Help! My toddler won’t eat meat! As a registered dietitian, I help you figure out what to do when your child refuses to eat meat.
Is your child refusing to eat any and all of the meat-based dishes you prepare for your family? Know that you are not alone! Meat is a common food that kids refuse to eat as they progress through their more “cautious eating” phases.
When kids refuse meat, it can induce anxious thoughts such as “Will they get enough protein?” or “I’m worried they’re not getting enough iron!”. As a dietitian mom I want to reassure you that even though your child may not be eating meat right now, they are likely getting these same essential nutrients through other foods in their diet. And that there are plenty of non-meat alternatives that offer the same important nutrients. Take a deep breath knowing that this “picky eating phase” is most likely just that, a phase, and that you likely have nothing to worry about.
Every child is different in terms of when they enter picky eating phases (and how long they last). However, what remains consistent is my advice: focus on providing your child with a positive eating experience, regardless if they eat any one food, and support their exploration of new foods and textures, without resorting to pressure or bribery.
Why your toddler won’t eat meat
For parents, it can be both frustrating and perplexing when a child won’t eat meat or poultry or will only eat it in certain forms. There may be a few reasons why:
Reason 1: They may simply dislike the taste of it
This might be the most obvious or easily identifiable reason why kids don’t eat meat. In this case, repeated exposure without pressure, and parent role modeling can help lead to acceptance over time.
Reason 2: They have a physiological preference for carbohydrates
It is easy to see that most children have a strong preference for carbohydrate-based foods. Toddlers will tend to reach for these easy-to-eat, energy-dense foods such as bread, crackers, pasta, rice, etc. before touching the protein on their plate. Why is this? Kids are rapidly developing and require lots of carbohydrates (the brain and body’s main source of fuel) to properly support their high growth needs. These foods are also neutral-tasting, uniform in texture, and often the vehicle for yummy spreads and sauces.
Reason 3: They feel too much pressure
Kids also need protein building blocks to support their growth too, right? So how do we get them to eat more protein and meat? Actually, as a parent, it is not your job to “get your child to eat”. In fact, putting pressure on your child to “take a few bites” of meat at the table, may actually be the main cause of why they refuse to eat meat. More on this later.
Reason 4: The texture of meat is difficult to chew
Large chunks of cooked steak, pork loin or chicken breast can be hard for small mouths to properly chew (especially if they’re tough, dry or over-cooked). If you notice your child avoiding meat-like textures or spitting out meat after trying to chew it, this could be the issue. Later, we will go through ways to prepare meat so that it is easier for little ones to chew.
Can my child get enough protein and iron without meat?
Yes! Your kids do not need to eat meat in order to get enough protein and iron. There are many other food sources that contain these essential nutrients. This chart outlines how much protein and iron your toddler needs daily, along with their non-meat food sources (these are based on Canadian guidelines):
|Nutrient||Daily Requirements||Non-Meat Food Sources|
|Protein||1–3-year-old: 13g |
Dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk)
Fish and shellfish
Tofu and tempeh
Beans and lentils
Nuts and seeds
|Iron||1–3-year-old: 7mg |
|Fortified oatmeal and breakfast cereals|
Tofu and tempeh
Beans and lentils
Fish and shellfish
Dried apricots and raisins
If chicken, beef, and pork are staples in your household, it is important that you continue to offer these to your child in a pressure-free, and neutral way. However, meat doesn’t always have to be the main dish! Cooked eggs and baked fish have softer textures and mild flavors that are often more readily accepted by toddlers and younger kiddos.
Try switching things up by including plant-based meat alternatives like beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, edamame beans, and tempeh in the main dinner dish. These plant-based alternatives also provide an excellent source of protein and iron, as well as other essential nutrients like zinc, B vitamins and fibre!
Another strategy is to offer two different protein sources at meals to give your child ample opportunity to get all the nutrients they need! For example, if dinner is spaghetti and meat sauce, you could add some shredded cheese on the side. If you’re having roasted chicken, try adding a chickpea salad on the side or a mixture of nuts and seeds as a crunchy side dish!
Strategies to help your toddler explore meat
1. Understand and stick to your feeding roles with DOR
I always recommend that parents first become educated on the Division of Responsibility (DOR) in feeding, an evidence-based feeding philosophy that allows children to learn about how to feed their bodies in a safe, intuitive and nurturing way. Using this feeding structure, parents decide what, when and where food is offered to their kids. It is not their job to “get their child to eat” in any way, shape or form. Children have the freedom to decide if they need or want to eat, and how much they eat. This helps to teach kids to trust and listen to their bodies, and strengthen their interoceptive awareness of hunger and fullness cues.
While it is the parents’ role to decide what will be on the menu at meal times, it can be an effective strategy to include at least one “safe” or “courteous” food at all meal times that you know your child currently likes and accepts. Why? Well, the safe food is like that familiar face at a party where you don’t know anyone else. We are much more likely to engage and have fun at the party if we have a friend there to help us feel at ease and more open to meeting others. The same is true at meal times for kids, especially when they are going through a cautious eating phase. I would suggest switching up the “safe food” so that it’s not always the same thing. So maybe sometimes it’s bread, and other times it’s fruit, a particular veggie with dip, or another protein source that you know your child loves.
