The Power of Protein

Kids need a nutritious diet for healthy growth and development – and protein plays a major role in that. But how do know your child is getting the right amount? Nutritionist Jill Castle explains and offers some tips.

Making sure kids are eating nutritious meals is just as important as ensuring they are staying mentally and physically active. In fact, getting enough protein in their diet – one of the building blocks of growth – is critical as their bodies are developing.

Jill Castle, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Jill Castle Nutrition, is a childhood nutrition and feeding expert with 27 years of experience. She insists that the easiest way to make sure your kids are getting enough protein is to make it the starting point of your meal plans.

“Protein is key in growth and development, and that includes more than height, which can be stunted by a lack of protein,” Castle notes. “But it’s also important for their brain, muscles and organs.”

If your child is an athlete, that protein is also used in muscle repair and recovery.

Protein helps in appetite regulation, too.

“We are finding that when protein is included in a meal or snack, kids and even adults can feel fuller longer, and that helps regulate their appetites,” Castle adds.

Studies have shown that when teenagers consume protein at breakfast, with a protein load of 25 to 30 grams, it helps them to avoid overeating. This ultimately helps teens maintain a healthy body weight, Castle says. To maximize protein, breakfast can be as simple as 2 slices of whole-grain bread with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, served with a cup and a half (12 ounces) of milk.

Children who don’t get enough protein in their diets are more susceptible to illnesses, as protein plays an important role in keeping the immune system strong. The long-term effect of protein deficiency can be seen in growth stunts, even if your child is eating enough calories every day, Castle says.

The key to ensuring your kids get enough protein, according to Castle, is simple meal planning. She doesn’t tell her clients to count grams of protein. Instead, she encourages them to include a protein source at each meal.

“Even when I’m doing my own meal planning, the first thing I think to myself is, ‘What is my protein source?'” That protein source can be from an animal product like beef or chicken, a dairy product like milk or yogurt, or it can come from a plant source such as beans or quinoa.

It’s important to space protein sources out across your meals, Castle explains.

“The body functions better when amino acids (the basic components of protein) are available in the bloodstream and to the organs. So I encourage families to have a protein at breakfast, lunch and dinner. For active kids who are exercising or training intensively, a protein after exercise helps repair the muscles, too.” Refueling with chocolate milk provides electrolytes and fluids, in addition to its high-quality protein.

Having a picky eater isn’t an excuse to skip the protein, either.

“It’s not nutritious unless it’s eaten, so it’s important for parents to find protein sources that their child likes to eat,” Castle says.

The good news is that there is a lot of variety in potential protein sources. Castle has found that dairy products are one of the easiest things for a family to include at the table or at meal times to help them get that valuable source of protein into every meal.

“Just because your child will only eat this one food, it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook on introducing other types of food. If your child likes yogurt, have them try different flavors or in different forms, like frozen or in a smoothie,” she suggests. “Always try to move your child forward without pressuring or forcing them.”

Too much protein can have adverse effects, though.

“Your body needs what it needs, and anything more than that gets stored,” Castle notes. “In the case of proteins, it may get stored as fat, which can show up as weight gain.”

Additionally, for young children in particular, too much protein can be dehydrating, potentially causing problems in kidney and liver function.

If you think your child may need more protein in his or her diet, Castle encourages parents to seek a doctor or dietitian before adding any supplements. “Most kids eating a variety of food are getting enough protein without really trying.”

A good rule of thumb for protein is 0.5 to 0.75 grams per pound of body weight, according to Castle, depending on gender, age and activity level.

“A child between 4 and 9 years needs a minimum of 19 to 20 grams of protein. For children between 9 and 13 years old, they should get at least 34 grams of protein each day. And once you get to the teen years, gender comes into play with boys needing to meet 52 grams and girls 46 grams.”

Again, Castle doesn’t want parents to focus on counting grams of protein, insisting that having a protein source at each meal and a varied diet are the keys to success. “It’s really about how you balance the protein and making sure the overall diet is nutritious and has a lot of variety,” she says. “You can’t just rely on the same protein source at every meal. The variety keeps it interesting for kids, plus there will be other nutrients that are included with that protein.”

So whether you have picky kids, vegetarian kids or even carnivorous kids, “it doesn’t matter,” says Castle. “Just make sure you’re planning a good, quality protein source as part of your meal and some of your snacks.”

Protein Guidelines

A basic guide to the minimum amount of protein required for your child, from year to year

  • 4-9 years: 19-20 grams
  • 9-13 years: 34 grams
  • Teen boys: 53 grams
  • Teen girls: 46 grams

Brought to you by Michigan Dairy Farm Families. For more information, visit


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