Recently my nine-year-old has mentioned a desire to eat less meat. We are not a vegetarian family, but Sofie has several vegetarian friends and a soft spot for animals. As much as she loves the taste of most meats, I think she’s grappling with the realization that animals are being killed for her food.
I’m all for supporting this change. A semi-vegetarian lifestyle is healthier and eco-friendly (learn why). My role now is to determine good sources of protein to replace the meat in Sofie’s meals.
As the main building blocks of the body, proteins are necessary for building and maintaining our muscles, tissues and organs; fueling our brains; and aiding in specialized functions. A “complete” protein includes all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce on their own. Vegetarians often get all those amino acids through eating a varied diet.
After some research, and knowing my daughter’s tastes, I’ve decided to focus on these seven protein sources for Sofie. Some were surprising, especially since I didn’t have much idea of proteins beyond beans and eggs. I’ve also included links to some kid-friendly recipes for each protein.
This nutrient-rich food is a complete protein (8 grams of protein per cooked cup) high in fiber, iron, magnesium and calcium. Although often grouped with grains, quinoa is actually part of the food family that includes spinach, beets and Swiss chard. Kids might enjoy its many colors (white, red, orange, purple, black) and its somewhat nutty flavor when cooked. Quinoa can be eaten in a variety of ways from soups and stir-fries to breakfast porridge and meatballs.
- Cheesy Spinach Quinoa Bites
- Berry Breakfast Quinoa Cobbler
- Pizza with Quinoa Crust
- Veggie and Quinoa Tacos
- Raspberry Quinoa Smoothie
- 10 Quinoa Recipes for Toddlers
A member of the legume family, lentils are packed with B vitamins, fiber, folate and 18 grams of protein per cup. They fill you up in a most nutritional way and have a nutty, earthy flavor. Again, lentils can be fun to choose by color: green, brown, red, yellow and orange, although green and brown lentils retain their shape better when cooked.
Peanut butter has been a kid favorite for decades (learn the history of peanut butter), and the peanut is a legume containing vitamin E, folate, copper and biotin. Peanut butter offers about 8 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. How do other nut butters compare? Almond butter has 7 grams per 2 tablespoons and includes a good amount (80 mg) of calcium. Sunflower seed and soynut butter both contain about 9 grams of protein; soynut has 60 mg of calcium, while sunflower is rich in magnesium, zinc and iron. Any nut butter can be enjoyed as a spread or a dip for fruits and veggies.
Pumpkin seeds—sometimes known as pepitas—are a complete protein that also provide good levels of manganese, copper and zinc (eaten unshelled). They can be eaten raw, baked or boiled and offer a sweet, crunchy flavor along with 12 grams of protein per cup.
- Garlic Baked Pumpkin Seeds
- Cinnamon and Sugar Roasted Pumpkin Seeds
- Cheesy Pumpkin Seeds
- Pumpkin Seed Pesto
Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)
With 13 grams of protein per cup, chickpeas are also an excellent source of manganese, folate, fiber and folate. They have a buttery and starchy texture and a slightly nutty flavor. You can find chickpeas dried or canned, which is quicker for cooking (dried ones require pre-soaking). Be sure to rinse the canned beans first or seek out BPA free versions.
- Pumpkin Blueberry Pancakes (with chickpea flour)
- Soft Baked Honey Cinnamon Chickpeas
- Chickpea Patties
- Chickpea Nuggets
An excellent and delicious source of calcium, potassium and probiotics, Greek yogurt has the edge on regular yogurt because it typically contains half the sugar and double the protein. One cup of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt contains 25 grams of protein. Fruit varieties have more calories and less protein (about 10 grams per cup). Try sweetening plain yogurt with fresh fruit and honey for your kids.
One egg contains about 6 grams of protein (3 grams in the white and 3 in the yolk), yet each part contains all essential amino acids, making them complete proteins on their own. This is good news for a girl who only likes the whites (unless scrambled). Eggs are also an excellent source of B vitamins, selenium and iodine.
More Plant-based Proteins:
- Edamame (soybeans) – 17 grams per cup
- Green Peas – 8 grams per cup
- Buckwheat (including soba noodles and buckwheat flour pancakes) – 6 grams per cooked cup
- Chia Seeds – 4.7 grams per ounce
- Ezekiel Bread – 4 grams per slice
- Broccoli – 2.6 grams per cup
What recipes do you have for vegetarian proteins?