Protein has a well-earned reputation for being good for us! It’s a muscle and bone builder, an important player in the creation of many of the body’s hormones and enzymes, a great source of energy, and an overall important part of a balanced diet. As adults, if we worry about our protein intake, we can supplement our diets with protein shakes, bars, and smoothies—but is protein powder for kids a good idea?
Is your child is a picky eater or you simply worry they’re not getting enough protein into their body? If you still want them to reap all the nutritional and growth benefits protein has to offer, this post will help you help understand when a protein powder is a good idea for your child. We’ll talk about how much protein your toddler needs, how to make sure they’re getting that through their diet, and whether or not you should supplement with a protein powder.
How Much Protein Do Kids Need?
Most toddlers only need around 15 grams of protein per day to meet their needs, but each child’s requirements will differ slightly. A good rule of thumb to determine how many grams your specific child needs is to take their weight in pounds and divide by two. Then, aim for that many grams of protein per day. For example, if your toddler weighs 25 pounds, a good target would be about 12 or 13 grams of protein per day.
When we break it down, that number is very achievable without protein powders and supplements. Even if you suspect your child isn’t getting quite enough protein, you can typically address that deficit with real foods.
The Risks of Excess Protein Consumption
You need to know that kids—and specifically toddlers—need a different ratio of protein in their diets than adults do. The goal for protein intake is to meet their growth and development needs without putting too much strain on their bodies (which protein can pretty easily do). That means any adult-sized servings of protein-rich foods or protein supplements can quickly max out your child’s daily protein maximum.
Excess protein consumption can cause loss of calcium and dehydration in kids if you go way overboard. It can also cause their kidneys to have to work too hard to filter out waste. And, in very rare cases, it can cause kidney damage. So we want to make sure we’re staying within the target amount for their age range.
Is Protein Powder Safe For Kids And Toddlers?
Protein powders and supplements aren’t inherently unsafe for kids, but they can contribute to an overload of protein in your child’s diet, which can be. Excessive protein consumption in children and toddlers can have negative health consequences, and the maximum recommended daily total intake of protein for a toddler is relatively low. So keep an eye out for how much a supplement might tack on in addition to the foods they already eat. If your child eats a lot of other high-protein foods, then supplementation might get them too close to that daily max.
That said, if you have a picky eater or a child who you know doesn’t consume enough protein from food sources in the day, a protein boost could be helpful for them. But, you should always make sure you use a trustworthy brand. Supplements are not regulated the same way that foods are. Therefore, some brands may misrepresent the ingredients in their protein supplements, which could be potentially harmful to your young child. If your child needs a supplement, look for a reputable brand with products made with kid-safe ingredients, like Nutrikid Shakes (15% off with code MAMAKNOWSNUTRITION15) and Vital Proteins Unflavored Collagen Peptides (affiliate link).
More on protein powders and how—and when—to use them below!
The Best Protein Sources for Kids & Toddlers
Much of the food we eat has at least some protein in it. Sure, some sources are more protein-dense than others, but since so many foods can contribute to a child’s overall protein intake, I typically don’t worry about kids getting enough protein overall. What I do worry about is them getting enough iron! That’s why the best protein sources for kids and toddlers are ones high in iron—especially if they don’t eat much (or any) meat or fish, or if the majority of their protein comes from dairy sources.
Meat in particular has lots of iron in it, so it’s a solid source of protein in the diet if they’ll eat it. Ground beef has about 4 grams of protein per ounce, salmon has about 5.5 grams per ounce, and chicken has about 8 grams per ounce. And if you’re like, “Salmon, Kacie?! Ha! My kid would NEVER!” That’s okay. Even if all they’ll tolerate is ground beef in spaghetti sauce or chicken nuggets, you can feel good knowing they’re still working their way towards those daily protein goals.
What If My Toddler Doesn’t Eat Meat?
If your toddler won’t eat meat—whether it’s because your family is veggie or your toddlers (or picky eater) just struggled with meat-eating—there’s no need to worry! There are lots of high-quality, non-meat protein sources at the grocery store, too.
Ways To Up Protein Intake Without Protein Powder (Or Meat!)
If meat’s off the table and you’re worried about supplementing unnecessarily, it’s okay! Protein is likely already in many of the foods you feed your child. Beans, cheese, hummus, and tofu all have protein in them! And even if those quantities are smaller than the ones in a piece of steak, small quantities add up.
Here are a few other easy ways to increase the protein value of the food you’re serving your toddler:
Dairy & Non-Dairy Milk
An 8-ounce cup of whole cow’s milk has about 8 grams of protein, so if your child has 2 cups of milk per day, they’ll easily meet that protein goal. Soy milk has a similar protein content as cow’s milk too, making it a great option for the non-dairy kiddos. I also like Silk Protein Almond Cashew milk blend.
One egg has about 6 grams of protein, so if your toddler eats a scrambled egg with their breakfast—or even baked into something sweet like these pumpkin french toast sticks—they’re already halfway there!
Hemp seeds have about 3 grams of protein per tablespoon, making them a quick and easy way to inch your child towards their daily protein intake goals. I like to sprinkle hemp seeds on avocado toast, in oatmeal, and on top of smoothies.
