Why are Americans so concerned about protein?

One of my daughter’s lunches that received a lot of comments about not containing enough protein: Bell pepper and carrot slices, homemade ranch dip made with sour cream, a frozen smoothie pop made with yogurt, berries, banana and spinach, and brown rice cakes (in the bag)

You may have noticed that almost every time I post one of my child’s lunches on Facebook quite a few readers leave comments such as…”Where’s the protein?” or “I personally need a lot more protein to feel full” or even “My kid wouldn’t have enough energy to get through the day if I don’t give them more protein.” All of this feedback has gotten me wondering…why is our society so concerned about protein? When and how did the notion begin that we need protein, protein, and more protein!? So here’s what I’d really like to say about protein…

Why we don’t count protein (or grams of anything for that matter)

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again…part of eating a real food diet means not counting fat grams, calories, carbs, protein, etc. You simply eat a variety of whole foods (without overeating) and the rest falls into place. Other countries outside of the U.S. routinely follow this practice and don’t obsessively add up numbers like we do. According to Karen Le Billon in her book French Kids Eat Everything, in France “Enjoyment is the goal of eating. You can’t enjoy yourself if you are … counting calories [or] keeping score of micronutrient consumption.” She also says “Variety is a happy side effect of this approach (because new foods are interesting thus making the French happy).”

This is exactly how our ancestors used to approach food…for centuries before us. According to Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, it wasn’t until the 1980s or so that the shift began “From Foods to Nutrients.” And has this shift really gotten us anywhere?

The many sources of protein

While we don’t keep track, I still think it’s important to point out that there are many sources of protein beyond meat. Just because you don’t see a big hunk of meat on someone’s plate does not mean they aren’t getting any (or “enough”) protein. According to the CDC, protein is found in the following foods:

  • Meats, poultry, and fish
  • Legumes (dry beans and peas)
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds (including sunflower and pumpkin seeds)
  • Milk and milk products (like yogurt, cheese, and cream cheese)
  • Grains, some vegetables, and some fruits (provide only small amounts of protein relative to other sources)

You’re probably eating more than enough protein

Straight from the US government’s website… “It’s rare for someone who is healthy and eating a varied diet to not get enough protein.” So let’s go back to the example of my children’s lunches. Both of my daughters are between the ages of 4 and 8 years old, and according to the CDC website the recommended protein intake for their age group is 19 grams. Did you know that 1 cup of milk alone contains 8 grams of protein? Both of my daughters have milk in their cereal almost every morning (a little less than half a ½ cup), they both have oatmeal made with milk for their morning snack at school (another ½ cup), and they each usually have milk with dinner (usually close to 1 cup). So right there with their milk consumption alone they get almost the full recommended dietary allowance for protein…and that’s with them both drinking water with their breakfast and lunch.

Plus these estimates don’t even take into account the nuts and seeds that are in their homemade granola cereal, the yogurt, cheese, hard boiled egg, hummus, beans, and other protein sources that I often send in their lunches, nor does it take into account anything that we’re eating for dinner, which does oftentimes include at least a little meat or seafood and/or other sources of protein (like cheese, which we happen to love around here).

Now if you look at the recommended protein allowance for adults that number is quite a bit higher. For females 19 years of age and older the CDC recommends 46 grams of protein per day, but this still doesn’t have me concerned. We just did some quick estimates based on what I might eat in a typical day…

  • My Breakfast: Granola cereal (about 10 grams of protein) with milk (another 4 grams) and fruit that’s usually followed by a maple mocha that’s made with around ¾ cup milk (another 6 grams).
  • My Lunch: Bowl of refried beans (about 13 grams) with cheese and sour cream on top (another 2 grams or so) with fruit or veggies on the side.
  • My Dinner: This varies quite a bit, but just for fun let’s say it is a vegetarian dish of homemade whole-wheat pizza topped with sauce, cheese, and mushrooms (about 12 grams) and a spinach salad on the side mixed with goat cheese, glazed pecans and balsamic vinegar (another 5 grams or so)
  • After Dinner Treat: Handful of peanuts with a square of dark chocolate (about another 2 grams)
  • DAILY TOTAL: 54 grams of protein! That is well over the recommended allowance and that’s without “trying” to eat any particular foods that are high in protein.

