Caring for a growing child isn’t an easy task. Ensuring children eat a balanced diet can be challenging at the best of times. If you have a fussy eater encouraging them to eat the right food can feel like a constant battle of wills. However, making sure your child gets enough nutrition, especially protein,  should be a priority. But why is protein so important, and what role does it play in our children’s health? 

What is protein?

Protein is known as a ‘macronutrient.’ These are basically the nutrients we need to eat the most,  for maximum health. Proteins are molecules made of amino acids and are building blocks for life. Every protein plays a specific role and is crucial for fuelling energy and carrying oxygen around our bodies; a whopping 42 million protein molecules are in a single cell. For a cell to function at an optimal level, enough protein must be present to enable its metabolic interactions.  Protein is vital for growth and cell regeneration, so it isn’t surprising that children must get enough to support their growth. It is also vital for building and repairing body tissue. 

Although protein isn’t the body’s preferred energy source, it is the healthiest and helps you feel fuller for longer. Providing a protein-based meal every day will help children avoid snacking in between meals. 

During this time of homeschooling try to find opportunities to talk to your child about good nutrition and encourage them to help cook for the family. This will be a good learning experience and will help them become more mindful of what they eat. 

Protein sources

There are a lot of sources that give your kid protein. Some of these include Meat products, Chicken, Eggs, Milk, Nuts, Yoghurt, and Cheese, among others. If you have a fussy child and struggle to get him/her to eat foods from the list above,  you could consider a kid’s protein powder to boost protein intake. Powders come in kid-friendly flavors and are easy to add to a daily routine. It’s wise to do some research to identify the healthiest options. Some powders contain sugar or sweeteners, which would be counterintuitive as a health supplement. 

If you are lucky enough to have a child who eats most things, prioritizing protein shouldn’t be too difficult. Aim for 2-3 servings of a protein source each day for optimum nutrition. 

Eggs are considered to be amongst the healthiest foods available. Not only are they high in protein, but they also have an abundance of other vitamins such as:

  • Vitamin a
  • Folate 
  • Vitamin B5
  • Selenium 
  • Vitamin D
  • Phosphorus 
  • Vitamin B12
  • Calcium 
  • Zinc 

That’s a lot of goodness in the humble egg. They are also really versatile and can be used in many child-friendly, tasty recipes. Eggs can be served, boiled, fried, poached, or scrambled. You can also create egg-based meals such as souffles, omelets, and frittatas. 

For those children adverse to vegetables, adding chopped peppers or a green vegetable to egg-based meals can be a sneaky way to get the kids to eat some veggies. Eggs can be introduced at the weaning stage due to their softness and an easy to swallow texture. The benefit of using meat as your main protein source is that it is a complete protein source meaning that it contains all of the amino acids that the body needs to complete its functions. This is because the amino acid pattern in animal cells is similar to that of human cells. So animal-based protein is crucially important for your child’s physical development.  It’s good to explore the range of proteins available to add variety to your child’s diet and expose them to different foods. 

Amino acids

Amino acids are what’s left when proteins are broken down in the digestive tract. When the body doesn’t make enough amino acids itself, you have to get them through the diet. These are referred to as ‘essential’. For children, the dietary requirement is higher,  as they are unable to make enough themselves. 

Amino acids are vital for controlling blood sugar. Eating protein triggers an increase in insulin levels helping glucose to be stored for energy. They also have an important function in how our immune system responds to illness. Getting enough protein enables white blood cells to increase and fight off infection. 

As children grow, important hormones play a vital role in the body, and amino acids are important for releasing these hormones. 

Some protein sources complement each other when eaten together. Plant proteins, such as bread and or beans, when eaten together can compensate for the limitations of the other, thus increasing the protein’s action. This is good to bear in mind if following a plant-based diet. 

If you and your child follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, how can you ensure your child gets enough protein? Research and planning are vital to ensure good nutrition from plant-based foods. Iron, which is a part of protein, is essential for growth; without it, the body struggles to carry enough oxygen to the heart and lungs or form enough hemoglobin. Incorporating iron-rich foods into your child’s diet will prevent symptoms such as tiredness, breathlessness, depression, and brain fog. 

Lentils, beans, and nuts are great and easy to add to meals such as cottage pie and spaghetti bolognese. If your child isn’t keen, there are a variety of fortified cereals for added iron content. It may be good to consider a supplement if your child is fussy. 

The  nine amino acids that children need are as follows: 

  • Leucine 
  • Isoleucine 
  • Valine 
  • Threonine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Tryptophan
  • Lysine 

These ‘essential’ amino acids all have different but crucial functions for a growing child. For example, isoleucine, leucine, and valine are all used for muscle repair and growth and provide the strength needed to complete physical tasks. 

To make sure our children stay fit and healthy, we must invest time researching the benefits of certain food groups, especially protein. We live in perilous times and looking after our health, and that of our children is more important than ever. As such, it’s vital to give children sufficient protein to help them grow properly.