Protein is the building block of every cell in the body; building healthy bones, teeth, skin, muscles and even vital organs such as the heart. As children are at such an important stage of their life where there is rapid growth and development, it is important to understand the multiple roles protein plays in the health of your child, how much protein they need, and ways to ensure their diet provides a constant supply to meet their needs.
Protein and obesity
With 1 in 5 children in year 6 (age 10-11) classed as obese in 2016/2017, it is important to understand how protein can support weight management. Previous articles have discussed the importance of blood-sugar balancing to support energy levels (you can read more about this here), but the same rules apply to maintaining a healthy weight. Consuming processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, sweets, white bread and pasta, fruit juices and fizzy drinks can lead to a rapid spike in blood sugar levels which leads to a release of insulin, the hormone which helps to keep blood sugar levels balanced and tells cells to store the excess sugar as fat. This process can often lead to blood sugar dips which can release cortisol (the stress hormone) into the body, which, over time, may negatively affect the proper functioning of the immune system. Furthermore, low blood sugar levels can lead to mood swings, brain fog and fatigue. Whilst reducing your child’s intake of processed foods will support the healthy balancing of their blood sugar levels, protein will further support the balance by slowing the release of energy into the body whilst also providing more satiety, keeping your child fuelled for longer.
Isn’t my child consuming enough protein?
Protein in the diet comes in many shapes and sizes. Plant sources of protein include nuts and seeds, peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils, quinoa and soya. Animal sources of protein include all meat and fish as well as dairy products.
Each protein source contains a different amount of protein from other food sources, and no food source is complete protein. As an example, a portion of chicken breast is 32% protein, therefore 100grams of chicken breast will give you 32 grams of protein, whereas lentils are only 9%, therefore 100 grams of cooked lentils will provide you with 9 grams of protein.
Let’s consider a typical school day diet: cereal with full fat milk and a banana for breakfast; a packet of crisps as a mid-morning snack; a ham sandwich with a satsuma and a chocolate biscuit for lunch; a yoghurt after school; and a bowl of cheese pasta for dinner. The sources of protein for the day will come from the serving of milk with breakfast, ham within a sandwich, yoghurt in the after-school snack and cheese sprinkled over the evening meal, which would equate to roughly 20grams of protein. Whilst this would be fine for a child under the age of 7, it would be below the recommended daily amount for a child above this age group.
How much protein does your child need?
The Department of Health suggest that children need increasing amounts of protein as they grow. The chart below provides a rough recommended daily intake for children depending on their age and gender. It may be worth printing out the chart with the various protein sources and placing this on your fridge along with the amount required for each of your children to help you keep their intake on target. Whilst the chart is not a comprehensive list of protein sources, it provides many of the most commonly eaten protein foods. Become familiar with reading food labels; some meats are much better quality than others – for example, wafer thin ham will provide much less protein per slice than thicker sliced ham purchased from a delicatessen.
Want to work out your own protein requirements? Head to ‘Protein – are you getting enough’, available on the nutrition blog.
Easy ways to boost protein intake for the whole family
Whilst cooking for a family and maintaining a home can be time consuming, there are some very simple food swaps you can make to help ensure your child is consuming their recommended daily intake.
Instead of jam on toast, try spreading nut butter such as peanut, almond, cashew or even hazelnut, and adding a few slices of fresh strawberries for sweetness. If your child is a cereal monster, consider porridge served with nuts and fresh berries. If they simply refuse to step away from a sugar-filled cereal, purchase a good quality protein powder such as whey or hemp protein to mix into their milk before adding to cereal – sneaky!
If you’re baking a meal the night before, consider adding a few additional sausages, such as chicken sausages which are leaner and lower in saturated fats, and can be added to a slice of wholegrain toast with some tinned tomatoes for a well balanced breakfast.
If you have time, at the weekend perhaps, consider preparing some delicious breakfast egg muffins – 3 ways which can be stored in the fridge for a few days and are perfect to reheat in the morning before school. View recipe >
If your child likes sandwiches, try sticking to fillings that contain higher amounts of protein such as swapping wafer thin ham for deli-bought ham, preparing a leftover chicken fajita style wrap, or a tuna salad filled pitta. If you have the time, consider preparing some turkey meatballs and serving with courgetti and a simple homemade tomato sauce for an exciting lunch (view recipe >). For a veggie friendly alternative, why not try these simple quinoa black bean burgers which can be made into small patties to be dipped into guacamole or salsa, and served with some chopped cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumber and sliced peppers. View recipe >
Whilst it can be difficult to get your child to eat differently from the other children at school who are perhaps eating crisps or a chocolate biscuit, allowing them to have a smaller serving of crisps rather than a whole bag, and serving this alongside a sliced apple or pear and nut butter will be a fun alternative for your child. If they are used to a mid-afternoon chocolate biscuit, consider a nut-based cereal bar or preparing a fun pot containing popcorn, a few chunks of dark chocolate and a variety of nuts. For less fussy eaters, snack options include a pot of hummus with crudités or yoghurt served with granola.
Evenings can be manic for parents, between collecting children from school, running to after-school clubs, ensuring homework is completed, preparing an evening meal and ensuring the children are bathed and settled in bed on time. For parents on the go, a slow cooker really is a great option to prepare meals for the whole family either the night before once the children have gone to bed, in the morning, or whilst the children are at school. Warming beef stews, chicken casserole, lamb curry, lentil dal, vegetarian chilli are all great meals that can be prepared and left to cook slowly, providing the whole family with a delicious home-cooked meal.
If preparing a quick pasta dish, try adding some prawns which take a few minutes to cook, or adding some tinned salmon or tuna, and serving with some frozen vegetables. Quinoa can take around 15 minutes to cook and has a nice creamy texture. Add a tin of cannellini beans, chopped tomatoes, avocado and coriander into your cooked quinoa and drizzle with olive oil and some lemon juice to make a fresh quinoa bowl. If you are really running low on time, this mixed bean goulash takes just 5 minutes to prepare using cupboard staples and can be left to cook for 20 minutes, providing a source of protein, fibre, vitamin and minerals from highly nutritious beans. View recipe >
Protein and a balanced diet
Whilst protein is an important macronutrient for children, a diet that is too high in protein can also lead to obesity so it is important to ensure that your child is eating protein within a balanced diet. Our ‘rule of thumb’, using your child’s hand as a guide, would be a thumb-sized serving of fat, a palm-sized serving of protein, and 1-2 cupped handfuls of starchy carbohydrates such as wholegrain rice, wholegrain bread or wholegrain pasta, and starchy vegetables such as sweet potato, squash and parsnip, with each meal. And don’t forget to aim for the minimum 5-a-day on vegetables to ensure your child is getting lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre in their diet.
If your child is following a plant-based diet, it is important to get more variation of protein food sources because not all plant foods contain the full range of essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and nine of these are considered essential, meaning that we can only obtain them from the diet. As many plant foods are not considered a complete protein, and therefore lack some essential amino acids, it’s important that they eat lots of different protein food sources to build a healthy mix of each of the essential amino acids. Soya beans, however, are an exception to the rule and are considered a complete protein: these can be used in the form of miso paste – used to flavour soups and stews; edamame beans which can be added to stir fries and used as a healthy snack, and tofu which is a great meat alternative and can even be used to make a healthy chocolate pudding. View recipe >
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