Wow, that was a lot of work dissecting the food I eat. I can’t imagine doing this on a regular basis!

So…you’re off the hook

Hopefully now you feel convinced that you’re off the hook from having to worry about eating a certain amount of protein, the right number of calories, or even the optimal amount of carbs. If you simply eat a variety of whole foods (without overeating and incorporating lots of produce – this part is important!), all of these things will just naturally happen as an automatic and lovely side effect. It certainly sounds like a much more enjoyable way to eat food…and guess what, it is! :)

Note: It is important to mention that everyone’s needs are different, so defer to your health care professional’s advice, especially if you have specific ailments or special nutritional needs. 

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319 thoughts on “Why are Americans so concerned about protein?”

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  1. I find it is the healthy fats that I include in our diet (coconut milk, avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, egg yolks etc) that keep us full… Yes protein does to a certain extent, but those fats have a far higher satiety index than any protein

    That doesn’t mean that we eat a high fat diet – we just don’t worry about the fats that we consume (we don’t worry about the protein either!). That, combined with as many veggies as we can stuff in our mouths means that we never go hungry….

  2. yes! I have had this conversation too many times to count. Usually it is unsolicited ‘advice’ when someone I don’t know by will notices I am not eating meat at a gathering. If I am pushed I will give my ‘there is protein in nearly everything’ speech and when they realize I might n know what I am talking about then they change the subject or start asking about recipes. protein and b12 seem to be the latest buzzwords

  3. According to WHO guidelines, Americans eat 1.5-2 times the recommended protein. The excess is simply excreted in the urine. The problem is the saturated fats, hormones and chemicals if you arent going organic and much of this protein comes from meat sources. If you have any kidney issues, too much protein could be detrimental.

  4. Thank you for this article! About a year ago when my daughter was 2 I suddenly panicked about protein. My husband and I used to be vegetarian but aren’t any more…however, our eating and cooking habits make us mostly vegetarian. A friend who was over for lunch one day asked me if our daughter was vegetarian, and then said that she’d never seen her eat meat. I suddenly started thinking about it and thought – Oh my gosh, she’s right!! What about the protein she needs?? Right around then we had a pediatrician appointment so I asked about the protein. The doctor very nicely smothered a laugh and said that she thought my daughter was fine, given that she was in the 60% for weight and the 90% for height, that she sleeps very well, that she’s developing on pace, and that we eat a varied diet. She told me not to worry at all about protein as long as our diet stayed varied (with whole foods and lots of produce, as you noted!). Since then I haven’t worried about it, but I still get people commenting on what I feed my daughter. Now I can point them to your article! :)

    1. I’ve raised my son to 17 completely vegetarian. At 6’4″, athletic and outdoorsy he is in amazing health. I have been told that my son’s organic whole foods diet is child abuse..meanwhile they feed their kids kool aid and extruded chicken nuggets.

  5. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, for the link to Azure. We live in the middle of nowhere and I have the hardest time finding quality whole foods. I just looked at Azure and sure enough they have a drop location near me. I just about fainted! I hope it works out with them I could really use their services.

  6. Great points, I get this all the time due to my Vegan lifestyle. I never have an issue meeting my required protein with great foods like, avocado,kale,romaine lettuce,cucumber,broccoli and so so much more. I’ve always wondered why this evolved to be such a major thing since everything has protein :) I dont even worry about it!

  7. I recently had a gastric sleeve surgery. Over the last 9-12 months I’ve really been trying to cut out most processed foods that my family and I eat. After my surgery I was only allowed to drink liquids and protein drinks for a few weeks and have had to maintain a diet with 60-80 grams of protein/day as I lose the weight initially. I recently was talking with my dietitian about not wanting to use soy or whey protein powders in my smoothies and I think she almost took it personally. I explained that I am really trying to cut out processed foods but she just didn’t get it. My smoothies now contain kefir, a pasteurized egg, frozen berries, hemp powder, sometimes a spoonful of coconut oil, and 1/2 a banana. I love them! They aren’t as sweet as I was used to using the fake sugar loaded protein powders and took a little to get used to, but I love them now. I’m looking forward to not counting protein anymore in 6-12 months!!

