The Importance of Protein for Children’s Growth

The Importance of Protein for Children’s Growth

Blog written by Sarah Jackson, RNutr & Sports Nutritionist from, with support from SR Nutrition.

Children need nutrient dense foods which provide them with a good amount of protein, vitamins and minerals to support healthy growth and development.

Protein is essential for your child’s growth, maintenance and repair for the body. It contains key nutrients that are needed for your child’s health. Key nutrients that we also get from protein foods include iron, omega 3s, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium and selenium.

Protein containing foods should ideally be offered to your child twice a day, three times if your child is vegetarian.

I have a blog all about Getting the Balance Right for Toddlers meals, so do take a look at that so you can see how much of each food group is recommended each day.

How much protein should my child have a day?

Reference Nutrient Intake for protein for different age ranges:

The Importance of Protein for Children’s Growth

Each child is unique and so it can be hard to know exact amounts to be feeding your child especially putting ‘grams’ into food. This chart is just to give the context and information that the Government recommend when it comes to intakes. The portion size guide below is a good starting point to what this amount means in food terms.

What are good protein sources for my child?

Milk, dairy and alternatives…

Milk and dairy foods provide children with protein and calcium which is important for healthy bone development. Dairy sources include milk (skimmed and 1% milks are not suitable for under 5’s), cheese and yogurt, however, if you are opting for non-dairy alternatives (suitable as a whole drink for children from one-year of age. See my blog on Plant Based Milk Recommendations) it’s important to ensure that they are fortified with calcium and also choose unsweetened varieties. Plant based alternatives to dairy are variable in their protein content too, so it’s worthwhile keeping an eye on these.

It is recommended that dairy foods or appropriate fortified alternatives should be offered to your child around 3 times a day.

Other protein & iron rich foods…

Meat, eggs, fish, beans and pulses as well as foods made from pulses that are suitable for vegetarians such as tofu, hummus, and soya are excellent sources of protein and iron for children.

It is recommended for children to have a variety of these foods two to three times a day.

What is one portion of protein?

As always portion sizes vary from child to child, however it’s sometimes useful to have a rough guideline. Below are some recommendations for rough protein food portions for 1-4 year olds (you can just adapt amounts slightly for younger babies):

  • 2-4 tbsp of cooked chickpeas, lentils, baked beans
  • 1-2 tbsp hummus
  • ½-1 boiled egg (2-4 tbsp of scrambled egg)
  • ½-1 tbsp peanut butter on toast
  • ¼ – 1 small fillet of oily or white fish
  • 1-2 fish fingers
  • ½-2 small slices chicken

The above foods provide protein and iron in your child’s diet, which are required for a growth and development. Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel are also great sources of Omega-3 and Vitamin D.

To read more about Fish Recommendations for Babies and Toddlers, see my blog on this topic as there are some limitations in how much babies and children can have!

Plant-Based Proteins:

If you eat meat and fish still consider plant-based proteins in your child’s diet, they are a great addition and contain vitamins and minerals as well as extra fibre. Examples include beans, lentils and pulses such as chickpeas. It is a good idea when serving plant-based proteins to you and your family, to also include another food or drink that is rich in vitamin C (e.g. fruit and vegetables) as this MAY help optimise iron absorption.

Many plant-based proteins often don’t contain the same quality or quantities of proteins that you might find in animal sources. For this reason, it’s a good idea to try and combine protein sources, such as grains and beans and to eat a variety of plant-based proteins each day to ensure you can get the full range of amino acids (building blocks of protein) needed each day. Simply try to eat a balance of pulses, ground nuts, ground seeds, soya and grains.

A good kitchen guide to pregnancy

Can I offer protein to my child at night?

It is recommended to offer your child protein foods 2-3 times a day. There is no ‘rule’ to say when protein should be offered. However, offering protein at mealtimes will help you achieve a balanced plate for your child. As well as enhancing iron absorption when consumed with vitamin C rich foods such as fruits and veggies.

There are some blogs that suggests combining protein and carbohydrates as a pre-bedtime snack to help your child sleep. However, this research is limited. Sleeping patterns can be affected if your child is going to bed hungry. Try to ensure your child is getting adequate energy throughout the day through their meals and snack times.

There is also a bit of a myth that circles around, which suggests that protein should not be given at the evening meal as it may affect baby sleeping. As far as I’m aware (and I’ve done some digging) this is not based on any evidence to date. Babies are given milk before bed regularly, and milk is a source of protein. Therefore, you DO NOT need to avoid giving your baby protein rich foods with their evening meal.


Sarah Jackson (BSc PGCert RNutr) is a Registered Nutritionist, currently working in the food industry and has her own private nutrition clinic. Sarah’s work in the food industry is heavily focused on children’s nutrition, writing and implementing policies for the industry to make healthy options available to families when eating out of home.

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