Having a child refuse to eat a whole category of food can be such a challenge, so today I’m going to share what to do when a toddler won’t eat meat—including easy steps you can take to help improve the situation and how to worry a little less.
When a Toddler Won’t Eat Meat
This is a common question that I hear regularly from parents trying to broaden their toddler’s eating habits, so I thought that I’d take the question to one of my favorite food experts. Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, is behind Raise Healthy Eaters and is the co-author of Fearless Feeding, which ranks up there as one of my favorite feeding books.
I asked Maryann for her thoughts on why and what you can do when a toddler won’t eat meat. Here’s her take:
There are a variety of reasons that toddlers shy away from meat. First, it can be too hard to chew—softer and cut up meat works better. Second, the texture can bother children, especially when it’s a new meat. To remedy this, parents can encourage toddlers to touch and guess how the food will feel in their mouths.
But growth and development contribute to. Growth slows around two and appetites decrease. Toddlers and preschoolers tend to favor more starchy, carbohydrate heavy foods. For example, if parents serve pasta with a side of meat and veggies, the toddler often goes straight for the pasta. A recent study in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences shows that growth slows so energy can be diverted to the developing brain. And a key source of energy for the brain is glucose. To give you an idea, a 5 year old’s brain uses two times the glucose an adult brain does. This peak of glucose utilization for the brain is age 4.
This doesn’t mean toddlers and preschoolers should only be fed carbs, but it can help parents understand why kids prefer the foods they do. Mixing protein and carbs can help like in meatballs or pulled pork sandwiches.
Keep offering foods without pressure or forcing, or kids could develop food aversions. At around age 6, my daughter started eating more protein foods like fish, meat and chicken. My son is slowly getting there too. Patience and exposure are key.
Best Meats for Kids
If you’re looking for some softer meats to try, think ground beef, ground chicken, crumbled sausage, and shredded chicken thighs, which are often much moister than breast meat and easier to chew. Save the steak for later, or give them a large piece that they can chew on to enjoy the flavor without having to worry too much about actual chewing. Here are some recipes to try that work for both babies and toddlers:
- Instant Pot Butter Chicken
- Healthy Toddler Meatballs
- Baked Chicken Meatballs with Sweet Potato
- Chicken Nuggets with Sweet Potato
- Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos
- Skillet Stuffed Peppers
- Moroccan Lamb Meatballs
- Easy Baked Chicken Meatballs
TIP: Keep in mind that all kids have unique flavor and texture preferences and some may simply just not like meat that much.
Is my toddler getting enough protein?
If you have any concerns about whether your child is getting enough protein, this post will help. They don’t necessarily even need to be eating meat regularly to hit their protein needs, which may be a lot lower than you realize. Most kids get enough protein without us even needing to worry about it at all, so you can likely relax if that’s your main concern.