Protein & picky eaters
A big concern for many parents of picky eaters is that their child is not getting enough protein from their diet. Yet I love the story I read about pensioners in the UK getting the majority of their protein from bread.
Yes, protein is found in the most unexpected of places!
Protein provides the building blocks for growth, boosts energy and repairs injuries so is undeniably critical and essential for optimal health.
I know though, that although I hear parents stress all the time because a child is not eating meat, or is only able to manage chicken nuggets, for example, that getting enough protein is rarely a problem.
In fact, most children have two to three times the quantity they need in their diets. Even extremely selective eaters are usually able to find enough protein sources across their choices to fuel the body.
Read on to find out where protein may be found and how to get creative if you would like your child to eat more.
Protein for picky eaters
Only ten to twenty percent of our child’s calories need to come from protein so I am pretty sure you will look through this list and feel reassured (even if they are not eating meat). If you feel your child not ticking enough of these boxes, it is advisable to seek external confirmation.
1. Meat/fish/chicken – this is what most people think of when discussing protein.
Meat can be quite a challenge for young children as it’s often a lot of chewing for little reward!
But it can also be easy too as a lot of fussy favourites tick these boxes:
– Cheeseburgers – meat, buns and cheese are all protein sources
– Chicken nuggets – yes, I know there is a big sigh from many parents “my child only eats nuggets not ‘real chicken’”. Luckily the body doesn’t know so is just as happy building away from nugget protein!
– Fish sticks – again, the body is quite happy with any type of fish.
– Spaghetti bolognaise – perfect for the whole family and both the meat and the pasta are protein-rich.
2. Milk – if we have a milk drinker, they are probably getting all or most of what they require just from their drinks.
If you have a child that does not drink milk, or if it is not part of your daily diet, please don’t feel milk is necessary as for a child over twelve months old’s it isn’t!
Remember that any milky drinks count, so Milo or hot chocolate work as well as plain milk.
3. Yoghurt – this is often accepted by selective eaters and is a great way to introduce both protein and beneficial gut bacteria.
If yoghurt is a challenge can it be mixed into a smoothie or made into a frozen yoghurt (very ice cream-like!)?
A parfait can be a new option. Layers of yoghurt with berries or choc chips in a fancy glass. What would rock for your child?
4. Cheese – again a favourite for many picky eaters and a great protein source. Cheese on toast is perfect as it is two sources of protein.
Again, reframing from “my child only eats a cheese pizza” to “cheese pizza is two protein boosts for my child” can be useful.
5. Peanut butter – I love that this staple for many picky eaters is chock-full of good fats and protein. A peanut butter sandwich is not a fail, it is a protein boost.
6. Eggs – although these can be a preferred choice for picky eaters, they are also often a struggle.
This is where we are super lucky as eggs disappear into so many easier choices:
Usually we can find an option that rocks for our child.
7. Pasta – I know, it seems really weird to think of a food that is classified as a carbohydrate as being full of protein, and yet it is!
We are often led to believe that there is a divide. Meat has protein and pasta has carbs, but it doesn’t work like that.
Pasta can be an easy option for our child and there are lots of variations to keep them engaged and prevent boredom.
8. Bread – yes, it is true! Bread gifts our child’s body with those building blocks necessary for growth and energy.
Combine with another protein source to make doubly sure – cheese, peanut butter and ham are fussy favourites.
Sandwiches a no? The body doesn’t care if the bread and the filling are eaten separately.
9. Oats – have a porridge eater, all is good! If not, oat flour can be used to make anything from pancakes to muffins.
A traditional Anzac biscuit or a lot of muesli bars are also oat-based.
10. Cereal – check the nutritional information, but many cereals are protein-rich. Some are even protein fortified.
11. Nuts and seeds – nuts are often accepted by fussy eaters as they are dry and crunchy. If not then aside from the obvious nut butters, we can add nuts to our child’s diet in many other ways:
Ground nuts and seeds are a great method for boosting trace nutrients in our diets and can be substituted for regular flour in many recipes. I usually add a portion of ground pumpkin, flax and sunflower seeds to baking.
Nut butters can also be an addition to smoothies or eaten as a dip.
Bliss balls or muesli bars are another place where nuts and seeds can appear, with less of a challenge.
Chia seeds can be ground and added to many dishes. For example, combine with pureed fruit and sweetener and you have a jam.
12. Peas and corn – vegetables are not usually top of the list of foods that provide protein, but they do!
Steamed peas are not often favourite foods for picky eaters, but frozen ones can be!
It is not unusual for corn to be an accepted food. If you haven’t tried it, or not for a while, it may be worth a whirl.
13. Chickpeas – hummus, made from chickpeas and tahini (sesame paste) is a protein source and also one of our “five a day”.
Many fussy eaters are OK with dips and hummus is one that is widely accepted.
Roasted chickpeas are lovely and crunchy and a nutrient-dense snack option.
Chickpea cookies rock!
14. Beans and lentils – a great source of protein, but admittedly not often a winner for picky eaters.
But there are ways that we can add these in with less of a challenge.
Baked beans can be an entry to eating these types of food. Sweet and moorish.
With beans and lentils, it is sometimes possible to add small amounts to other dishes, especially as a mince replacement. Not hiding, substituting.
Black bean brownies?
15. Gelatin – not the kind we buy for baking but good quality gelatin has a full amino acid quotient so is a big protein boost. I use to thicken stews or in meatballs, for example.
You can also purchase gelatin that doesn’t thicken that is great to put into smoothies etc.
We can also find protein “hiding” in a host of other foods, from potatoes to rice to broccoli. Even if our child is not eating many of the protein-dense foods listed above, across their diet they are still likely to be meeting requirements.
One of my top tips would be to make sure we are offering as wide a variety as is manageable for our child each day. This gives them the best chance of having a good nutrient spread.
If you’d like more support on how to add new foods to your child’s diet, please contact me for a complimentary initial chat: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2020-09
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards qualifying as a psychologist. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/