How to Make Sure Your Child is Eating Enough Protein (and Other Tips from a Dietitian Mom)

As parents, we want to make healthy meals for our kids and we want them to enjoy those meals. But all parents know that they don’t always want to eat the meals we create. There’s almost nothing as frustrating as spending time planning, shopping, prepping and cooking a meal, only for your kids to refuse it, or even worse (as my toddler does)—throw it on the floor. Sometimes it seems like maybe we should just throw frozen pizza in the oven every night so we aren’t wasting our time on something they won’t eat. 

My first child ate anything I put in front of him as a baby and toddler and I credited it to all my research and work in childhood nutrition as a dietitian. Here comes baby number two and he’s a different story—only wanting fruit, cheese and carbs. He’s finicky with meats and veggies most of the time. However, as annoying as it is, I’m not concerned about his nutrition. 

father helping toddler make healthy meal

When I worked professionally in childhood nutrition, I relied a lot on the wisdom of Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and psychotherapist who specializes in childhood eating and taking the stress away from mealtimes. She coined the term “division of responsibility,” a non-stress and effective method to make mealtimes more pleasant.

In the division of responsibility model, parents are responsible for when, where and what the family eats, while kids are responsible for how much and whether to eat.

For example, for dinner tonight, maybe you make grilled chicken, grilled asparagus and strawberries at 5 p.m. in your home kitchen. You place all of these foods in front of your child. Now your job is done and it’s their turn to decide which of the foods they want to eat, and how much of each food they would like to eat. The key is offering a variety of nutritious foods and choosing at least one food that you know they will typically eat. 

child eating from balanced plate

But what if they only eat strawberries for dinner? That’s okay and that will happen sometimes. The more a child is exposed to a certain food, the more likely it is that they will eventually eat that food. My first son refused peppers for the first two years of his life, but I always put it on his tray when we had them for dinner and never pressured him to eat it. I would even put a few slices in his daycare lunch box. Finally, one day he tried one and then asked for more! We grow them in our garden and now he will pick them right off the plant and eat it whole like an apple while standing in the garden. 

Protein and veggies seem to be common dislikes of picky eaters. If your child didn’t eat that protein at dinner, try to think of a way to offer a snack with protein that you think your child will like at snacktime two hours later. Maybe it’s a homemade protein muffin, homemade energy ball or a mini protein bar. Sometimes I just give my toddler a spoonful of almond butter for a snack, and he loves it!

child and adult holding fitjoy protein bar

While getting their kids enough protein is a common concern for a lot of parents, the protein needs of children aren't as great as you might think. 


Protein Needs/Day

7 to 12 months

11 grams

1 to 3 years

13 grams

4 to 9 years

19 grams

14 to 18

Boys: 52 grams; Girls: 46 grams

To put this into perspective, one cup of milk or yogurt provides 8 grams of protein, one ounce of cooked chicken provides 8 grams, and one egg provides 7 grams. Do you feel better now? Your child is likely eating enough protein, even if they refuse the meat at some meals.

Mealtime Tips for Kids

1. Practice division of responsibility. Parents are responsible for when, where and what the family eats, and kids are responsible for how much and whether to eat. Letting your child choose what and how much to eat alleviates pressure and stress at mealtimes, which in turn will lead to a healthy relationship with food. 

2. Offer a wide variety of foods throughout the day and at each meal. Remember, increased exposure = increased likelihood of consumption.

3. Only offer nutritious options at meals. They won’t refuse all foods except potato chips if potato chips aren’t on the table.

kids eating healthy foods

4. At every meal, provide a protein, healthy fat, fruit, and vegetable.

5. Get kids involved in mealtimes. Let them help with meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. Ask them to pick out their favorite vegetable at the grocery store for dinner. Do you have a space for a garden in your back yard? Getting kids involved in a garden increases their consumption of produce. Because how cool is it to plant, water, grow, harvest and EAT your own food? 

6. When away from home where you control your food environment, allow kids to have the freedom to choose. Over-restriction and labeling foods as “bad” can lead to unhealthy food relationships and guilt in your children, potentially leading to eating disorders as they get older. If you’re eating most of your meals at home and provide nutritious options, there’s no need to worry if your child eats cake at a birthday party or only eats French fries while out eating with friends. Let them enjoy it!

7. Model the type of diet you want your child to eat. Of course, your child isn’t going to try asparagus if you won’t eat it yourself! Kids learn a lot by watching their parents. Maybe this is a good time for you to also work on expanding your food palate and getting creative in the kitchen with new foods. 

Hopefully, you’re feeling better about your child’s eating and have a few more tools in your toolbox. If you try these tips and still have concerns, check out the Ellyn Satter Institute for more resources or consider consulting with a pediatric dietitian. 

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Lindsay Nelson, R.D., L.D.

Lindsay Nelson, R.D./L.D., is a freelance dietitian based in Kansas City, Missouri. Most of her time is dedicated to her 3-year-old and 1-year-old boys, teaching them all about cooking, gardening and nature.  Her husband and boys are great guinea pigs in the kitchen, always willing to try her latest food creations. On the weekends you’ll usually find them outside on a trail, hanging out with friends and family and always eating good food.

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