What to do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat Meat: A Complete Guide

Having a picky eater is a struggle. But having a picky toddler who won’t eat meat can feel even more alarming. I know from personal experience. My oldest son will occasionally—if I’m lucky—take a bite of a chicken nugget or popcorn shrimp.

Meat can be difficult to consume for younger toddlers. Whether it be texture or taste issues, some toddlers just don’t like meat. In fact, meat is one of the most common food aversions in toddlers. For many of us, this drastically changes as we get older.

The good news is, with a tiny bit of extra effort, kids can still fulfill their nutritional needs and have balanced diets without eating much meat. At this age, however, it’s still a good idea to keep offering and exposing them to meat and a variety of different foods.

In this article, I will discuss tips to get your child to eat more meat, how to ensure nutrient gaps are filled if your child doesn’t eat meat, and healthy meat alternatives for toddlers.

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How Much Protein Does A Toddler Need?

As a registered dietitian, I know how important protein is in a toddler’s diet. It helps build and repair body tissues and supports growth and development. Really, protein is a vital component in everyone’s diet.

Most toddlers still meet the recommended intake from the protein food group without consuming meat. In fact, according to studies, most children who follow typical Western diet patterns are consuming two to three times their actual protein needs.

Toddlers between the ages of one and three need around 13 grams of protein a day. 

How to Calculate Protein Needs For a Toddler

For a precise measurement, you can multiply your child’s body weight by .5. 

Sample equation for a 25-pound toddler:

25 (body weight in pounds) X .5 = 12.5 grams of protein per day

So, what does this look like?

One 8 ounce cup of milk contains around 8 grams of protein. If your toddler is like mine and drinks around two cups of milk per day, they’re already meeting their protein needs.

Moreover, one cup of greek yogurt packs in around 17 grams of protein, which also is well over the minimum recommended protein intake.

Hopefully, this eases your mind a little bit! However, meat does contain other vital nutrients that are essential for the growth and development of toddlers. 

What Nutrients Does Meat Contain?

In addition to protein, meat is an excellent source of other essential nutrients, including vitamin B12 and iron.

Vitamin B12

Children need B12 to help convert the foods they eat into energy. It also helps the central nervous system function and aids in red blood cell production. 

Toddlers between the age of 1 and 3 need around 0.9 micrograms of B12 a day.

Non-meat sources of B12 include:

  • Milk: 1 cup, 1.1 micrograms
  • Eggs: 1 egg, 0.6 micrograms
  • Some fortified foods (cereal, plant-based meats, soy products)

Toddlers usually don’t have any problems meeting their B12 needs as long as they are still consuming other animal products like dairy, kefir, or fortified foods.

Iron

Toddlers need iron for healthy growth and development. Additionally, babies and toddlers need iron to help their brain development. Iron aids in moving oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. 

Toddlers between the ages of 1 and three need 7 milligrams of iron per day. If your toddler’s diet lacks adequate iron, they are at risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia. This means less oxygen gets carried throughout the body. It can lead to symptoms such as irritability, weakness, and fatigue.

In addition to inadequate intake of meat and other foods rich in iron, if your child is drinking too much milk, iron deficiency anemia is the main concern.

Drinking over 20 ounces of milk per day can lead to an increased risk of anemia. This is because cow’s milk makes it harder for their body to absorb iron.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 8% of toddlers have low iron levels. 

This is the main nutrient we want to ensure our kiddos are getting enough of if they refuse to eat meat.

Non-Meat Sources of Iron

Iron from animal sources, known as heme, is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme (plant) sources.

Fortunately, it is still possible to meet your toddler’s iron needs while following a diet low in meat: 

Non-meat foods rich in iron include:

  • Chickpeas
  • Beans: ½ cup of white beans, 4 milligrams of iron
  • Lentils: ½ cup, 3 milligrams of iron
  • Spinach: ½ cup boiled spinach, 3 milligrams of iron
  • Eggs: one boiled egg, 1 milligram of iron
  • Tofu; ½ cup tofu, 3 milligrams of iron
  • Raisins: ¼ cup, 1 milligram of iron
  • Rolled oats: 1 cup of uncooked rolled oats, 3.5 milligrams of iron

You can also use a cast-iron pot when cooking. This allows extra particles of iron to be absorbed into your food. You’ll get the most iron from cooking moist, acidic foods like chili, tomato sauce, and scrambled eggs in cast-iron cookware.

According to one study, spaghetti sauce jumped from 0.6 to 5.7 milligrams of iron after being cooked in a cast-iron pot. I recommend only utilizing this technique occasionally to prevent iron toxicity if you do this. Children under three are more prone to iron toxicity, which can cause diarrhea and nausea.

However, it’s rarely caused by iron in the diet. Instead, it’s often caused by overdoing or accidentally ingesting too many iron supplements.

How to get your toddler to eat more meat

Tips to Increase Iron Absorption

Although the foods we’ve discussed are good sources of iron, we have to remember that the body doesn’t absorb them as easily as iron from animal sources.

To be safe, as you work to improve your toddler’s picky eating habits and intake of meat, shoot for double the amount of iron from plant-based sources.

The best way to increase iron absorption from non-heme iron sources is by ensuring your toddler is getting enough vitamin C.

Pair iron-rich foods alongside sources of vitamin C to enhance absorption.

