Parents want their children to have healthy diets and know that protein is important for building muscle, bone, organs and the immune system. Proteins are complex compounds made up of amino acids. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids and are found in animal products such as meats, seafood, poultry, eggs, milk and other dairy products. Soy is also considered a complete protein. Incomplete proteins contain only some of the nine essential amino acids, and are found in beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and rice. Recommended daily allowance of protein is about a half gram per pound of body weight.

Most beans don’t contain all the essential amino acids, and that’s generally OK as the “missing” amino acids will be consumed through other foods such as rice, corn, wheat, barley, nuts and seeds. So you have red beans and rice, pinto beans and corn bread, beans and corn tortillas.

When babies are small, the protein is easily supplied in breast milk or formula. However, when children become toddlers and preschoolers, they become more willful and independent, and power struggles develop that often play out as picky eaters. Somehow chicken nuggets are almost universally liked. Once the nugget habit is started — it’s hard to stop. Of course a parent doesn’t need to start the nugget habit, but they frequently do in desperation to get their picky eaters to eat something.

Children don’t need as much protein as you might think. In information from healthychildren.org, children between 2-8 years need 2-4 ounces per day. If children are drinking the recommended amount of cow’s milk, they’re likely getting all or most of the protein they need. Every ounce of cow’s milk has one gram of protein: soy and plant-based milks don’t.

The recommended amount of cow’s milk for a 1- to 2-year-old is 24 ounces; 2- to 3-year-old is 16 ounces; and 4- to 8-year-old is 20 ounces. Drinking the recommended amount will certainly supply the needed protein, but drinking more than the recommended amount can lead to constipation and anemia.

There are other ideas for protein beside meat or cow’s milk. They include salmon, fish sticks, eggs, turkey lunch meat, yogurt, or mozzarella string cheese. From the beans and grains, there are soy products, nut butters, hummus, oatmeal, or whole wheat pasta. Some vegetables such as peas, broccoli and potatoes have protein.

When it comes to getting protein in a child’s diet, a parent doesn’t have to get into a battle or give in to the chicken nugget diet. It’s suggested that it’s not recommended to force your children to clean their plate. Children don’t need a balanced meal at every meal, but should over a day or two. It’s also recommended that there’s a one bite rule, as it takes a lot of tries before the child realizes it taste good. Last, but not least, cook more meals at home.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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