Plant-based Protein for Picky Eaters
When my son was younger and going through his ‘pickiest’ stage, we were worried about how much protein he was getting. He couldn’t eat any meat, and didn’t have much dairy either. We know many other parents share this concern.
We’ve written this post to share some alternatives to animal proteins which you could try, and some ideas which may make them more acceptable for picky eaters.
- Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids.
- 11 of the amino acids can be made in the body, but 9 of them (known as “essential amino acids”) must come from food, and kids need them all to grow and thrive.
- If a food contains all 9 of the essential amino acids, we call it a “complete protein”.
- Complete proteins are mostly found in animal proteins – meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, but there are some plant-based complete proteins.
- Most plant-based proteins don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, but they can be combined to make complete proteins.
Some plant-based complete proteins you could try:
Soybeans – edamame, tofu, tempeh
Edamame was a win in our house, popping them out of their cases was a fun game and popping them into our mouths was an easy next step.
Tofu and Tempeh we haven’t had too much success with personally, but you may. The hard type of tofu can be cut into cubes or sticks for food play.
Grains – amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat
You might not be able to find all of these in a regular supermarket so you may need to try a health food store.
You can try mixing just a little in with regular rice at first, and gradually decreasing the amount of rice.
This is a type of blue-green algae which is a good source of complete protein, antioxidants, B vitamins, copper and iron. It’s available as a tablet or powder in specialist or health food stores or you can order online. We often use this as a protein powder to add into smoothies or in baking.
Seeds – hemp seeds, chia seeds
Both are high in protein and other nutrients and can be sprinkled onto cereal, porridge, added to smoothies etc. We like to leave jars of seeds on our dining table for the kids to sprinkle onto meals themselves.
Chia seeds can be soaked in liquid to make a pudding, but has a jelly-like consistency which some kids might find tricky at first.
You can also pair foods to make complete proteins:
This usually means some combination of 2 of these 3: Nuts/seeds; wholegrains; beans.
It works best if you can use wholegrain or brown versions of the rice, pasta or bread. If your child can’t eat that, you can start with whatever they can tolerate, and gradually try to mix in some of the wholegrain versions. Tip: we love the microwaveable packs of brown rice for when you need to save time on cooking!
Here are some examples:
Peanut butter sandwich
Using wholegrain bread to make a peanut butter sandwich makes a complete protein. Wholegrain rice crackers would work too. We try to use peanut butter which hasn’t had much else added to it. You could add some jam into the sandwich if your child needs it.
Baked Beans on wholegrain toast
This is an easy and quick meal to make 🙂
Wholegrain pita/wrap with hummus
Wholegrain bread or pita with hummus is another good combination. We use flat wholegrain wraps with hummus spread in the middle, and cut stars and other shapes out of the ‘sandwich’. You could also bake strips of the wrap in the oven first to make it crispy, then spread on the hummus afterwards. Making your own hummus can be a fun activity to do with the kids, you only need chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, lemon, salt, cumin and blitz it in the food processor!
Rice crackers and hummus
If your child can eat rice and beans as part of a meal, that’s a great source of complete protein. If they’re not too keen, wholegrain rice crackers with hummus spread could be a way to do this.
Roasted beans and nuts
A favourite snack at our house is to marinate a tin of beans (mixed beans or just chickpeas) in lime juice, garlic powder, olive oil and salt then roast in the oven until they are crispy. We then mix in some nuts and seeds, or sometimes roast the nuts in with the beans.
Rice with frozen peas
Brown rice and peas also combine for a complete protein, if your child’s not able to eat peas yet, you could try offering a bowl of frozen peas on the side of the meal. Somehow the frozen peas can seem more manageable to a picky eater!
Rice with peanut sauce
One of my son’s favourites now, he likes the satay peanut sauce, and mixed with brown rice or wholegrain noodles this is a complete protein. It’s pretty easy to make a basic peanut sauce at home with peanut butter, lemon juice, water, sugar and soy.
Pasta with peas
Using whole grain pasta, you can create a complete protein by adding peas. Again you could add them on the side or frozen if that helps for a picky eater.
Another point to consider is that you don’t always need to eat complete proteins at every meal. You can spread it over the day, so your child could have wholegrain cereal for breakfast, and a meal with beans for lunch!
We hope that helps to give you some ways to increase your child’s protein intake. We’d love to hear if you have any other protein ideas for kids!