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.

toddler plate of meatballs

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.

Kids plate with deconstructed slow cooker chicken tacos.

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:

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 protein for kids, that linked 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.

For more tips on introducing new foods to your toddlers, check out my Resource Library for a free download with tips.

This post was first published January 2019.

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  1. Found this post as I was trying to gain insight into why my 20-month old suddenly isn’t eating meat like he used to. We’ve never pressured him with eating and always strive instead for constant exposure (otherwise I would lose what little is left of my sanity!). It makes sense that he’s suddenly eating less meat and favoriting more pasta, rice, etc. Concurrently, we’ve noticed a huge developmental leap with his brain and speech, and a slow-down in physical growth. Thank you for helping us parents searching for answers!

  2. Hi, My daughter turned two in November and is super picky, she also has a lot of allergies, causing her to be underweight.
    When I feed her she only takes one-to-two bites of food and is done. How can I increase her appetite? and How can I make it fun to try new foods?

    1. My child is really really picky to the extent he only had toast once a day for months. No exaggeration. He is three and a half. I started just making a plate and putting it in front of him. It can take him over half an hour and he picks and nibbles but he eats it all. The other thing which really helped is that I got him to help me make him smoothies. This way I have been able to feed him avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, oats and several other things he would not usually eat. And we get to spend time together which is great too!

  3. My 14 month old will eat chicken nuggets and fish sticks at daycare but at home, in the last few weeks, will either refuse to eat meat at all or will only eat two or three bites then takes what is left and throws it in the floor. I worry about him having enough protein so the other evening I made the baked chicken meatballs with sweeet potato, cut on into bite size pieces and he ate two pieces then the rest went into the floor. This is my 1st child and I constantly worry if he is getting enough to eat and if I am even serving him sufficient portions. Should I be so worried or is this just one of the many phases he will go through?

    1. Generally speaking, if the child is growing, gaining weight, and meeting milestones and seems like themselves energy-wise, you don’t have to worry or track specific nutrients. If they are eating 2-3 servings of dairy (as would be the case if they drink milk) they are likely getting enough protein. Kids go through phases like this all the time and almost always there’s nothing to worry about. If you have a worry about growth, check in with your pediatrician.

  4. my son will eat chicken nuggets and hamburgers but will not eat normal chicken or ground beef, meat balls, or fish. If i mix it in food to hide it he finds it in his mouth and spits out only the meat. I dont want him to only eat chicken nuggets and hamburgers. I dont know what else to do.

    1. I would serve small portions of those foods you want him to eat as part of a family meal along with 1-2 other foods he usually likes. Let him eat them or not without pressure. The more you make those foods a regular part of his world, the more familiar and less scary they will be. Make sure they taste great and offer a dip or sauce alongside if that makes it more palatable to him. It’s a process so try to have some patience with him. It’s normal for kids to have preferences.

      1. My son use to eat meat now he just spits it out. Same thing with veggies and fruit. He seems to like lasagna minestrone soup.

      2. Is it possible that he’s not as hungry as you expect? That he needs the food cut up or shredded more so it’s easy to chew? You could ask him, if he’s verbal, how you can help make the food yummier.

  5. My 2 yr old rarely eats meat no matter how many times we’ve exposed him to different types and textures. He gets most of his protein from dairy and of course loves all the carbs. I know it’s just a phase, but it’s still frustrating at times.

    1. Hi my toddler dosent like meat either and I honestly think it’s the texture what I’ve learnt is to mix it with other foods. For example if I buy fish I wouldn’t just cook it and leave it on their plate I would cook it and mix with mash potatoes and make fishcakes which they love!!! I was adamant before that they can’t eat meat/fish but now I’ve just learnt different ways to cook them or use softer meats like ground beef/lamb!

  6. My 4 year old will not eat meat… I have coached him into at least trying a bite of chicken. He tells me the meat stinks and he gags when he smells it. He did get the chicken down to only throw it back up.