Protein Foods for Your Vegetarian Child

By Nour Zibdeh, MS, RD, CLT
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Kids don't need to eat meat to get the necessary protein to keep their bodies healthy and growing. Vegetarian children develop normally and are able to meet nutritional needs when their diets are planned appropriately. Nearly all foods — including vegetables — contain a small amount of protein. Build meals around these five non-meat foods that contain protein and are rich in nutrients.

Tofu and Tempeh

Tofu and tempeh pack protein, antioxidants and calcium. Use the texture of tofu as a guide to help you incorporate it into dishes. Add smooth silken tofu to smoothies, soups and puddings. Soft tofu resembles ricotta cheese or scrambled eggs and is best mixed in rice, pastas or in sandwiches. Bake nuggets from extra-firm tofu or cube them and sauté with stir-fry vegetables. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans, and its texture resembles extra-firm tofu and can be used in a similar way.

"Tofu and tempeh contain high quality protein and other quality nutrients, which children can enjoy in combination with a variety of other foods," says Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Beans and Lentils

Beans and lentils offer protein, fiber, folate, potassium and magnesium, and preparation is simple. Lentils cook in 20 to 30 minutes, while soaking dried beans for 4 hours, or overnight, is recommended. Discard the soaking water and simmer beans in fresh water for 60 to 90 minutes. Refrigerate cooked beans and use within 4 days or freeze for 3 months. Canned beans are convenient, and if 'no salt added' cans are unavailable, drain and rinse beans thoroughly to remove almost half the sodium.

Beans and lentils come in many types and colors, making it fun to experiment. Create a chart with your child and cook a new variety each week, and have them draw a smiley face next to their favorites. Add beans to soups, salsa, rice or salads. Make bean enchiladas or quesadillas. Add to grilled cheese sandwiches, scoop with endive leaves or corn chips, or puree into dips.

Nuts and Nut Butters

Parents often ask what nuts are healthiest, but, in reality, they all are — providing protein, healthy fats, selenium and vitamin E. Try raw unsalted nuts and natural nut butters without salt, sugar or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Combining nuts with foods your child already eats is also a good option to get the benefits of nuts. Offer with fruit for a balanced snack, or pack a handful with your child's favorite crackers or dried fruit to go. Pistachios are fun to shell, while walnuts, cashews and pine nuts are soft and almonds are naturally sweet. For breakfast items, add chopped nuts to muffins, bread and pancake batters, or sprinkle on oatmeal or low-sugar breakfast cereal. Mix in salads, rice and quinoa. Nut butters also taste good when added to oatmeal and smoothies.


Contrary to popular belief, eating an egg a day does not raise blood cholesterol. Eggs offer low-cost high-quality protein, B vitamins, minerals and choline, a nutrient critical for many body functions.

Hard-boiled eggs are versatile and convenient for busy families. Hard-boil a batch and refrigerate in shells for up to a week — serving for breakfast, lunch with steamed broccoli and baked potato wedges, or as a snack with cucumbers, carrots and cherry tomatoes. Add scrambled eggs to rice dishes or make a frittata with your child's favorite veggies.

Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt packs more protein than regular yogurt. Try choosing plain Greek yogurt over flavored varieties with added sugars. Instead, consider those dessert or 'sometimes' foods.

Start with plain Greek yogurt and mix in your child’s favorite fresh or frozen fruits. Chopped berries, peaches, kiwi, grapes or pineapples are colorful and kid-friendly. Add Greek yogurt to smoothies and soups. Make a sweet Greek yogurt dip by stirring in ground cinnamon and a little pure maple syrup, and dip apple or pear slices. Or mix up a savory dip by adding crushed mint and garlic powder, and dip carrot and celery sticks.

It's normal for children to go through phases of picky eating. Talking about food and involving them in preparation (washing, sprinkling spices, etc.) encourages kids to try new foods. Incorporate a variety of foods and plan meals ahead of time to ensure balance. If you’re concerned that your non-meat eating child isn’t getting adequate nutrients, a registered dietitian nutritionist can customize an eating plan that takes into consideration their activities or medical issues.

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