Protein is an essential part of children’s diet, playing a crucial part in their growth and development. Many parents are concerned as to whether their kids are eating enough protein, and I am often asked about portion sizes. One question that crops up pretty much daily is “How much protein should my child be eating?”
When I talk about portion sizes for babies, I always stress that there are no set recommendations or guidelines. This is because during the weaning stage babies vary GREATLY and all take to eating solid food differently. However, when it comes to toddlers (from the age of 1) we can start to look at what a portion might look like from this age.
I also want to stress that even though there are guidelines for toddlers and young children, EVERY child is individual! Just like adults, each child will have their own set of needs and requirements, with different appetites on different days. So, whilst this blog looks at portion sizes for the general population of children aged 1-4, these will vary from child to child.
Why does my child need protein?
Protein is a macronutrient that is often referred to as the ‘building blocks of life’. Every cell in the body requires protein, and it is therefore important for the growth, development, maintenance and repair of your child’s body. Proteins are made from a range of amino acids, some of which are essential. This means that they need to be consumed within your child’s diet through food.
If your child consumes animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, these contain all the essential amino acids, and are known as ‘complete proteins’. If, however, your child follows a vegetarian or vegan diet you will need to ensure they are offered a variety of plant-based proteins in order to meet all the essential amino acids. For example, combining rice and beans or hummus and pitta. As well as the amino acids, proteins also provide vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, omega 3 and b vitamins.
How much protein should I be offering my child?
Generally, children in the UK EXCEED the protein recommendations so it’s unlikely to be something you need to worry about. It’s actually quite rare for children to be deficient in protein. The protein Reference Nutrient Intakes (RNI) for babies and young children are listed in the table below. RNIs are the amounts that should meet the protein requirements for most of the population (97.5% to be exact!).
The latest data shows that children aged 1.5-3 years consume on average 41g of protein per day and 4-10 year olds have an average intake of 52.9g of protein per day. As you can see in the table below this is much more than the RNI’s.
|Age group||Protein RNI per day (g)|
Reference: British Nutrition Foundation, 2016
Recommended Protein Portion Sizes for Young Children
Children aged 1-4 should be offered 2-3 portions of protein a day. If your child is vegetarian or vegan you should offer 3 portions, but, if your child eats meat and fish, 2 portions will be sufficient.
The table below lists some protein examples and recommended portion sizes for children aged 1-4 years.
|Protein Food Examples||Portion Size Guide For 1-4 Year Olds|
|Minced meat||2-5 tablespoons|
|White or oily fish||¼ – 1 small fillet (1-3 tablespoons)|
|Egg – poached/boiled||½ – 1 egg|
|Egg – scrambled||2-4 tablespoons|
|Falafels||1-3 mini falafels|
|Homemade Soup with meat/fish/pulses||1 small bowl (90-125ml)|
|Chicken drumstick||½ – 1 drumstick|
|Ground / chopped nuts||1-2 tablespoons|
|Nut butter||½ – 1 tablespoon|
|Beans (inc. baked beans)||2-4 tablespoons|
|Dhal / cooked lentils||2-4 tablespoons|
|Fish and potato pie||2-6 tablespoons|
|Fish fingers||1-2 fingers|
Data sourced from Infant and Toddler Forum, July 2021
Dairy and plant-based alternatives
Your child will also be consuming protein through dairy, which is classified under a separate food group. In addition to the 2-3 portions of protein per day, children should also be consuming around 3 portions of dairy per day or fortified dairy alternatives such as soy or pea based products which contain similar protein levels to dairy. They will be consuming this from foods such as milk, (including breastmilk) yoghurt and cheese. If your child does not consume dairy or soy/pea-based dairy alternatives, then protein intake may be lower. In this case ensure they are consuming enough protein such as those from the examples in the table above.
Here are a few examples of recommended dairy portions that will help contribute to your child’s protein intake throughout the day. These are aside from the 2-3 portions of protein mentioned above.
|Dairy Food Examples||Portion Size Guide For 1-4 Year Olds|
|Cow’s milk / fortified soy drink||1 cup (100-120ml / 3-4oz)|
|Plain yoghurt / fortified soy alternative||1 average pot (125ml)|
|Cheese sauce||1-4 tablespoons|
|Grated cheese||2-4 tablespoons|
Data sourced from Infant and Toddler Forum, July 2021
I have plenty of other information on dairy and dairy alternatives for babies and toddlers:
Balance meals and keep the pressure off!
Offer a portion of protein as part of a balanced meal, BUT, let your toddler lead the way in knowing their own appetite and how much they choose to eat. Some days they may eat more, and some days they may eat less. If your little one is ill or teething, it may also affect how much they are consuming. And just to reiterate, all children are different. For example, those that are very active or taller may need more protein than those that are less active or shorter.
Offer a variety of proteins
Try serving protein in different ways. If one day you serve a fillet of fish, next time this may be served as a fish cake. The same applies with things like beans and pulses. In addition to this, make sure to offer a wide variety of proteins. If your child does consume animal products, offer them plant-based proteins too. Not only will this expose your child to more flavours and textures and acceptance of more foods, but variety means a range of nutrients are being consumed.
Plant proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu also tend to be lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre compared to animal-based proteins. Furthermore, we’re being encouraged to include more plant-based proteins in our diets as they are kinder to the planet, so it pays to mix it up and offer plant proteins alongside animal varieties.
To wrap up…
If your child is eating a balanced diet then it’s more than likely they are eating enough protein. I always advise parents not to focus on one food or one mealtime in isolation, and instead, look at the bigger picture and what your child has eaten over the course of the week. Hopefully, this offers some reassurance that on the whole your toddler is probably doing just fine and consuming enough protein within their diet.
If you enjoyed this blog on protein, have a read of The Importance of Protein for Children’s Growth
For further information on protein portion sizes for toddlers take a look at the references below.