  8. I think that the people who respond that way are simply trying to deflect their own poor food choices for their children. What is the obvious protein in their children’s lunches? Your child’s yogurt v. their child’s chicken nuggets, perhaps?

  9. I agree with you! Also knowing that gorilla is pure vegeterian makes me think that we relly don’t need as much meat :)

  10. This is a great post! I am an Organic Chef specializing in dietary needs. What we are running into in America is the stupid food pyramid that some person came up with because they believed that is what we need to survive and live a long and healthy life. Well…have we not seen all of the cancer, early heart problems, diabetes, obesity etc…that have been plaguing this country? The USDA and FDA are all codes and guidelines and we can choose to follow that or choose to exercise our own minds on the matter. Paleo, Clean eating, etc etc are people exercising their minds and exploring other options. Good for you 100 days of real food! You are causing people to think and every now and then you will get some flack but you will be educating and opening minds at the same time! :)

  11. OH I so love this post on protein. We eat very little meat and dairy at my house and I hear that accusation so much it makes me sick!! You’re not getting enough protein!!! UGH!!! Thank you SO much for shedding light on the subject for the many naysayers out there!!! Love your website!!!

  12. As a mom we do our best to feed our kids the healthiest balanced meal. This whole protein subject is big in my house. I am a mom of a 16 yr old and 5 yr old whose needs differ like most of us. My 16 yr old is a competitive swimmer, he trains hard. We have always eaten “clean” or so we thought. In the last year his swim picked up and the next thing we knew he was having issues from one event to the next recovering, he was loosing weight. I thought something was seriously wrong. Then I was told he is not eating enough, that is a big blow to a mom. We saw a nutritionalist, and found out he needs to consume around 4500 calories. We are not a calorie counting family, but now I need to start. Eating good calories not empty junk it is hard to consume 4500 in a day. We have added in whey protein, to fill in blanks but that is not real food. But what i did is start reading one thing I learned in this process to figure it out is Whole milk, almond butter, and some bananas you can make a 1000 calorie shake with not added whey:), if you eat whole wheat bread or pasta you get even more protein. So I just wanted to add that our young athletes have these protein shakes,protein bars all preservative full thrown at them. All they need is some whole milk , whole wheat and peanut butter. Don’t get me wrong he works hard in the pool and even harder on his food but can get all he needs without the supplements. It really is a big issue in our high school athletes the cramming down of needing more and more protein so just eat a bar or make a powdered shake… It’s just not the answer and very scary.

    1. Well, I feel like I should point out to you that while peanut butter and whole milk both have protein in them, they are far better sources of fat than they are of protein…if you look at the label, I mean. Usually twice as many grams of fat as protein in peanut butter, and fat is already 9 calories per gram versus protein’s 4 calories per gram. Whole milk is like 10g fat per 8 oz glass, and it’s all saturated (at least nuts have some unsaturated fats too and can be the majority depending on whether your brand is a responsible one or something like Reese’s).
      Noemi, I am a 27 year old male who masses about 63 kg and I understand your son’s struggle because I have to eat around 3300 calories a day just to maintain my weight–I’ve nearly given up on actually gaining weight because I never make it past 145 lbs or so no matter how well I squat & deadlift. At one point I was drinking half a gallon of milk a day, and I realized that the saturated fat in that really adds up so I switched from 2% to 1% (my reasoning being that vitamins A & D are fat-soluble, not water soluble, so I’m going to need some fat in my milk if I want to absorb the vitamins they put in there reasonably well but whole milk would just be ridiculous, something like 80g of saturated fat a day if I drank that).
      It’s actually quite true that most people get plenty of protein, and if you’re worried about having enough energy it’s carbs you want anyway–proteins get deaminated (NH3+ group is removed) and the resulting “carbon skeleton” just feeds into the citric acid cycle (the second half of carbohydrate metabolism territory) anyway–might as well get a couple of extra substrate-level ATP & NADH from doing glycolysis first.

      & if it doesn’t make sense why I’d complain about consuming tons of saturated fat…it downregulates SREBP so that LDL receptors take up less LDL cholesterol from your blood into your cells. Meaning, higher blood cholesterol levels, more statistical chance some of it gets glycosylated or oxidized, meaning more chance of atherosclerotic disease (e.g. strokes & heart attacks).

