When we talk about proteins, people usually think of building muscles, but over and above this, proteins regulate many body processes, enable the body to repair tissue, balance fluids, help with immunity, provide energy and are the building blocks for hair, bones, enzymes, skin and blood. Children who do not get sufficient protein often present with issues such as fatigue, slowed growth, joint pain, delayed healing and poor immunity. Small changes to the diet can make a massive difference in the health of your child.
A colleague recently commented, “There is no such thing as junk food. There is only junk or food”. I hadn’t heard this phrase before, but I absolutely agree. At this stage, I can almost hear parents groaning and saying that the only protein their child will eat is a chicken nugget.
We, the adults, the gatekeepers to our children’s health, must change this. No, it’s not easy, and it will come with resistance, but if we keep in mind that proper nutrition impacts your child’s physical and cognitive development and directly affects your child’s ability to learn, then our efforts will be worth it. My own son was a very difficult eater with loads of sensory issues, so I am really not sitting in the judgement seat. It’s tough, but we have to get it right.
How do I know what the protein requirements are for my child?
While your baby is still small, they will get enough protein from milk. The struggle usually comes in with our two- to three-year-olds. Naturally, these little ones assert their independence and often do this with food. Over and above this, they are usually much too busy to sit down and chew a lump of meat. The trick is being creative with finger foods by using exciting shapes and textures. Meat products can be cumbersome for a toddler to chew, so meatballs, shredded meat done in a slow cooker, diced chicken or steamed fish are great options.
So how much is enough?
- Baby’s 7 months to 1 year: approximately 11g’s per day (teeth are not a prerequisite for protein. Those little gums can chew on soft proteins)
- Toddlers approximately: 13g’s per day
- School going children: approximately 19g’s per day
How do these recommendations translate into food?
|FOOD||SERVING SIZE||PROTEIN CONTENT|
|Milk||1 cup (240mls)||8 grams|
|Egg||1 whole||6 grams|
|Yoghurt||I cup||8 grams|
|Peanut butter||2 Table spoons||8 grams|
|Assorted nuts||½ cup||8 grams|
|Cottage Cheese||100g||11 grams|
|Chicken breast||100g||31 grams|
|Lean mince||100g||20.8 grams|
|Lamb chop||100g||25 grams|
|Pork loin||100g||27 grams|
|Edamame beans||½ cup||9 grams|
|Lentils||½ cup||8 grams|
|Black beans||½ cup||8 grams|
|Cannellini Beans||½ cup||8 grams|
|Chickpeas||½ cup||7 grams|
|Green peas||½ cup||4 grams|
|Spinach||1 cup||6 grams|
What would this look like on a child’s plate?
I like the tool “My plate”. You can Google this on myplate.gov. Once you click on the various items on the “plate”, you can explore food ideas and meal prep depending on the food category
Your child will need two to three portions of protein throughout the day. This includes healthy snacks. If we understand this, getting our poppets to eat the recommended amount of protein shouldn’t be such a struggle. A teaspoon of (sugar-free) peanut butter added to porridge (2 grams protein), a mid-morning snack could be a cracker with some cottage cheese (about 3 grams). You see, we haven’t even eaten our main meal but have been able to include 5 grams of protein. This is just 8 grams of what a toddler needs for the day. Now, a little bit of cottage pie with some green peas or a thumb size piece of chicken equates to 8 grams of protein, and you’ve done it! I am sure you are more creative than I am, but you see how this can be achieved without a struggle at mealtimes.
What if we are vegetarian?
The table above shows that it is far easier to achieve protein requirements from meat. Many of my vegetarian patients do struggle with the protein element of the diet. We often note that these children fall on the lower percentiles for weight, especially amongst the Indian population group. From my understanding, Indian diets are cereal-based, making adequate protein difficult but not impossible. It is really important that milk, curds, cheese and eggs are included in the diet where possible. If these items do not form part of the diet, parents must pay particular attention to the pulses that provide adequate protein. These children may require an iron supplement as well.
I found an article written by the Cuddles Foundation in 2021. The Cuddle Foundation is a non-profit organisation in India that helps children fight cancer with holistic nutrition. The article reports that many Indian children are underweight and short in stature. I liked that the article provides some lovely ideas for enhancing traditional dishes with proteins. For example, just looking at the suggestions of adding chickpea hummus to a roti or pureed paneer to a sandwich sounds delicious and certainly boosts the protein content.
Our modern lifestyles and work demands make it challenging to go to war with a child that is resistant to variety. But, on the flip side, we need to be aware of the effects of poor nutrition on children. The consequences are severe and can be autoimmune diseases, immune deficiencies, joint issues, and the list goes on. So it really is worth persevering.
There are so many sites that make meal preparation a joy with wonderful ideas of how to use protein-rich foods in a delicious meal. If you’re struggling, consider consulting a dietician. If you find that your child avoids foods, occupational therapists can work with your child and make eating a more pleasant experience for the entire family. Protein is critical in your child’s diet, but the good news is your child doesn’t need a huge amount. Some minor adjustments and some creativity could change the health path of your child.
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