If you are offering food you know your child is likely to reject, serve it in a small less intimidating portion alongside a courteous food. For example, if you are having meatloaf for supper, instead of a full slice, put a tablespoon-sized portion next to their favorite bread (courteous food). The smaller less intimidating portion of meat will reduce chances of a mealtime meltdown, further softened by having a “friend at the party” with the bread added to their plate.
2. Be patient, don’t pressure
Now, your child might not touch the meatloaf, and that’s ok. Respect their decision and be patient with the pace at which they decide to explore food. Try your absolute hardest to avoid pressuring your child to take a bite no matter how much you want them to eat it! This is a surefire way to put the meatloaf (or any other food) on the “yucky” list for even longer than it would have been. Repetition of exposure without any feeding agenda is absolutely crucial to helping nurture your child’s relationship with food in a positive way. In fact, it can take 20 exposures or more for a child to even consider trying a certain food! Take note that any type of exploration of a food through smelling, poking, or even just curious comments, should be considered progress forward (even if it doesn’t involve eating the food)!
3. Don’t worry, there are many other sources of protein (and other important nutrients) other than meat!
These non-meat options provide a great source of protein as well as other essential nutrients that can be added to your child’s meals and snacks:
|Food||Protein (g)||Other nutrients provided|
|1 oz. Cheese||7g||calcium, vitamin B12 &B2, vitamin A, selenium, and zinc|
|½ cup Plain yogurt||4g||calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin B2 & B5|
|¼ cup Cottage cheese||7 g||calcium, vitamin B12 & B5|
|1 cup Milk/ Soy milk||8g||vitamin A & D, vitamin B12, and calcium|
|2 oz. firm Tofu||7g||calcium, iron and zinc|
|½ cup cooked lentils||9g||iron, fibre, folate, vitamin B1 &B5, manganese, and copper|
|¼ cup roasted pumpkin seeds||9g||iron, fibre, copper, zinc, magnesium, and manganese|
|¼ cup hummus||5g||Iron, fibre, copper, magnesium, vitamin E & K, vitamin B12 & B1|
|2 tbsp. Peanut butter||8g||fibre, magnesium, zinc, copper, vitamin E & B3|
|2 tbsp. chia seeds||3g||fibre, omega 3 fats, calcium, iron, vitamin B6, selenium and magnesium|
|½ cup cooked green peas||4g||fibre, iron, vitamin A &C, vitamin B1, vitamin K and zinc|
|1/3 cup cooked quinoa||3g||fibre, folate, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and copper|
|1 cup shredded whole wheat cereal||6g||fibre, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B1 & B3|
|1/3 cup large flake oats (dry)||5g||fibre, iron, and vitamin B1|
|2 oz. of cooked salmon||14g||Omega 3 fats, vitamin B12, B2, B3 & B6, vitamin D and selenium|
|2 cooked eggs||14g||Vitamin B12, iron, vitamin A & D, vitamin B2 &B5, selenium and zinc|
4. Invite your child to cook with you
One of the best ways to familiarize your child with different foods is to get them involved in the preparation and cooking process! When it comes to cooking with raw meat always remember to practice (and teach) food safety with your child by washing hands before and after raw meat is touched. Depending on your child’s age, you may ask them to help stir the meat already in the pot or assist with sprinkling seasoning overtop (so they don’t actually have to touch the raw meat). Comment on how meat sounds sizzling in the pan, the aromas it gives off as it cooks, and how it starts to change color and texture as it heats up! Observing food with curiosity helps to engage your child in learning and food exploration. When kids are involved in cooking it builds confidence in handling all different kinds of foods, and feeds their growing need for independence. Another huge win is that kids are much more likely to eat or taste a meal when they have helped prepare and cook it!
4. Make meat easier to chew
Younger children, especially while they are still developing their chewing and swallowing skills, can find it difficult to properly chew meat. You will notice that your child frequently spits out pieces of meat rather than swallowing and may grimace when trying to eat meat, leading to avoiding it altogether.
If you find your child is struggling with their physical ability to eat meat, you might want to start offering meat prepared in a way that is easier to chew and swallow. This will help them improve their confidence and strengthen their food manipulation skills when it comes to eating meat:
- Choose tender cuts of meat– higher fat, or more marbled cuts of meat such as chicken thighs, and tenderloin are easier to chew
- Serve ground meat dishes- ground meat served in sauces, meatloaf and meatballs tend to be easier to chew than full cuts of cooked meat
- Serve meat with sauces- sauces help add moisture to meat, making its texture less dry and easier to swallow.
- Shred or chop up meat- Shredding or chopping meat into smaller more manageable pieces, allows for easier manipulation, chewing and swallowing.
- Cook meat using moist-cooking methods- slow-cooked, pressure-cooked, and braised meat results in tender, fall-apart, easier-to-chew meat.