Chia seeds have about 2 grams of protein per tablespoon and can be added into smoothies, yogurt, and oatmeal as well! If your little one doesn’t like the texture, choose milled chia seeds.
Half a cup of cooked quinoa has about 4 grams of protein so if your child likes rice, you can easily swap it out for protein-rich quinoa once or twice a week! Quinoa is considered more of a pseudo-grain because it’s actually a seed. (That’s why it has more protein compared to other grain-type foods!)
Protein Supplements For Kids
While most toddlers do not need protein supplementation, there are certain rare instances where a toddler may not be able to meet their protein needs with diet alone. Typically, this looks like a case of extremely picky eating or a child on a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. If this describes your child, you may want to find a protein supplement for them—but always talk with your child’s pediatrician beforehand. Especially if you’re worried about their growth!
When Supplementing With Protein Powder Makes Sense
I would recommend a protein supplement for kids who eat very little or no meat or dairy and do not consistently have foods rich in protein in their diet. Or, I might recommend adding a protein supplement—either a powder or a real-food supplement—to a meal that would otherwise be lacking in protein. You can supplement protein in any meal or snack that does not have a protein component, but children should not have a full serving of an adult protein supplement.
For example, if you normally make a fruit smoothie with almond milk, I’d love to see some protein in there to help keep them full! You could supplement that smoothie with protein by adding a scoop of nut butter or a few tablespoons of hemp seeds. Or, you could supplement that smoothie with protein powder. The powder makes the most sense if your child doesn’t like the taste of other options, if they have an allergy, or if you just want to be able to give them a small portion of the protein smoothie you made for yourself.
Protein Powder for Toddlers & Kids: Answering Your FAQs
By now, you know that generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend an everyday protein supplement for your toddler or child. But, if you know they need one—or your pediatrician has recommended one—that’s another story! Here are my answers to some of the common questions I hear from parents in this boat:
Q: At What Age Can Kids & Toddlers Take Protein Powder?
A: It’s less about the minimum age and more about whether or not additional protein would be necessary and beneficial. In most cases, it’s best to try increasing your child’s protein intake through the foods they’re eating. Sharing sips of your protein smoothie with your child is okay in moderation, but I’d recommend waiting until your child is over 2 years old before adding any protein powder or supplements to their diet.
Q: Which Protein Is Best For Toddlers & Kids?
A: If they need a protein powder, the best one depends on your child. There are several types of protein powders on the market, some of the most popular being whey, soy, and pea. The most common protein powder is made from whey, which kids can have (more on this below). Just note that it’s a derivative of milk and contains lactose. The most popular non-milk-based protein powders on the market are soy protein and pea protein, but there’s also egg protein, hemp protein, and brown rice protein. Each product will have a different formulation and include a different ratio of protein, vitamins, minerals, and added sugar.
Q: Can Kids Have Whey Protein?
A: Yes. Unless your child has a cow’s milk protein allergy, there’s nothing specifically contraindicated about whey protein for kids. Just make sure to choose a reputable brand.
My Go-To Protein Supplements for Kids
Nutrikid makes a whey protein shake powder that has a great complete nutrition profile, making it a top choice for parents of picky eaters who need a little help meeting multiple nutrition goals. It contains brain-boosting omega-3s, probiotics, enzymes, fiber for digestion, and several other important vitamins, and it’s formulated without added sugar. It comes in strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla flavors, so it’s best used in smoothies or shakes that need a flavor and nutrition boost.
You can get 15% off your order of Nutrikid Shakes with my code MAMAKNOWSNUTRITION15.
Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides
Another product I recommend is Vital Proteins Unflavored Collagen Peptides. Collagen peptides are a great way to up the protein content of the food you’re serving, but one serving (2 scoops) does contain 18 grams of protein, so make sure it isn’t making your child’s protein intake too high. For a toddler or young child, I’d recommend about ½ of one scoop, which would be closer to 4 or 5 grams of protein.
Because their collagen is sourced from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows, it’s soluble in many foods and liquids. And, it’s completely flavorless, which makes it a great add-in for smoothies, yogurt (especially non-dairy yogurts that are low in protein), or applesauce. I often add it to my kids’ food when they are sick and I want to get a little extra in them because their appetite is low. Try blending it with frozen bananas and a splash of milk to make “nice cream” when they have a cold or a virus!
Protein Powders Have Their Place, But Real Food Comes First!
Real food is always the first line of defense for meeting nutritional needs and combatting any deficiencies in our kids. Remember that their plate doesn’t need to have a huge serving of protein on it, the way we’re used to seeing it at restaurants. Even if protein takes up a much smaller part of their plate—and even if they only have a few bites on top of that—it’s contributing to them meeting their needs.
If you suspect your child’s protein consumption is too low, try some of the swaps or additions mentioned above, or serve an extra cup of milk or soy milk during your toddler’s day. And, if you do choose to supplement with a powder, remember to look for one that doesn’t contain added sugar and doesn’t overdo it in the protein category, like Nutrikid Shakes (15% off with code MAMAKNOWSNUTRITION15) and Vital Proteins Unflavored Collagen Peptides.