Toddlers are notoriously finicky.
When they reject the shoes that they loved yesterday or decide that milk is only acceptable if it’s served in the blue sippy cup, it’s not too hard to go with the flow. But a common problem for parents is when their toddlers refuse to eat meat. Are their little bodies getting all the nutrition they need? Let’s take a look at why toddlers sometimes turn their noses up at meat, and some strategies for keeping them nourished.
Why don’t toddlers want meat?
Most nutritionists agree that meat is a nutritious part of a balanced diet. Besides being an excellent source of protein, beef provides iron, zinc, and B vitamins. The best food source of vitamin B6 is poultry, like chicken. And yet it’s very common for toddlers to refuse to eat it. Why would a child reject a food that offers their growing body so much?
- Texture. Little jaws and teeth have a hard time chewing densely textured meat.
- Flavor. Food that tastes just right to adults might be startlingly spicy or strong-flavored to small palates. Marinades and spices can be overwhelming.
- Independence. Toddlers are just realizing that they are their own person, and discovering the power of asserting their will. Rejecting a food that their parents want them to eat is pretty satisfying to someone who is learning independence.
How to respond
Probably the most important thing to remember is to not overreact. The last thing you want to do is to make mealtime a power struggle. Keep offering meat, but don’t worry if your toddler keeps rejecting it. Not every meal will be nutritionally balanced, but that’s common with toddlers. The goal is to try to keep their diet well rounded over time. Here are a few techniques to make meat more enticing to little eaters.
- Try fish. Children may find the delicate texture more comfortable to chew, and varieties like Atlantic pollock or halibut have a mild flavor. Not only does fish offer many of the nutritional benefits of beef or chicken, it also has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for a child’s developing brain.
- Make it a softer texture. To avoid serving meat that is too tough for your toddler to comfortably chew, try different preparation methods. Chop chicken up into tiny pieces and mix with other foods, like rice or peas. Long, slow braises will turn a tough cut of beef into something soft and tender that may appeal to your child. Some parents find that their toddlers enjoy pureed chicken.
- Tone down the spices. Your child probably has a much more sensitive palate than you. Kids tend to prefer bland, familiar flavors.
- Try dips. If there is a sauce your child enjoys, like ketchup or ranch dressing, offer a small amount to dip their meat in. Not only does that make it tastier to them, it gives them a little more control over how they eat their food.
- Patience and persistence. Studies show that the most effective way to teach children to enjoy new flavors is by letting them see you eating it and offering it to them repeatedly. Don’t try to make them eat it, just keep offering it and give them time to get comfortable with it.
What if they just won’t eat it?
Although meat has a lot of nutrition to offer, it’s absolutely possible to have a healthy, balanced diet without it. Here are some options to replace the nutrients that might be missing from a meat-free diet.
- Nuts and seeds. Peanut butter, almond butter, and sunflower seed butter are all great sources of protein. Be sure to spread nut butter thinly on toast or a cracker, because large chunks can be a choking hazard. Tahini, sesame seed butter, is a unique choice that is especially high in minerals, including calcium.
- Legumes. There’s a whole world of beans to try! Lightly mashed black or pinto beans are a fun food for a toddler to self-feed with a spoon. Chickpeas can be blended into protein-rich hummus to use as a dip for vegetables or spread on bread. Quick cooking lentils are a nutritious protein to stir into soups. Legumes are a great source of protein and vitamins.
- Grains. Don’t overlook whole grains as a protein source. Whole wheat, oats, and quinoa all have about six grams per serving. These whole grains also add fiber, minerals, and vitamins, particularly B vitamins.
- Eggs. Not only are they an easily absorbed protein, eggs have a lot of nutrition, including the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
- Dairy. Yogurt or cheese is often a toddler favorite and a great source of protein and calcium. A bowl of cottage cheese with chopped fruit such as strawberries is delicious.
- Fortified cereals. These are a great way to add iron and zinc to your child’s diet. Because iron from non-meat sources is not as easily absorbed, serve it with food rich in vitamin C, such as kiwifruit or berries.
Sharing a meal with the people you love is one of life’s great joys. With a little planning, you can treasure this time together and not be worried about nutrition, even if your toddler won’t touch meat for now. Enjoy!