Of all the questions readers ask us, the one we hear most frequently is about protein. Specifically, what are some healthy, non-meat protein ideas for kids?
For me (Ali), this topic is close to home. My daughter Penelope has a really hard time when it comes to animal protein. No matter how hard I try, she just isn’t interested in eating any kind of chicken, pork, or beef. If it were up to her she would load up on carbs all day long! But luckily we found some ways to tie in healthy, hearty forms of protein that don’t involve animal meat. We’ll share them with you below.
Here are a few non-meat protein ideas for kids:
Non-Meat Protein Ideas for Kids
Eggs. If your child enjoys eggs, serve them in the mornings poached or scrambled. If your mornings are a mad-dash (as ours are most days), prep ahead of time. Make a large batch of hard-boiled eggs and pack them in your child’s lunch. Amy is great about this and always packs hard-boiled eggs for her boys (see our Instagram feed for lunchbox photos and ideas).
Lentil pasta. I don’t know how my Italian grandmother would feel about this, but 95% of the time when I cook pasta I go for lentil pasta. The consistency is great and it cooks like traditional pasta, but it’s loaded with protein and nutrients. My go-to dinner, when I have no time? Boil a pot of water, toss a handful of chopped veggies in it (like carrots or broccoli). After 5 or 6 minutes, add lentil pasta and cook it all together. Strain it, drizzle olive oil, add a little salt and pepper and serve. Done. If you aren’t a fan of lentil pasta you can try quinoa pasta, also high in protein.
Tempeh. I started cooking tempeh years before we had our kids. The first time my husband saw me marinating it while making Greek-style pitas for us, he couldn’t help but side-eye me and wonder what the heck I was doing. But after the first bite, he was sold. Tempeh is high protein, vegan, and delicious. It has a much better consistency than tofu so you can slice it up, marinate it, and enjoy it as you would meats.
I adapted that Greek-style dish from our newlywed days to create our “Tempeh Fingers with Easy Tzatziki” recipe. You can find it on page 94 of our What a Good Eater cookbook.
Protein powder (the right kind). Not all protein powders are created equal – in fact, we aren’t crazy about most of them. That’s because the majority of them are loaded with unnecessary sweeteners and synthetic fillers, which is a waste of time and money. There are however some great, clean brands out there. We add a hefty scoop of this clean protein powder to our smoothies or green juices, which we make about every other day.
You can read this post on smoothie ideas. The current favorite in our house is: 1 cup frozen spinach, 1 chopped apple, 3 cups water, handful of pumpkin seeds, scoop of protein powder, drizzle of honey, and a shake of cinnamon. (Ali’s note: I add a few other ingredients specifically for my son because he has some digestive issues. You can read about that here.)
Hummus. Kids love to dip, so adding hummus to the lunchbox along with some chopped veggies is a great option. It’s a healthy fat rich in vitamins and minerals, among other things. I spread hummus on our two-year-old’s sandwich regularly. It’s a good source of protein, although not a complete source because it doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids. Because of this, you want to make sure your child still eats a variety of other foods throughout the day. Think whole grains, vegetables, and if your child tolerates it, dairy foods like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese.
Nuts (specifically almonds and walnuts). Okay, we know we can’t put them in our kids’ lunchboxes (in most schools, at least). But we can definitely snack on them at home. The first thing Penelope does when she gets home from school is run to the cabinet, take out the bulk size bag of almonds I get from Costco, and pour some onto a napkin for her afternoon snack. We both munch on them together while she tells me about her day. Both walnuts and almonds are high in protein and low in saturated fat. (Another option is to toss a handful into a smoothie, which we do regularly.)
Beans. We love beans! Another high protein, vegan option. Try our “Jack and the Bean Salad” (pg. 139) from our What a Good Eater! cookbook, which is a cold, no-cook option. This one works great in the lunch box for a healthy leftover for school.
Fish*. I put an asterisk here, because while it’s still animal protein, some kids specifically take issue with “land meat” only. This is the case for Penelope. She won’t touch chicken, pork, or beef, but she will go to town on some salmon. I buy canned salmon and keep it on hand in our pantry, and serve it up to her as I would canned tuna. It’s just as easy to do ( in fact, it’s softer and mixes much quicker!), and the right kinds are much higher in nutritional value than tuna. Not to mention all the omegas! The salmon also contains less mercury than tuna. At least once a week I put some in Penelope’s lunchbox with some crackers, so she can make “cracker sandwiches” at school.
If you are looking for a flavorful, family-friendly fish dish (say that five times fast), try our “Coconut Curry Goan Fish” (page 90) from our cookbook. It’s one-pot and a family favorite.
We hope this list is helpful and gives you some new ideas to try. Just remember, we don’t need to stress about overfilling our children’s plates with protein. It is important but we can relax knowing that we don’t have to always be feeding our kids a high-protein diet. Children tend to take precisely what they need (with our help, of course) and go through eating spurts and phases. As long as we make minor tweaks and replacements where possible, we can rest easy. Buon appetito!
Did you find these tips helpful? For more tips, sample meal schedules by age, healthy snack ideas, and family friendly recipes, check out our cookbook What a Good Eater! for baby & toddler recipes with healthy herbs and spices to add flavor and broaden your baby’s palette, now available on Amazon! If you enjoyed this post, sign up to receive our newsletter for other great ideas on feeding your baby, toddler, and family.
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