  13. After reading a few exercise science books for lay people like myself, I found that almost everyone eats plenty of protein – unless you are an elite athlete. I would think at that point you do need to get the amount of protein required for building muscle for competition. Though some elite athletes are doing extreme diets, now so maybe even that is not a cause for concern.

  14. Being vegetarian for 13years, the protein question drives me nuts. I’m an active, health weight 32 year old with 3 healthy children all on the slimmer side of healthy weights. That’s 3 vegetarian pregnancies. I’ve run two half marathons as a vegetarian. I must not be doing TOO poorly getting in protein if I’ve accomplished all that and managed to stay healthy for the last 13 years.

  15. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this article! This is what I preach to my clients but you did it in such an articulate way. I will be saving and sharing this article when my clients ask me about Protein. Thank you for making it so understanding.

  16. They are some great ideas but I agree they are lacking protein. Grass fed meats and broths are very important for nourishing the body. I have to have protein to give me energy plus our whole family can’t do much dairy or wheat and it causes us all to gain fat. I might suggest reading up on Weston Price and grass fed meats. Some people do much better on more vegetarian diets but not our family especially me with hypoglcemia.

  17. Look at all these low-calorie meals. No wonder kids can’t pay attention in school, they’re starving.

    1. No, they can’t pay attention in school because we load them up with artificial chemicals that cause hyperactivity, they don’t get enough sleep or exercise, and they stare at video game screens all day. They are most certainly NOT starving, have you seen the statistics on obesity in children lately???

  18. Thank you so much for this article. My family is vegetarian and I am so sick of being asked where we get the protein in our diets. I want to buy a shirt that says, “yes, I am vegetarian and yes I get enough protein”. I have 2 teen daughters who are competitive athletes and dancers and I get the protein question a lot from other parents. Why they care, I don’t know. We have never had an issue with performance or endurance and both girls have very fit bodies with defined muscles.

  19. Well that does look like a good lunch/snack for a young child!

    I have an almost 14 year old son though, and he told me last night that he needs meat! Seriously he is tall and thin, and there is no way that a lunch like that would give him enough nutrients, as fast as he is growing. :D

  20. I understand that there is a lot of misunderstanding about protein. Honest question (and I apologize if this has already been addressed in the hundreds of comments already posted), isn’t it good to use protein as a way to feel full and not overeat foods that don’t make you feel as full? For example, my husband loves to eat chips and salsa as a snack, but has trouble stopping because it doesn’t fill him up. So he ends up eating way too many. I’ve tried to explain to him that Greek yogurt with fruit, or cheese and whole wheat crackers will fill him up more because of the protein. Am I wrong in this?

    I also understand that many people eat too many snacks, but that isn’t really my question. I’m just wondering if when you DO eat a snack, is a small amount of something that satisfies (something with plenty of protein in my mind) better than something that is easy to eat too much of (like popcorn, plain crackers, tortilla chips, etc? Thanks:)

  21. It’s all about quality and not quantity. More is not better. Overfeeding our children is so easy because we think they need all this food to make them “big and strong” or relating food to good feelings/love. When in fact, it doesn’t take much to fill their tiny stomachs. One of these food items would be offered as a snack for my 4 year old. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends around 1200 calories (give or take a little depending on activity level) for this age group. Of that- 3 oz of lean meat/beans is the recommendation for this age group. So you may discredit and ignore the FDA, but check other credible sources and research material and it all says the same.

  22. I often use your posts as inspiration for my own lunches. I bring my lunch every day. I am a teacher, and a 40-minute lunch period is just not enough time to go out. I’d rather pack a lunch and get some work done. Thank you for all the great ideas!

