Kids need protein. This is not new information. But leave it to a 7-year-old to ask the fundamental question: “Why, Mom? Why do I need protein?”
I explained to him, in kid-friendly terms, that protein performs a few main functions in the human body. His responses made me laugh. You might try a version of the following conversation at home to give your own kids a quick nutrition lesson and to see what funny things they have to say!
Mom: Protein is a part of everything in a body that has structure, such as bones, hair, skin and nails.
Son: Yuck, I don’t want to be skinless.
Mom: Ten percent of the body’s energy comes from protein.
Son: I get it, Mom: I need it for soccer. Next.
Mom: Protein makes up the enzymes that enable essential chemical reactions in our body.
Mom: Okay, let’s try that again in kid-speak: For example, when we eat a burger, we need enzymes to help us break the burger into smaller parts that we can use in our bodies. These enzymes are made up of protein.
Son: That’s cool. I like burgers.
Mom: Protein builds the neurotransmitters that transfer information in our brain. For instance, certain neurotransmitters help us focus, and our mood can be affected by our lack of other neurotransmitters.
Son: I think I get it. Our brains would be half asleep if we didn’t get enough protein?
Mom: Kind of. We might also find ourselves less focused and more moody. Not great for school!
Not only does protein build new skin, hair, nails, enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters, but it also repairs the ones we damage.
Son: So all these cuts and bruises on my legs need protein to be fixed?
Mom: Pretty much.
Please keep in mind I am using the word “protein” liberally because this conversation is geared toward a child. In many cases, the amino acids in protein perform these functions. Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, nine of which we must get from our food because our bodies do not make them.
Beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, meat and dairy are sources of protein, and it is important to get protein from a variety of sources so we get all the amino acids. Here are some of our family’s favorite foods with protein:
— Beans and lentils are a mainstay in our household. We eat lentil soup all winter, beans and rice whenever we have nothing left in the fridge, and bean salads all summer long.
— We munch on hummus or white bean dip for lunch or an afternoon snack. (For kids who love pink, give these dips a pink tint with a pureed roasted beet.)
— As the weather heats up, our blender seems to be constantly humming with protein smoothies, which are terrific at breakfast time, snack time, even after dinner sometimes.
— We snack on raw almonds and smear almond butter on toast, apples and bananas.
— We grind nuts and seeds to use as a crust for fish.
— We make granola and granola bars with raw nuts and seeds.
— We sprinkle raw seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds on salads.
— My kids certainly love their sesame noodles.
— Hard-boiled eggs with a tiny bit of mineral salt make great snacks.
— We eat a lot of quinoa! It is delicious tossed with a little olive oil and salt. Or let your kids add dried fruit or vegetables to make their own creation.
— My baby loves pureed sardines tossed with pasta or quinoa, or mixed into a tomato sauce.
— We top our air-popped popcorn with Brewer’s yeast.
Don’t obsess over the number of grams of protein your children consume daily. Just remember to offer them a variety of protein-rich foods and teach them why protein is an important nutrient for their bodies. I have no doubt that my son’s vision of becoming skinless from a lack of protein stuck with him and that he now understands at least one of the reasons to eat those beans!
Seidenberg is the co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.
Try these recipes to add protein to your kids’ diets.