Ask the Expert – Protein Power

Ask The Expert is a weekly column on The idea is to have a reader-submitted question answered by a nutrition expert or a pediatrician. Feel free to submit your question in the comments section below.

This week, Registered Dietitian Emma Stirling offers a few handy tips on how to get enough protein in your child’s diet.

Emma Stirling, MS, RD
  • BS, MS Human Nutrition and Dietetics
  • 16 years experience as an Australian Accredited Practising Dietitian with time at Great Ormond St Hospital for Children, London.
  • Health writer including Nutrition Editor of Weight Watchers (Australia) magazine, nutrition consultant and baby blogger!
  • Website: The Scoop on Nutrition
  • Twitter: @EmmaStirling
  • Contact: via blog or Twitte

Question: What is the best way to get protein into a diet with a child who’s fussy?


Air and water.  Well, so the saying goes that toddlers seem to survive on air and water, as their food intake appears so minimal at times.  But when it comes to optimal growth and development, it’s important to keep an eye on key growth nutrients including the powerhouse protein.  Let’s take a closer look at where you find protein, how much kids’ need and what you can do to help them power up.

What is it?

Protein is made up of chains of smaller components called amino acids, also known as the building blocks of our bodies.  Muscles, skin, hair and blood cells as well as hormones, enzymes and antibodies, are all made up of a combo of amino acids.

There are about 20 different amino acids that, in different combinations, make up the countless millions of proteins available in nature.   And there are two broad classes of amino acids: those that can be made by the human body (non-essential amino acids) and those that can only be supplied by food (essential amino acids).   A protein’s nutritional value is judged by how many of the essential amino acids it provides and in what quantity.

Where do you get it?

Different foods contain different combos and amounts of amino acids as proteins. Generally speaking, animal protein contains all of the essential amino acids.  Plant proteins usually lack at least one amino acid. There are exceptions to this like soy products and the seed of a leafy green called amaranth (consumed in Asia and the Mediterranean).

Nutritious sources of protein include: Meat, poultry and fish, eggs, dairy products, seeds and nuts, beans and lentils, soy products, grains especially wheat and less so rice, barley and corn.

In line with dietary guidelines it’s important to choose lean cuts of meat, trim the fat and go easy on processed meats like sausages and sliced ham as these are also high in saturated fat, sodium and artificial additives.

How much is enough?

Protein needs differ by age, weight, gender and life stage.  The US Recommended Dietary Allowance for children 1-3years is 13g/day of protein. In my country Australia, the NHMRC Recommended Dietary Intakes for 1-3 year olds is 14g/day of protein.  To put this in perspective, two large eggs provide 12.7g of protein or close to a toddlers total daily protein requirements.  So it’s no surprise to hear that nutrition surveys show that protein is not generally an at risk nutrient.  It is also possible for a toddler to consume enough protein for proper growth and development by following a vegan or vegetarian style of eating.  Make sure you speak with your health professional about balancing your child’s diet and seek expert advice from a Registered or Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Top toddler tips to slip in more protein:

Keep it coming – aim to include small serves of protein at each main meal and slip in extras at snack time.  Try:

  • Wake up to a poached or hard-boiled egg with wholegrain toast fingers
  • Whip up fruit smoothies with reduced fat milk and natural, Greek style yogurt


  • Spread nut butters on celery sticks for home snacking, away from nut-free zones
  • Blend up a quick hummus with canned chickpeas


  • Make a baked bean toasted sandwich for lunch
  • Mix up a tiny tuna mornay with cheese sauce


  • Toss some small cubes of tofu with bite-sized veggie stir-fry
  • Make mini-meat balls for homemade cheeseburgers on round dinner rolls

Chew on this – overtired toddlers can find chewing meat at dinner time challenging, so make sure you use slow cooking methods to tenderize meat or cook with a sauce like a casserole style or mince bolognaise.
Petite is sweet – don’t overwhelm your child with a huge serve of meat.  As a rule of thumb adults should stick to a portion-controlled palm size serve of steak and little kids…well, just a thumb size may do!
Add flavor – experiment with different flavours too. Your three year old may soon learn to love curry, especially if they have been exposed to the cooking aromas as a baby.
Maximize variety – if your toddler wants mince meat all the time, extend their variety by branching out into different recipes….that still look like mince.  Think tacos, spaghetti, meatloaf, shepherd’s pie or your own masterpiece.

As a general guide aim to clock up 3-4 serves of lean red meat per week for valuable iron and zinc and 2-3 serves of fish for brain boosting omega 3 fatty acids.  And remember, research shows us that young children are naturally wary of new foods (known as neophobia) so the key is to try and try and try and try again.  One of the best health head starts you can give your young child is exposure to a huge variety of different nutritious foods and dishes.

Play your protein cards right and before you know it, your toddler that lived on air and water, will become the “I just don’t know where he puts it” ravenous teenager.

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Disclaimer – Information provided in Ask The Expert column on is intended to give you general guidance on a question related to toddler nutrition. It is not meant to be treated as medical advice. You are welcome to contact this expert for a detailed consultation on your specific situation to determine what actions, if any, you should take regarding nutrition and health of your toddlers. We do not recommend you to take any action based solely on the information presented in this column. Experts have agreed to provide their professional opinion on toddler nutrition related questions on a voluntary basis and no compensation is offered to them by

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  1. Pingback: 5 Sources of Vegetarian Protein | LittleStomaks

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