When we think of feeding our children, we often make the mistake of thinking of them as a small adult. But as they go through different developmental stages, their needs for protein will change and evolve. A child will never need quite as much protein as an adult, but this is more due to their size than anything else. A 3-year-old needs 0.12% of their body weight in protein a day, whereas adults only need a baseline of 0.08% of our bodyweight a day. This is because our child is continually growing and needs protein to form muscles, skin, and even bone! However, depending on their precise age their needs will still vary, for many reasons.
First of all, your child's minimum protein requirements up until age 2 is... not important. How is this? Don't they need protein? Well, of course they do need lots of protein. But at this age they will be getting more than enough from milk and formula. Even later on, from ages 2 to 4, your child is so efficient at recycling protein in their diet that as long as they eat some variety and some protein sources, you don't need to worry about counting each gram. It is only later, as their needs increase and their ability to reuse old protein decreases, that you want to watch their protein intake more closely.
Ideally, your child will be eating 19 grams a day between ages 4 and 9, and 34 grams between ages 9 and 13. From then onwards, boys will need 52 grams of protein a day, and girls need 46 grams a day. Of course this will vary depending on how active they are and how much they weigh. More active kids and kids who are taller or more muscular need more protein to replenish what they lose in a day.
Protein is absolutely vital for growing children. First of all, protein is an essential building block for our bodies. When we get enough protein every part of our body is held together as it is supposed to be. But when we do not get enough protein then not only our muscles, but every part of our bodies breaks down. Our skin and organs are rich in protein, sure, but protein is even present in our bones and blood.
Protein is also vital for regulating appetite and energy. When children eat less protein than recommended they usually replace the calories with carbs. These children end up lethargic, bored, and constantly hungry. On the other hand, a kid that gets enough protein fills up quickly and is brimming with energy all day.
Finally, proteins, and the foods that contain them, are a key component for maintaining good brain health. Not only protein, but the zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, etc. we find alongside it, are essential to maintaining the neural pathways in our brain. This gives us a stable mood, helps us tell night and day apart and sleep well, and makes us more focused.
For most of us protein quantity is not a huge issue. So long as your child is eating main protein sources at least once a day, they are probably getting enough, as only 100g of animal meat contains 20g of protein. However, if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, or a reduced meat diet, you may need to watch what your child is eating.
Also, please remember that your child's protein needs are averages, not a daily prescription! If your child doesn't do much one day, don't be shocked if they eat barely any protein. Likewise, if they are going through a growth spurt their daily protein intake could even double. If your child looks healthy, then they are probably balancing their protein out over the week, even if one day is high and another is low. On the other hand, if your child is always snacking, lethargic, bored, ill-tempered, and unfocused, then they could not be getting enough protein for their current stage of development. Always pay attention to what their body is doing, more than to prescribed numbers.
Lisa Ann de Garcia, MA, MEd.