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#38: How Much Protein Does A Toddler Need?

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Is your toddler obsessed with carbs?! Like, to the point where their idea of a balanced meal is crackers with white bread, a few cheddar puffs for color, and a side of fruit that may or may not get eaten? And, is that making you panic or second-guess yourself just a little? If so, this episode is for you!

This week on Feeding Toddlers Made Easy, I’m spilling the soybeans on protein for toddlers and answering super-common parent FAQs like, “How much protein does a toddler need?” My goal(s): Reduce your mom-guilt intake, let you know when you should worry (so you can stop worrying when you shouldn’t), and give you some gentle ideas for ways to work more protein into their diets—because even though we’re not gonna panic over protein, nutrition and protein intake for toddlers is important.

In “How Much Protein Does a Toddler Need,” We Discuss…

  1. How important protein really is for toddlers (02:23)
  2. Why iron might actually matter more than protein (03:30)
  3. Daily toddler protein and iron requirements (04:50)
  4. Ideas for how to meet those requirements 06:25)
  5. Whether or not breastmilk has enough protein and iron (09:15)
  6. If a vegan diet has enough protein for toddlers (10:10)

Listen to the full episode here:

The Deets on Meat (…And Other Protein Sources)

Quick access to the free downloads, paid resources, and blog posts that will help you keep the learning going on protein, meat, milk, and iron requirements for toddlers:

All The Nutrients, None Of The Planning

Wanna make sure they get all the things in their diet without spending hours on meal prepping, grocery shopping, and cooking complicated meals? Check out my Meal & Snack Survival Guide for super easy and balanced meals that have adequate protein in them. (Yes, there are veggie options and yes, they’re all picky eater friendly!)

broiled turkey burger on whole wheat bun with cheddar cheese, diced peaches, green grapes, broiled green beans and red peppers

Episode #38: How Much Protein Does A Toddler Need? (Complete Transcript)

Toddlers are traditionally carb lovers by nature, and it can be concerning as a parent when it seems like protein always gets left behind on their plate. Especially when you know protein is a building block for growth—and you, of course, want your toddler to grow to their fullest potential.

Luckily, because toddlers don’t actually need a ton of protein, making sure they get enough protein is usually pretty easy, even if they don’t eat meat, fish, or animal products like eggs regularly (or at all).

Protein for Toddlers

First things first: It’s really normal, appropriate, and healthy for a toddler to have about 50% of their diet be carbs, about 10-15% protein, and the rest to be fats. Toddlers actually don’t need much protein at all to satisfy their daily requirements, so try not to worry about your toddler’s protein intake too much. Here’s what I recommend focusing on instead:

  1. Fullness. Meals and snacks that don’t include protein are less filling and more likely to lead to your toddler grazing and asking for snacks all day between meals. Instead of stressing over specific protein intake numbers, I’d just encourage you to include at least some protein at each meal and snack time, to keep them fuller for longer.
  2. Iron. I worry a little bit if toddlers aren’t eating enough protein sources that are high in iron. Because—interesting fact—toddlers are much more likely to be iron-deficient than protein-deficient.

Why Iron Matters More Than Protein

Worldwide, the highest prevalence of anemia is in children. In the U.S., it’s estimated that at least 1 to 2% of children between the ages of one to five have iron deficiency anemia. Whereas protein deficiency, at least in the United States, is basically non-existent.

The most absorbable (did I make up that word?) form of iron is called heme iron, and it’s found in animal products like meat and fish. So eating meat and fish is definitely the easiest way to meet iron requirements. But vegetarians, take heart. Because it’s not the only way! Non-heme iron is still good, and it can be found in foods like lentils, soybeans, tofu, and chickpeas. 

If you’re picking up on the fact that most of these iron sources are also protein sources, gold star for you! This is one of the reasons protein is still really important for a toddler’s diet. It gives them the actual protein they need—but also so many other nutrients that are equally, or maybe even more important for their health and growth.

Daily Toddler Protein Requirements

Now that you know iron and fullness are typically more important to me as a dietitian than just the number of grams of protein your toddler eats in a day—that it’s more complex than that—we can shift our focus back to protein for toddlers.

It’s important for you to know that it doesn’t take much meat at all to meet both protein and iron needs for toddlers. Protein needs for toddlers are usually around 10 to 20g a day, but it’s different for each child. To calculate your child’s protein needs, divide their weight in pounds by two. The number you get is how many grams of protein they need (minimum) each day.

Toddler’s Weight in LBs / 2 = Minimum Daily Protein Requirement

The maximum daily protein intake toddlers should have is about 50 to 60g, but they really don’t need anywhere near that much. In fact, it can actually be harmful if they regularly consume a diet very high in protein.

Daily Toddler Iron Requirements

Toddlers between the ages of one and three need seven milligrams of iron each day. Kids between the ages of four and eight need 10 milligrams.

How To Meet Your Toddler’s Daily Protein & Iron Requirements

If your goal is to consistently meet your toddler’s daily protein and iron requirements (a great goal!), some foods you could work into your meal planning are:

  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereal or oatmeal
  • 1 cup of dairy or soy milk (8g protein)
  • ¼ cup of black beans (1mg iron, 4g protein)
  • 2 meatballs about 1 inch each (1.5mg iron, 12g protein)

We’re already up to 26g protein! So they’ve definitely met their protein needs. Knowing that toddlers only need around 15g of protein each day, you can see how it can easily add up—even without eating meat. (If you remove the meatballs from this day, this toddler would still have 12g of protein in their diet!) But again, protein is not the only benefit of moderate meat consumption.

Just make sure that dairy isn’t their only source of protein, because drinking too much milk (more than 16-20oz/day) could contribute to iron deficiency as well as picky eating in your toddler.

Does Breastmilk Have Enough Protein?

Yes, breastmilk and formula have adequate protein for babies who are exclusively drinking breastmilk or formula. The types of protein in breastmilk are whey and casein. The whey in breastmilk contains antibodies that help your toddler or baby fight off infection, which is great! But as your baby approaches age 1 and switches more to a solid diet, adding foods with protein and iron to their diet will be necessary.

Breastmilk, Formula & Iron

It’s worth noting that while formula is fortified with iron, breastmilk is not. That means that as soon as your little one starts solids, foods high in iron need to be added to their diet since their body gets depleted of its iron stores (which it gets in utero) around 6 months.

Does A Vegan Diet Have Enough Protein For A Toddler?

If you choose to feed your toddler a vegan diet, they can still get enough protein—but you will have to work harder to make sure they get enough iron, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, and calories overall into their diet.

Final thoughts

To sum it up, for some reason our society makes it seem like carbs are evil and protein is a MUCH bigger deal than it really is in terms of the amount that kids need to be their healthiest. The days of feeling like you need to keep telling your kid to eat another bite of meat are gone! Restaurants in particular put way too much emphasis on a large protein portion and it’s just not necessary OR the best thing. Make sure you get those iron sources and the protein will fall where it needs to!

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