Getting Your Picky Eater to Eat Protein

November 2015 By: Stephanie Walsh, MD Medical Director, Child Wellness, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
boy eating greek yogurt
All Ages

Recently, one of our readers posted, “My problem is protein. Before [my son] turned 3, he would eat rotisserie chicken, steak, pork, even salmon … we are officially down to breaded chicken nuggets as the ONLY protein (he won’t touch a sandwich!) he will eat, other than yogurt. I try to keep the sides as healthy as I can, but do you have any other suggestions?”

Great question … and yes, I do!

Protein packs a powerful punch, boosting energy, building muscle, helping kids’ bodies grow, even repairing injuries.

First, you need to know how much protein your child needs. Only 10-20% of calories need to come from protein, so it’s not hard to get enough. Requirements depend on your child’s age and weight. Here are the CDC guidelines:

Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein (Grams of protein needed each day):

  • Children ages 1-3: 13 grams
  • Children ages 4-8: 19 grams
  • Children ages 9-13: 34 grams
  • Girls ages 14-18: 46 grams
  • Boys ages 14-18: 52 grams

Read food labels and look for 6 to 10 grams of protein or more.

Protein Sources
Next, you need to know where to find high protein foods.

  • 1 cup of milk has 8 grams of protein
  • A 3-ounce piece of meat has about 21 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein
  • An 8-ounce container of Greek yogurt has 15 to 20 grams of protein (regular yogurt has 9 to 11 grams)

Other Good Sources of Protein:

  • Soy Milk
  • Eggs
  • Cheese
  • Peanut butter
  • Lean meats, fish and poultry
  • Beans, tofu, lentils and other legumes
  • Grains, including bread and pasta
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Protein fortified foods, like cereals

High Protein Foods Kids Like
Now comes the tricky part: getting your child to eat the protein! When the more obvious tactics (like, “eat your chicken sandwich; it’s good for you") don’t work, here are some alternatives to try:

  • Eggs are great protein sources. We make a “Protein-wich” out of scrambled eggs between two mini whole grain waffles. Or turn boiled eggs into egg salad (use low-fat yogurt for an even bigger protein punch); serve on whole wheat bread. Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes for little fingers.
  • Having waffles for breakfast? Skip the syrup and smear a light layer of peanut or almond butter on top. (I add in flax seed to my kids' pancakes and waffles to give them more protein).
  • For breakfast or an afternoon snack, my friend makes a super-simple parfait (her kids love the fancy ice cream sundae glasses she bought at the grocery store, but any transparent glass will do). Spoon in a layer of low-fat Greek yogurt, then a layer of fresh fruit and repeat. Sprinkle on some fortified cereal for a protein snack that looks and tastes like dessert.
  • Grilled cheese is an all-time favorite. Amp up the protein by adding ham and using whole grain bread. Serve with apple wedges and peanut butter for dipping.
  • Spoon leftover chicken or pork tenderloin chunks onto mini whole grain basket-shaped tortilla chips. Add a sprinkle of cheese, some black beans, microwave and finish with a touch of mild salsa.
  • How about some edamame? I buy them in the shell (cook in boiling water for two minutes) and my boys get busy popping the pods and eating the beans inside. And cooking the frozen ones in the microwave is even easier.

Hope this helps. And readers, please share—I’d love to hear about what helps kids eat healthy at your house!

boy eating greek yogurt

About The Author

Stephanie Walsh, MD
Medical Director, Child Wellness, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

With more than a dozen years of experience in promoting wellness, Medical Director of Child Wellness Stephanie Walsh, MD, is a leader in the field. A board-certified pediatrician and diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, Dr. Walsh played an instrumental role in establishing the Children’s Strong4Life movement. As a working mom with three boys, ages 16, 14 and 12, Dr. Walsh knows the real challenges of parenting, and it’s her personal mission to help Georgia families become healthier and happier. 

Bio

Stephanie Walsh, MD
Medical Director, Child Wellness, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta


With more than a dozen years of experience in promoting wellness, Medical Director of Child Wellness Stephanie Walsh, MD, is a leader in the field. A board-certified pediatrician and diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, Dr. Walsh played an instrumental role in establishing the Children’s Strong4Life movement. As a working mom with three boys, ages 16, 14 and 12, Dr. Walsh knows the real challenges of parenting, and it’s her personal mission to help Georgia families become healthier and happier. In fact, her toughest personal parenting struggle is getting her boys to eat their veggies, something she says is a daily battle.

Dr. Walsh received her Doctor of Medicine degree at the Medical College of Georgia in 2000 and completed a residency in pediatrics at Emory University in 2004.

Dr. Walsh lives in Atlanta with her husband and three sons. She enjoys running and spending time with her family.