- Mix meat with other foods- Mixing pieces of meat with foods that add moisture and softness such as mashed avocado, or mashed potatoes, allows for easier swallowing.
- Trim hard-to-chew fat and gristle- tough fat and pieces of gristle are choking hazards and should be removed from meat before serving to your toddler.
5. Try the “food-chaining” method
Food chaining is an evidence-based strategy to help a child expand the variety of foods they eat. Often used by feeding therapists, this method is effective at helping kids take small steps that slowly teach them how to explore, taste and eventually eat certain foods that are similar in some ways to foods they already eat!
First, observe your child and take note of what preparations, textures and flavors of meat they accept. Maybe your child won’t eat home-prepared chicken but likes frozen chicken nuggets. This can be a great place to start! Gradual progression with each accepted food is the key to food-chaining. For example, try changing up the brand of chicken nuggets first. The next step could be trying frozen chicken strips, then maybe frozen chicken burgers. Eventually try breading chicken breast or thigh nuggets at home, baked in the oven.
With each step of progression be sure not to put any pressure on your child to eat the new form of meat. Create a positive and calm eating environment, with at least one or two “courteous” or “safe” foods on the plate. Keep in mind that each child’s pace of progress in trying new foods is individual. Be patient with the understanding that your child is on their own unique journey of learning about food and their body!
Best recipes for toddlers who won’t eat meat
Looking for delicious meat-based meal ideas? Check these out.
- Creamy Chicken and Broccoli One-Pot Pasta
- Turkey Mushroom Burger Recipe
- One-Pan Peanut Sesame Chicken
- Healthy Homemade Hamburger Helper
- Easy Open-Faced Enchilada Quesadilla Recipe
- Easy (and Delicious) One-Pot Greek Pasta Bake
- Weeknight One-Pan Burrito Bowls
- Easy Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
- Easy Weeknight, One-Pan Thai Peanut Noodle Bowls
Need some non-meat protein-rich options to try? I’ve got you…
Best meat-alternatives for toddlers
Incorporating plant-based meat alternatives into family meals will give your toddler more variety of choice when it comes to obtaining essential nutrients like protein an iron. Another plus to these meat alternatives is that they are often also easier to chew than meat:
- Tofu: Softer tofu can be blended into smoothies or soups adding a creamy texture. Firmer tofu can be chopped and added into stir-fry’s, ground and used as a meat substitute in pasta sauces or tacos.
- Beans and lentils: Can be mashed, pureed, or served whole depending on your child’s age and preference. Black beans, chickpeas and lentils also can be easily incorporated into patties, dips, soups and stews!
- Nut and seed butters: Almond, peanut, cashew, and sunflower seed butters are popular choices for kids. These can be spread on toast, crackers, muffins, and used as dip for apple slices or banana. They also mix well into oatmeal, smoothies and yogurt to help amp up the protein and healthy fat content!
- Tempeh: This fermented soybean patty often comes in a few different flavors such as plain, original or bacon flavored. It added protein, iron, fibre and healthy bacteria to your child’s plate. It is often sliced or cubed and added to stir-fry’s, soups, and sandwiches.
- Seitan: This meat substitute made from wheat gluten, is high in protein and actually has a similar, (but more homogenous) texture to meat. You can find it in vegan burgers, sausages and other vegan meat-like products at the grocery store.
Kid-approved meatless meal and snack ideas:
- Flourless Peanut Butter, Banana Chocolate Chip Muffin Recipe
- Kid-Friendly, Easy Vegan Lentil Nuggets
- Skillet Vegetarian Mexican Mac and Cheese
- Toddler-Friendly Tofu Recipe
- Coconut Banana Chia Pudding
- Delicious Plant-Based Protein Recipes to Try
- Sweet and Salty Chocolate Lentil Granola Bars
- Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Protein Balls
Extreme picky eating or sensory issues
Although it is not super common, extreme picky eating can happen. This is when your child is not eating or unable to eat enough quantity or variety to support healthy emotional, physical or social development.
“Typical” picky eating is normal and expected in most kids at one point of another, and does not affect the growth or nutritional status of your child. However, if your child’s lack of accepted foods seems to be driven by extreme aversions, fears of new foods, sensory processing issues, or physical inability to effectively chew and swallow, then they are likely struggling with a form of extreme picky eating.
If this sounds familiar, make sure to reach out for support from a pediatric dietitian as well as your child’s pediatrician.
If your toddler refuses to eat meat, it’s a common phase in their development. This may be due to various reasons such as taste preferences, a preference for carbohydrates, feeling pressure to eat, or difficulty chewing meat. Parents need not worry as there are alternative sources of protein and iron available in their diet, including eggs, dairy, soy, fish, beans, and more. It’s important to create a positive eating environment, practice patience, and avoid pressuring your child to eat meat. You can also involve your child in cooking, choose tender cuts of meat, and gradually introduce new meat preparations to expand their food choices. In extreme cases of picky eating, seek help from a pediatric dietitian and pediatrician.