By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She specializes in writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics.
Great toddler nutrition starts with excellent infant nutrition. Most parents recognize the importance of proper nutrition as part of their baby’s development process, but how should they account for macronutrients like protein? Here’s what you need to know about protein needs for infants and toddlers, and how to provide it well for growing kids.
All parents want to nourish their children well, which means understanding the basics of essential nutrients like protein. How much protein does your infant need, what role does protein play in toddler nutrition, and what are the protein sources for toddlers?
Why Protein Matters
We hear about protein all the time. In fact, we may be a little bit obsessed with this macronutrient. So what’s the big deal with protein, especially when it comes to babies and toddlers?
Protein is an essential macronutrient (along with fat and carbohydrates, which we’ll cover another time). It’s required for growth and development, is used to repair tissue, and helps to maintain the proper balance and pH of body fluids. Some proteins are enzymes, which are needed to lead critical metabolic reactions in the body like blood clotting, digestion, muscle contraction, and energy production.
With all of the attention placed on protein, it may seem as though we’re not getting enough of it. But in reality, most people eat more protein than they actually need. When you think about protein food, you might envision weightlifters guzzling shakes made with protein powder, the shelves of colorful protein bars at the grocery store, or a big plate of steak.
How does this translate to babies and toddlers? While protein is an essential nutrient, it’s important to understand just how much your baby or toddler needs and the best places to get it.
Infant Protein Needs
So how do you incorporate enough protein into your child's diet? During at least the first six months of life, infants should get their protein needs met from breast milk or infant formula. Between 4-6 months of age, infants can start being introduced to age-appropriate solid (pureed) foods, which are mostly for fun in the beginning, but can also be good sources of protein.
An example of this is a pureed blend made with sweet potato and quinoa, peanut butter and banana, mashed scrambled egg with milk, or white beans with spinach.
How much protein do infants need? Most recommendations fall around 1-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight for babies or around 11 grams of protein per day for children 7-12 months old. For example, an average 20 pounds, or 9.1 kg child would need approximately 9-14 grams of protein per day. Protein needs will increase slightly as your child grows and gets bigger.
Toddler Protein Needs
By toddlerhood, most children can meet their protein needs through solid foods rather than formula or breast milk. Some great sources of protein for toddlers include organic soy milk or foods, beans, lentils, whole cow’s milk, as well as different kinds of nut butter and seed butter.
However, some parents may find it helpful to supplement their toddler with a high-quality plant based foods or formula, especially if the child is a picky eater, like Else formula, which is an easy and convenient way to add nutrition and protein. In a 240 ml serving made with Else formula powder, you will find 4.5 grams of protein.
How much protein do toddlers need? Children ages 1-3 years old have a recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of around 13 grams of protein per day.
To give you an idea of how much protein may be in plant-based foods for babies and toddlers, here are some examples:
- ¼ cup white beans: 3 grams
- 1 Tbsp peanut butter: 3.5 grams
- 1 slice whole wheat toast: 5 grams
- 1 Tbsp hummus: 1 gram
- 1 oz tofu: 3 grams
- ¼ cup cooked quinoa: 6 grams
- ¼ cup cooked lentils: 8 grams
To meet your child’s protein needs, offer a variety of these foods throughout the day in addition to formula or milk.
Protein is an important nutrient whether you have an infant or toddler, and fortunately, it doesn’t have to be difficult for your child to meet his or her protein requirements.
If you are interested in starting a vegetarian diet for your child, there are many plant based foods that provide healthy protein once your child starts to wean from breast milk. Else Nutrition offers a high-quality line of vegan formula appropriate for infants (coming at a future time) and toddlers alike.
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.