How to Get Your Toddler to Eat Meat

Published by Mama Knows Nutrition on

Your toddler won’t eat meat, and you need some new ideas on how to get your toddler to eat meat! You know the protein and iron are good for them, and you don’t want them to only eat carbs all the time.

And it can be challenging to plan meals when you feel like your toddler won’t eat the main dish you made. It’s much easier when family meals can be for the whole family, and you don’t have to make a separate kid meal.

Maybe they will only accept things like chicken nuggets or a hot dog and you want to move your toddler past that.

In this post you’ll get my top tips to get them to try meat. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who works with toddlers and picky eaters, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.

Toddler Won’t Eat Meat?

Make sure to also read my post Toddler Won’t Eat Meat for more ideas. That post helps with ideas on foods to serve when you’re still working on them trying meat. The good news is that it’s not too hard to get enough protein without meat, but iron can be difficult. That post has my top toddler-friendly iron rich foods. And yes, if you have a picky eater I have ideas for you!

Other foods where they get protein: dairy products, soy products, peanut butter and other nut butters, beans, lentils, fish (even fish sticks!). So you can see that meat is far from the only protein source. It’s rare for me to see a toddler whose overall protein intake is too low. But meat is packed with other nutrients, too, so it makes sense that you want them to try it.

How do you get them to eat meat?

First, you have to know that toddlers are like horses. In the sense that, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can lead a toddler to meat, but you can’t make them eat. 

There are several tricks to make them more likely to try it. But you never want to attempt to force them to eat it. Even if you KNOW they will like it after they try it. Your toddler may be more hesitant and that’s okay. 

Just like when your friend says, “I just KNOW you’re going to love cliff diving, let’s go!” Even if you do end up loving it after you try, you may not be ready right away. You may want to watch someone else first. You may want to watch several people first. And if someone pushes you off the edge before you’re ready, you probably aren’t going to be happy about that.

While eating a bite of chicken and cliff diving probably don’t feel like equivalent scenarios to YOU, trying new food may still be quite scary and new to your toddler. They don’t have your life experience to know that it’s going to turn out okay. 

We as adults know that the worst case scenario when trying a new food is that it disgusts you, which is unpleasant, but not the end of the world. Maybe you even gag a bit. And perhaps you spit out the food, and it’s uncomfortable for a minute while you can still taste it. Your toddler hasn’t developed the ability to rationally think that through in the same way. 

So, be patient with them. It’s better to expose them to something new and NOT force them to try it, rather than make them dread mealtimes because they’re worried about something being forced upon them.

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What to know about toddlers and meat

It’s very common for young children to be indifferent to meat. They typically go on to like it as they get older. But it’s something I hear from parents all the time. So a part of it is their age and developmental stage. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it!

3 best ways to get your toddler to eat meat

Modify the texture

kids plate with meatballs, rice, and broccoli

The best meat texture for toddlers is soft, moist, and uniform. Meat that is soft and moist is much easier to chew. Your toddler is still learning to chew and grind effectively. They may not have all their molars yet. Meats like steak are more laborious to chew. Your toddler may not be interested in the effort that takes. One of the most common reasons  toddlers don’t want meat is because the texture is not easy enough to easily chew.

Even a chicken breast can be a challenging texture. And it will be especially challenging if it’s overcooked/dry. 

Ground meat is a great texture to try. Stick to meat that is not too lean – around 93% lean or lower. Something like a ground chicken breast or 99% lean ground turkey will need a lot of help to stay moist. Ground beef, ground turkey, ground chicken, ground pork, ground bison, etc. are all fine and you can try whichever you like. But again, look for something around 90% lean.

Texture you should be aiming for:

  • Bolognese sauce
  • Meatloaf (without big chunks of vegetables inside)
  • Thin burger patties
  • Homemade nuggets
  • Tender meatballs

I have a baby and toddler friendly meatloaf recipe here

baby and toddler friendly healthy beef meatloaf recipe with green beans

You also should aim for uniform texture. That means, don’t have chunks of onion inside the meatballs, for example. 

Adults often like textures mixed together. You might love the idea of beef nachos with creamy cheese, beans, jalapeño peppers, etc. However, many toddlers are put off by several textures mixed together like that. With meat in particular, no texture surprises mixed in is the best start.

Keep the size small

This is also to keep it easy for them. Their mouths are small! If you think about the average hamburger on a bun, it can be bigger than how wide they can open their mouth. 

Smaller is better when it comes to meat. Cut into small pieces, or make it thin for something they bite a piece off, like a hamburger.

If it’s something brand new to them, only serve a piece the size of a grain of rice. They are more likely to try it when it’s a teeny tiny amount.

Start with loved flavors

Do they like any dips or sauces? You can try pairing meat with one of those.

Many young kids love sweet flavors, and you can actually make meat more sweet than savory to get them interested. For example, a recipe I saw for grape jelly meatballs; it has meatballs, grape jelly, and ketchup, and that’s it. If your little one likes jelly and ketchup, it could be a win for them.

Other sweet tasting meat ideas:

  • Honey ham
  • Apple chicken sausage
  • Honey mustard chicken
  • Pineapple meatballs (meatballs, crushed pineapple, barbecue sauce)
Add a tiny bit of meat into foods they like
chicken and cheese quesadilla for toddler to get your toddler to eat meat

Try adding a few grain of rice sized pieces of meat to a food they like where it won’t be very noticeable. 

Some examples:

  • Inside a quesadilla
  • In an omelet
  • Mixed in with pasta and sauce
  • In a sandwich or tortilla with cream cheese

Less is more when you first start out. Let them get used to the idea of it before you start increasing the amount. Even if you feel like, “what’s the point if they’re only eating like ½ teaspoon of the meat?” But this is just the starting place, not where you will be stuck forever.

Don’t lie to them about the meat being there, though. If they ask what’s inside, tell them. It’s not worth trying to sneak in something that leads to them losing trust in you. If they feel like they can’t trust that what you give them is actually what you say it is, they may become more hesitant overall at meal times.

Want more tips for a picky toddler?

I have a lot more tips like these! And, step-by-step paths to get your little one to eat new foods. 

So if picky eating has become a power struggle with your little one, sign up for the Kickstart Picky Wins free 5-day email challenge here to start getting those picky eater wins in your house!


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