Mealtime can be a struggle for plenty of parents, especially if you have an extremely picky eater on your hands.

Whether they refuse to eat more than one specific item, or aren’t a fan of milk, no parent wants to see their child falling behind in height or weight metrics because of a nutritional imbalance.

So, are protein powders a good alternative for children in this scenario?

The short answer for whether protein powder is safe for kids is: It depends.

Protein deficiency is very uncommon if a child has access to a variety of foods and doesn’t have a medical condition that might keep them from taking in enough protein.

For most children, protein powder supplements are unnecessary because they’re getting more than enough protein through their meals.

As such, experts at the Cleveland Clinic say additional protein can do more harm than good. Too much protein can have unintended health consequences.

When supplements make sense

While you shouldn’t randomly give your child protein powder, there are very rare scenarios where it may make sense to provide a protein supplement.

Specifically, if your child has been diagnosed with a medical condition, they are underweight, they have a metabolic condition, or are eating a vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s possible that they may need a protein supplement.

There’s no benefit to giving your child protein powder unless it’s been prescribed or recommended by your pediatrician.

If it is recommended by a medical professional, it’s crucial you follow your doctor’s recommendations so you know what ingredients to look for, and the right amount in order to prevent adverse effects.

Still, most physicians and experts will recommend that you start by incorporating more protein-rich foods into your child’s diet before you reach for the protein powder.

There are a myriad of side effects that your child might experience if you’re giving them protein supplements when they don’t need them. Specifically, a child could experience weight gain from the excess calories and sugar the protein powder introduces.

Likewise, organ damage is another potential risk, since high protein levels can create kidney stones. Plus, there’s an unexpected side effect of dehydration since all of that excess protein can cause a child’s kidneys to work harder. High protein levels also put a strain on your child’s liver since processing it creates a nitrogen buildup.

You might be surprised to learn that many protein supplements like powders and shakes aren’t always regulated by the FDA. This means that ingredients don’t have to be clearly labeled. So, depending on the protein powder you pick, you may be giving your child stimulants or substances that can weaken their immune systems.

Another unintended side effect of giving your child protein supplements is that they may get used to “drinking their calories” and lose interest in eating foods.

Not to mention, the sweetness of protein powders may lessen your child’s interest in healthier foods. Giving protein powder to kids who are picky eaters can therefore backfire, big time.

So, how much protein should your child be getting? It depends on their age. According to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, here are the recommendations for daily protein intake:

Age Amount of recommended daily protein in grams
1–3 years13 g
4–8 years19 g
9–13 years34 g
Girls 14–18 years46 g
Boys 14–18 years52 g

Another way of thinking about it is that about 10 to 30 percent of your child’s calories should come from protein. Two servings of dairy and 1 to 2 servings of other lean protein fulfills this (remembering that serving sizes are smaller for children than adults).

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), if your child up to age 8 is drinking the recommended amount of cow’s milk every day, then they’re getting all or most of the recommended protein that they need. This is because each ounce of cow’s milk has a gram of protein.

Consider these age recommendations for cow’s milk:

AgeDaily maximum recommended milk intake
1–2 years24 oz.
2–3 years16 oz.
4–8 years20 oz.
9 years and above24 oz.

If your child doesn’t drink cow’s milk, soy milk often has similar protein levels. Plant-based milks are usually low in protein, however. Children who eat meat products, beans and legumes, grains like oatmeal, and dairy products like yogurt are also consuming protein.

Based on the above recommended AAP guidelines, most children will meet their protein needs, so a supplement isn’t necessary.

The biggest issue with protein powders is that this supplemental category is virtually unregulated. So, you’ll want to do your homework and talk with your pediatrician or dietitian before you decide to give a powder to your children.

Many people assume protein powders made for adults are fine for children, and they’re not. Adult protein powders are optimized for older people and may have excessive amounts of protein or calories, which can lead to the unintended side effects in children that we mentioned earlier.

So if you’re on the hunt for a powder, keep these tips in mind:

Check the protein levels

The last thing you want to do is accidentally feed your child more protein than their body could possibly process on a daily basis.

Even if you’re focused on “kid-friendly” protein powders, always check the total amount of protein that it’s promising to provide and ensure that it doesn’t exceed the daily recommended amount that your child should be getting.

Less is more

While it’s not a guarantee, the fewer ingredients that are listed on a protein powder, the more confidence you can have that it’s free of questionable additives. For example, if you’re shopping for whey protein, look for options that list whey protein concentrate as the only ingredient.

Avoid sugar or artificial sweeteners

No one wants to think they’re helping their child only to find out that they’re hurting them. Keep the risk of inducing other health conditions to a minimum by avoiding powders that feature sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Look for the GMP label

GMP stands for “good manufacturing practices.” Finding powders with this label means that they were manufactured in a facility that adheres to best practices for the supplement industry. This also means they will list all the ingredients so that you can make an informed decision.

Protein powders may be enticing as a fix for picky eaters, as they’re easy to whip into a fruit smoothie. However, for most children they’re unnecessary and potentially harmful.

If you’re concerned that your child’s nutritional needs aren’t being met, always talk to your pediatrician or dietician before you invest in a protein powder.

If you’re giving your child healthy food choices, and they’re drinking the recommended daily amount of milk or a dairy-free alternative, they are likely consuming plenty of protein.