Help, my toddler won’t eat meat
One of the most common complaints I hear from parents of toddlers or preschoolers is that they won’t eat meat. And they’re worried their kid isn’t getting enough protein and nutrients without meat.
In this post, we’ll review common nutrients found in meat, alternative sources, and tips to encourage your toddler to eat meat.
Why don’t kids like meat?
Kids tend not to like meat because it’s not all that tasty really (this might just be my opinion!). Kids naturally prefer foods that are sweet. Because sweet indicates that the food is an easy source of quick energy. This is one reason why kids usually prefer carbs.
Also, meat can be tough to chew and literally hard to eat. If your child has a tongue-tie or any oral motor issues like a weak or uncoordinated tongue or jaw, meat is going to be difficult to eat.
If your child avoids all hard foods like raw veggies and ‘real’ (not processed meat), you might want to check into getting an assessment done by an Occupational Therapist.
Other signs this is a concern is if your child gags when eating a lot, pockets food in their cheeks, they had troubles breast or bottle-feeding or food spills out of their mouth when eating.
Maybe your toddler won’t eat meat because they have some sensory sensitivities and have an aversion to the texture, smell or taste of meat. Signs sensory may be a problem include: your child didn’t mouth toys as a baby, they only like one texture, they don’t like getting dirty…..and many many other signs.
Consult a feeding specialist if you’re wondering if this might be a challenge. There are sensory exercises that can be done to decrease sensory sensitivity. Textures can also be gradually changed and increased in a method called “Sequential Oral Sensory” or SOS.
Another reason your child might not like meat is that they’re pressured to eat it. Generally, pressure to eat a food just results in your child hating it more, and eating less of it! If this is a common battle in your house, check out my free training “How to teach kids to try new foods without struggles at dinnertime”
Can my child get enough nutrients without meat?
Even though protein seems to be the main concern of parents who have kiddos that shy away from meat – it almost never is an issue.
To figure out how much protein your child needs, take their weight in pounds and divide by two. For example, a 40-pound child needs about 20 grams of protein per day.
For children of average weight, this works out to about 13 grams of protein per day for 1 to 3-year-olds. And 19 grams per day for a 4- to 8-year-old. What does this look like in terms of food and meal choices? Read my blog on kids and protein here.
But as a quick example, if your child drinks 2 cups of milk per day, he is getting 16 grams of protein and likely meeting his protein needs!
So if your toddler won’t eat meat, nutritionally that’s ok. A vegetarian diet can be perfectly healthy for all ages and stages of life. And there are lots of other sources of protein and nutrients.
However, meat is an easy way to access some key nutrients like zinc and protein.
The most easily absorbed source of iron in the diet. And we know that iron is really important for your child’s brain and body growth. Your toddler needs 10mg per day.
And heme iron is found only in animal products and is absorbed 2x that of non-heme iron from fortified or non-meat (fortified & plant sources) of iron. So I’ll often suggest a kid’s multivitamin containing iron if a child has a limited diet and avoids many sources of iron.
Of course, there are iron-rich vegetarian foods that you can focus on too. These include eggs, beans and lentils, tofu, cooked spinach and fortified cereals. In fact, cereal is often the main source of iron I see in a picky eater’s diet!
Even higher in iron than regular cereal is fortified infant cereal. You can use these to sprinkle on yogurt or smoothies. Or substitute half of the flour in your pancake or muffin recipes for fortified infant cereal like in these avocado blueberry muffins.
And if you include a source of vitamin C in the meal, it will increase the absorption of the iron. So basically offer a fruit or veggie. Top fortified pancakes or cereal with fruit compote, serve lentils in stewed tomatoes and add spinach to a fruit smoothie.
BUT if you have a meat-eating family and would like your child to partake as well, I’ll share a few things that might help.
Tips to encourage your child to eat meat
1) Make meat tastier:
Serve meat with a sauce like chicken cooked in BBQ sauce or ground meat in tomato sauce.
Dips are also fine if your kiddo likes ketchup, BBQ sauce, ranch or other dips that make the meat tastier for them. Mixed dishes might be easier than slices of plain meat too and mask the taste. If you are a meat and potatoes kind of family, try soups, chilis or tacos instead. Kids love dressing up their own tacos!
2) Make meat easier for your child to eat:
Use a pressure cooker or slow cooker to make the meat tender and soft.
Ground meats are good too. Try burgers, ground beef tomato sauce, meatballs or meatloaf.
Marinating can also make meat more tender and easier to chew.
If you’re serving a steak, pork chop or chicken breast, try cutting it into tiny bites. This will make it easier for your child to eat. Or stick it on a kabob – it might be more fun and interesting!
3) Try a crunchy coating:
Fish sticks and chicken fingers are easy to grasp, soft in the middle and have a nice crunchy coating on the outside. Many kids love this crunchy texture!
If your preschooler or toddler won’t eat any meat, they might find a chicken finger or fish stick an easy place to start. Plus, you can dip them 🙂
4) Follow the Division of Responsibility
It’s the best way to encourage your child to expand their diet on their own without bribing, pressuring or rewarding on your part! The more you pressure the less they eat and like the food anyways.
If you struggle with picky eating and having your child branch out to try new foods on their own without fights sounds amazing – start by watching my free training:
Jennifer House is a Registered Dietitian, author & mom of 3. From Baby-led weaning to picky eating and meal planning, she helps you to make feeding your family easier.