  23. I think that this protein craziness is coming from many popular diets such as “atkins” that have drilled in us to eat so much protein to lose weight. I really agree with a balance variety diet to enjoy food! Great read :)

  24. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Amanda. Well, we can avoid the processed stuff by making our own or finding the very best alternatives like bread from a local bakery. We have go-to nutrient dense snacks like granola/granola bars (which you can do nut free), cheese, whole wheat pretzels, yogurt, bananas, avacados, whole grain toast, lots of various seeds (can your son do seeds?), and constant popcorn to name just a few. Having veggies cut up and on hand with some yummie hummus as well as a bowl of fruit helps the kids make better choices. Here are some posts that will give you some other ideas: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2011/08/22/an-elementary-school-snack-list-%E2%80%93-nut-free/ and there is a good mix of recipes in this one: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/2012/07/31/85-snacks-for-kids-and-adults/. Hope this helps. ~Amy

  25. Hi, I’m not as worried about protein since my kiddos love meat and milk. But how do you cut back on meat and avoid processed breads/snacks without losing the calories? Both my kiddos are borderline underweight and its not for a lack of food. My son will eat a double quarter pounder on the occassions I allow fast food. He thinks 4 bowls of cereal is a good sized breakfast and 4 waffles a great snack. Mind you he eats veggies at 2 meals a day,fruits at 1-2 meals a day and plenty as drive by snackings …he’ll grab just 1 strawberry at atime…cracks me up. He’s allergic to nuts. I also teach preschool and have some kiddos who daily eat 4 times what is in that lunch box, foods that are high fat/calorie…and they are average sized kids. So how would someone do this when their kids are scrauny bottomless pits?

  26. Here’s why you need protein. Its a macro necessity in your diet. Proteins perform a vast array of functions within living organisms, including catalyzing metabolic reactions, ***replicating DNA***, responding to stimuli, and transporting molecules from one location to another. This lunch for your daughter is a snack for a 4 or 5 year old. It is lacking in both protein and fat.

    1. While i do agree that a varied diet will generally give you all the protein you need, i must agree that this “lunch” looks like a snack. 1 handful of veggies, 2 tiny muffins and a smoothie pop is not lunch. Lunch imo would be 2 hands of veggies, 1 hand of meat, fish or a hard boiled egg and the smoothie pop and 1 of those muffins. Mind you, hands = the childs hands.

  27. I couldn’t agree more! I’m a vegetarian, and people always ask me – Where do you get your protein? Well, I’m a healthy woman…I could actually stand to lose about 30lbs!! Anyway, I always tell people who ask me that – “Umm…look at me! Do I look malnourished?” I’ve never even heard of a protein deficiency. I agree that we should eat a variety of foods and we’ll be just fine.

    1. Although protein deficiencies aren’t prevalent in the United States (we usually are eating enough) protein deficiencies are common in other nations. Have you ever seen any of those ads for “save the children” with images of kids with extremely enlarged abdomens? That’s a protein deficiency. Edema is also another common sign of protein deficiency. So it is out there, however I totally agree with you being annoyed with the “where’s your protein?!” I am not a vegetarian myself, but when I hear others say that to vegetarians I want to face-palm.

  28. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Rebecca. No, Lisa’s family has not experienced weight gain from this real food way of eating and did feel initially that a few pounds came off. ~Amy

  29. Rebecca Blevins

    Since switching to whole foods and not counting calories, have you noticed a weight change in yourself? Have you slimmed down or became more leaner? Just curious.

  30. Thank you for this! I have been vegetarian for more than half of my life and I absolutely hate when people say “well, where do you get your protein from?” After 13 year I really just want to say some not so nice things. Why is everyone so obsessed with protein? I’m with you, I never count anything! I’d rather spend that energy being active!

    1. I hear ya! It gets on my nerves! The protein obsession is overrated. I am so tired of people asking me where I get my protein. It’s definitely not coming from meat – YUCK!

    2. I used to ask those people, “Would you ever ask a gorilla or an elephant that question?” to get them thinking about how the largest, strongest animals in the world eat only plants. Now I’ll often respond, “I get my protein the same way that your protein gets its protein.” That REALLY makes them stop for a second and think. I don’t need to get my protein second-hand, I go straight to the source!

  31. I’m on day nine of the challenge and learning a lot! I’m new to tofu, but am finding out how yummy it is baked in salad, over brown rice, with stir fry, yum. And I do feel like it fills me up more. I’ve looked around on the site a bunch and need to ask…. is tofu ok? real food? not highly processed? Thanks

      1. Saying that tofu is “highly processed” is misleading – sure, it’s “processed” in the sense that there is a PROCESS to create it! It has been around for thousands of years. It is not the same as soy-based alternative “meats” and how processed, unhealthy, and sodium-filled they are. Tofu is the perfect example of how the fear of simply the word “processed” is getting a little bit ridiculous.

