Cheerios, Dry (1 cup)||3.5 g|
|Plain pasta (1 cup)||8 g|
|Bread (1 slice)||2-3 g|
|Hummus (1 Tbsp)||1.2 g|
|Snap pea crisps (22 pieces)||4 g|
|Trail mix (½ cup)||10 g|
|Chomps meat stick (1)||9 g|
As you can see from the protein content list above, it usually isn’t too hard to get enough protein into your kids, even if they are picky eaters.
A sample day of high protein foods for picky eaters
Using our example from above of the 5-year-old who needed 22 g of protein each day, let me show you how this could be met.
- Breakfast: 1 scrambled egg with toast and fruit (10 g protein)
- Lunch: PBJ sandwich with fruit & 1 cup milk (18 g protein)
- Dinner: Chicken nuggets (3) with ketchup, carrots & fruit & 1 cup of milk (17 g protein)
That day didn’t even include any snacks and protein needs were exceeded (45 g protein). Adding in snacks would boost the protein intake even further. While those may not be the protein sources your picky eater consumes, you can see just how easy it is to meet their protein needs by including just 1 protein-rich item at a meal.
How do I get my kid to eat more protein?
If you’re a parent of a picky eater, you’ve probably asked this question a few times. Luckily, most kids, even very picky ones, get enough protein. Looking at the lists above, if you can find 2-3 foods that your kid will eat most days, they are probably meeting their protein needs.
5 ways to increase your picky eater’s protein intake:
- Focus on the protein sources they do like and use those as a bridge to new items. For example, if they like peanut butter, try almond butter or sunflower seed butter. Add PB to crackers, to sandwiches (bread), mix it into yogurt or in smoothies, and use it as a fruit dip.
- Include a protein source at each meal and snack. Providing more exposure provides more opportunities for it to be consumed. Instead of giving goldfish crackers as a snack, make a homemade trail mix with goldfish crackers, nuts or seeds, and dried fruit.
- Offer snack plates with multiple options. Instead of serving their favorite meal on repeat, which may be low in protein, make a platter. Include a combination of favorite items and new items. Pita with hummus, cheese and crackers, veggies, and dip are all great snack plate combos that contain protein sources.
- Lay off the pressure. If you find yourself putting extra emphasis on the protein food on their plate, try backing off a bit. Sometimes the extra attention makes them go the opposite way. Especially with toddlers and preschoolers.
- Try making the protein source more interesting. Little cutouts, kabobs, fun plates, and trays just might entice a younger picky eater to give them a try. You never know until you give it a shot. Get creative where you can.
If you’re struggling with a picky eater at home, you can start by downloading my Grow a Healthy Eater Blueprint. This will walk you through the first steps to take to get them open to trying new food.
15 High protein kids snacks
I always recommend parents include protein as part of their kid’s meals and snacks along with a carbohydrate source (fruit or grains work great). This helps kids feel satisfied (full) while providing energy. Protein also helps to cut down on frequent snacking.
Kids don’t actually need as much protein as parents think. One protein-rich food is more than enough at a meal and snack to help them reach their protein needs.
- Cheese & fruit, crackers or nuts
- Yogurt (I like to focus on probiotic-rich yogurt for kids) & low sugar cereal or granola
- Milk on its own
- Milk & cereal
- Hard-boiled egg & fruit or crackers
- Snap pea crisps & hummus
- Pretzles or pita & hummus
- Carrots and hummus
- ½ peanut butter sandwich & milk
- Nut or seed butter on crackers, toast, or pancakes
- Chomps or beef jerky & crackers or fruit
- Fruit & PB yogurt dip
- Homemade trail mix (nuts, dried fruit, cereal)
- Crunchy chickpeas
- Protein-rich bars (perfect bar, paleo bar, cliff kid z bar protein etc.)
Many of the above options are picky-eater friendly, so if you are looking for high-protein foods for picky eaters this list should help!
High protein snacks on the go
As a mom of two little ones who always seem to be hungry when we have somewhere to be, I love a good on-the-go snack.
These are some of my favorite high-protein snacks on the go for both kids and adults. You can pair them with fruit, crackers, pita chips, pretzels, baby carrots or celery sticks, etc. For kids, be mindful of their age, some of these could be choking hazards for kids under 5.
- Sabra hummus cups
- Peanut butter pouches: Jiff-to-go cups, Justins, yum butter
- 88 acres sunflower seed butter packets
- Mama chia squeeze
- Probugs kefir
- Horizon milk carton
- Ripple pea milk carton (you can find more on milk alternatives for kids here.)
- Babybel cheese
- String cheese
- Cheddar cheese sticks
- Pre-packaged hardboiled eggs
- Epic meat bar
- Snack mates
- Yogurt cups, tubes, and drinkables (target 6g sugar or less)
- Parmesan crisps
- Snap pea crisps
- Bienna crunchy chickpeas
- Perfect bar
- Paleo bar
- Cliff Z Bar kids protein
- Rx bar mini
- Trail mix
Our bodies need high-quality protein sources each day to function. Kids are growing and developing at a rapid rate so protein is especially important for them. Luckily, most kids, even picky eaters get more than enough protein each day.
The best high-protein foods for picky eaters are the ones they will consume. Meet them where they are at and use their favorites as a bridge to new ones.
Including one protein source at each meal and snack, while varying the type of protein, is the best way for kids to meet their protein needs. This will also help them feel full and prevent frequent snacking because of hunger.
When possible, focus on high-quality protein sources such as lean meats, beans, and legumes, dairy, or a good alternative such as soy or pea protein. Mixing up the protein sources will also ensure all their essential amino acid needs are met.
Help for your picky eater
If you are struggling with a picky eater at home and you need more support, I would love to help you. You can schedule an appointment to work with me to discuss this further or reach out by email if you have more questions.
If you found this article helpful, I’d love for you to share it with a friend who might benefit as well. For more helpful nutrition tips for your kids, you can subscribe to The Good Bite, my monthly newsletter where I share helpful articles, lunch-packing ideas, and lots of other kids’ nutrition tidbits.