Foods rich in vitamin C include:

  • Oranges
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Kiwi
  • Strawberries
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cantaloupe

For example, if you serve your toddler oatmeal, consider serving it with strawberries to add vitamin C and help promote iron absorption.

Iron-Rich Multivitamins

If your child has a confirmed iron deficiency, your pediatrician may recommend iron supplements. If they already recommended one, stay with their advice. 

However, if you’re stuck and looking for an iron-rich multivitamin, here is a liquid one that I recommend:

NovaFerrum Multivitamin with Iron 

Tips to get toddlers to Eat Meat

There are several different ways to get your toddler to try to eat meat. Below, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tips and tricks.

Serve Ground Meat

The textures and mouthfeel of meat can often turn a toddler off. 

When I was first getting my toddler to eat more meat, I often put ground beef, turkey, or chicken into a food processor with a splash of milk or water. This helps create a moist, smooth texture. You can then make soft meat into meatballs, hamburgers, or meat logs with it.

I won’t lie and say they ate a lot of meat this way, but they would at least agree on small bites. Gradually, I transitioned to regular ground beef as they (very gradually) grew to enjoy it more.

Cut It Into Bite-Sized Pieces

While young children and toddlers often require soft, puree forms of meat, older toddlers may enjoy tiny bite-sized pieces as long as they can safely tolerate them. Larger, tough cuts of meat can be difficult for little ones to chew. They often prefer and tolerate easy-to-chew finger foods better.

I like to slice my chicken breast into thin pieces and use a meat tenderizer before cooking it. This makes it much easier to chew. You can also try appropriately sliced beef hot dogs paired with melted cheese.

Blend It Into Other Dishes

One of the tips I’ve had the most success with is blending it into other dishes. You can finely chop or puree meat and add it to soups. For younger toddlers, you may be able to mix the meat in with sweet potatoes or squash.

One of my favorite things involves mixing finely ground or puréed meat into macaroni and cheese. The kids love it, and it’s an excellent way to gradually get them to eat more meat. You can also add pieces of sausage to eggs or add meat to pasta or casseroles.

Add Dipping Sauces

I haven’t met a toddler who doesn’t like to use sauces to dip their favorite foods into. Heck, even I rarely can enjoy meat without dip or sauce!

You can serve meatballs or smaller cut-up tender pieces of meat with dip on the side. Put it in a separate little container and let them explore different tastes and flavors. 

Low-sodium soy sauce, ketchup, barbeque sauce, or ranch on the side are all great options. Sometimes, offering chicken nuggets with dipping sauce will even do the trick.

High-Protein Meat Alternatives

Non-meat sources of protein include:

  • Greek yogurt
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Peanut and other nut butter
  • Nuts
  • Green peas
  • Quinoa
  • Soy milk and other dairy alternatives
  • Seeds
  • Kefir
  • Cheese
  • Veggie burgers
Breakfast for toddler who won't eat meat

Sample Meal Ideas

  • Cheese quesadilla served with a side of refried beans or black beans
  • Eggs cooked with spinach leaves and a side of fresh oranges
  • Beans and rice with a side of strawberries
  • Peanut butter and jelly with kiwi fruit
  • A smoothie with chickpeas (we’ve tried this crazy easy PB&J chickpea smoothie and love it!)
  • Baked lentil casserole ( This recipe for sweet potato, lentil, and carrot croquettes has iron + protein + vitamin C)

Summary

It can be frustrating and scary if you have a child that flat out won’t eat meat. The good news is there are several ways to ensure your toddler is getting adequate nutrients to promote growth and development.

I personally have experienced this struggle, and — although I’m a dietitian and may know what to do — it’s still hard making time and finding different meals that have the right combination of ingredients. I’m definitely no chef, and I do not enjoy cooking all the time. (yep, I said it!)

Your child is likely getting enough protein, but it may take a little extra work to ensure they are hitting their iron needs.

If you have any questions or feel as if you need extra help, always speak with a registered dietitian or your child’s pediatrician before starting supplements or making diet changes.

Is it normal for a toddler to not eat meat?

It’s completely normal for toddlers to have aversions or avoid eating meat. It is a new texture and consistency that’s slightly different from what they are used to. To help your toddler eat more meat, I recommend using a food processor to finely ground it up and make meatballs or meat sticks.

How can I get my two-year-old to eat meat?

It’s important never to force your child to eat meat. However, I recommend altering the texture to make it softer and easier to chew or blend into soups or casseroles to help your child eat meat. You can also check out my post on food chaining for picky eaters to get an idea of other picky eater solutions.

Is it normal for kids to not like meat?

Yes! Many kids don’t like meat. The good news is it’s usually a phase they go through. Meat can be tough, and if it isn’t appropriately flavored, your little one may not enjoy the taste. Most children can meet their protein and iron needs by substituting meat with non-meat alternatives rich in nutrients found in meat. If you have an extremely picky eater, speak with your child’s pediatrician about possible supplementation or a daily multivitamin.

What to feed a child who doesn’t like meat?

I recommend feeding a child or toddler who won’t eat meat alternative protein sources such as dairy, nut butters, black bean burgers, lentils, or even bite-sized pieces of soft meat. Pair with whole grains, fruits, and veggies to get all of their important nutrients. If you choose a non-animal iron source, be sure to pair it with a food rich in vitamin C for optimal absorption.

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