        Aimee: Eat your tofu! Try tempeh! And seitan (in moderation)! “Processed” doesn’t automatically mean “bad” and the way that tofu is processed is certainly not the same as a box of frozen fake meat!

      2. I second Lindsay! Cheese is also “processed,” but is typically considered a whole food. I live in a part of Asia where tofu is considerably cheaper than meat, and it’s also much easier to get homemade (so I know who’s making it and what’s going into it). I also enjoy tempeh when I can get my hands on it. :)

  32. Actually, kids need 1 gram of protein per 1 pound of body weight. Adults need less (because we stopped growing) 1/2 a gram of protein per pound of body weight. So, for example: a kid that weights 40lbs needs 40 grams of protein per day. Their muscles need it. This is based on Dr. Sears L.E.A.N. program.
    I agree on everything else :)

    1. My daughter is 5 and is 64 pounds, 49.75″ tall. She is proportionate for her height but is also in the 99th percentile for both (she basically looks like an average 8 year old). I couldn’t imagine worrying about giving my daughter 64 grams of protein a day. That would be like trying to feed her my adult-size portions at every meal!

  33. I know . I am from India in the US for more than 10 years. In general and especially when I was pregnant I got this question- “Do u get enough protein from vegetarian diet?”
    Yes…I have never had any problem even in my pregnancy with my regular variety of vegetarian diet.
    and sometimes when some blood test needed to be done I ask for protein test too and it has always been in required range.

  34. The USDA and the Department of Agriculture are no longer a trusted source for dietary information. Large amounts of protein in most peoples diets are not needed. Watch Forks over Knives and see what you think about Casein.

    1. The USDA is a joke!! I don’t see why anyone would believe anything they say or recommend! And just the thought of casein makes me never want to eat again! Lol! Same goes with rennet. Eeewh!

  35. I’m a dairy-free omnivore but I only eat meat 2-3 times per week. After I saw this post yesterday I calculated my protein just for fun. I had plenty of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables yesterday and my protein total was less than what the CDC recommends. Should someone like myself be concerned about this?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Juli. I would say that you should look at it over a span longer than just one day. If you are still unsure, you could check with your medical doctor if you still have a concern. Jill

  36. One thing I remember learning in my college nutrition class is that most americans get TOO much protein. So, I love this post….finally someone else is backing this concept up! I don’t understand where the high protein craze has come from? We love your blog and it has truly changed the way my family eats!


  37. I think we should be more concerned about the lack of animal fats typical Americans eat with their protein than the amount of protein, though I do think many eat too many plant foods and too little animal foods, whether protein or not. I easily eat 100 plus grams of protein, much of it animal, with traditional, quality fats and a ton also when I am not pregnant or nursing. I don’t count, but I did add up some figures once for another friend who was eating too little protein and was swelling accordingly, during her pregnancy. It is so incredibly easy when eating whole, nutrient dense foods traditionally prepared to just naturally eat enough of all food types, in my opinion. And I have yet to have a friend whose swelling didn’t disappear after eating large amounts of protein daily.

    All that to say, I have a huge ham bone that is going to make some legumes taste really good soon. Can’t wait to get that going. :) This is my general food pyramid- I love the group that made this! http://www.nourishingourchildren.org/Chart.html

    Protein and fats together, I think this is the big picture many Americans are missing. And bone stock in just about everything. And organic, pasture based and traditionally prepared :)

  38. Thanks for this about protein. My husband and I don’t eat meat any longer (about 3 years now). I get a lot of people concerned with our protein intake too. I had one woman tell me tell me that her husband couldn’t eat that way because he has an active job as an electrician and needs his protein. Well my husband is a firefighter (that is a very active job) and he has no problem with his energy level since he eats better. The eating of meat made his feel horrible and zapped his energy level.

  39. Thank you so much for this. My daughter has both life threatening and severe food allergies and my family is on a plant-based diet so sourcing out protein was a challenge (at least in my head). This article really helped ease my fears about my children receiving enough protein- and much like your example, it seems she gets plenty! Thank you again :)