You may worry about protein if your toddler won’t eat meat or fish. Protein is actually not the main concern for your meat refusing kids. Read to learn how much protein they need, what other nutrients they may be missing out on, and see a list of healthy recipes to serve little ones who don’t like meat. Some of these recipes are GREAT for baby, too.
Toddlers can be a special kind of beast when it comes to eating anything besides carbs. Moms are always wondering if their little one gets enough protein in between all the fruit, cereal, bread, and pasta that they will inhale. The carbs are definitely not bad! But it leaves you wondering whether they are getting the right nutrients.
This concern is bigger for parents of what I call the “Accidental Vegetarian.” My 3 year old happens to be one of these! The Accidental Vegetarian is a toddler who might eat meat or fish here or there, like a hot dog or chicken nugget dinner every once in awhile, but otherwise shies away from eating meat.
Now, there’s no need to go around calling them that — who knows what their little brains will think when they hear a big word like “vegetarian.” My son thought we were taking a trip to the potty when I told him we were going to the diner the other day. “Mama, I DON’T have diarrhea!” Diner…diarrhea…kinda close, ha!
But if that description sounds like your kid, I have some ideas for you. While protein can be a concern, they are still LIKELY to meet their protein needs even without eating meat regularly.
If you’re like no, they also aren’t eating enough protein — this post has lots of recipes ideas to sneak protein into the carb-y foods kids love!
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Toddler Protein Needs
For toddlers, divide their body weight by two. The number that you get is the number of grams of protein they need per day. This is obviously an estimate, but it’s enough to give you a good idea of what they need. So if they are 30 pounds, they need about 15 grams of protein per day.
One cup of milk has 8 grams of protein. So if they have two cups of milk per day, they meet their protein needs easily. Most parents feel pretty relieved when they hear that! But you might say, well my kid doesn’t drink milk, or they only drink 1 cup per day. That’s totally fine. I just like to use milk as an example to show you how easily toddlers can get their protein even without meat. There’s no need to resort to protein bars or protein powders all day long.
For tips on getting them to try meat, read this post.
So, your toddler probably gets enough protein in their diet. But what else are they missing out on if they won’t eat meat, or just don’t eat it very often?
It’s a four letter word, it begins with I….yup, you guessed it. (No, it’s not Ikea.) IRON. Iron is essential for growth and development — something your little ones are doing an awful lot of! It is worth paying a little extra attention to. This is especially important for babies & toddlers who were born pre-term or had a low birth weight, because they may have less iron stored up in their body than full-term babies.
Now, don’t feel like you need to run out and buy an iron supplement. Most of the time, they can get what they need from food alone. Meat, fish, and poultry are the best sources of iron, but there are plenty of vegetarian sources, as well. However, our bodies do not use vegetarian iron sources as efficiently, so your little one will need higher amounts if they don’t eat much meat.
Take a look at this list of high iron foods and see if there are any that your toddler eats regularly.
Vegetarian Sources of Iron
- Swiss chard
- Romaine lettuce
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Brussels sprouts
- Green Beans
- Fortified cereals- Cheerios, oatmeal
Increase Iron Absorption with Vitamin C
One of the best ways to increase the amount of iron their body gets from iron-containing foods is to pair them with foods rich in vitamin C. Here are some high vitamin C foods that are toddler friendly:
- bell pepper
- sweet potato
Non-Food Ways to Boost Iron
For picky eaters, or kids with small appetites, you can boost their iron intake in a couple ways.
- Cook with a cast-iron pan. Teeeeny tiny particles of iron will absorb into the food when you cook with it- this is a good thing!
- Use a Lucky Iron Fish when cooking soups, stews, or sauces. This works in a similar way to cooking with a cast iron skillet.
Multivitamins with Iron
Check with the pediatrician before choosing to use a multivitamin that contains iron. It may or may not be the right thing for your little one. Too much iron can be constipating.
If your pediatrician recommends a specific iron supplement to treat iron deficiency, I definitely recommend following their instructions on that. Typically, an iron supplement is the BEST way to reverse a documented iron deficiency.
My top choice multivitamin with iron:
Renzo’s Picky Eater Multi with Iron – I’ve personally tried it, and there’s no weird/bad taste. Also, there’s no added sugar. I’d recommend it!
I haven’t tried the Zarbees multivitamin with iron, but the reviews on Amazon say it smells AWFUL so I wouldn’t recommend that one.
Toddler-Friendly Food Ideas
When I look at the list above of vegetarian foods high in iron, I only see five foods that my toddler will eat willingly, so I assume you might be thinking the same thing. I always encourage you to continue serving foods even if they don’t eat them. And though that helps work on picky eating, it doesn’t solve the problem of them getting enough iron.
One of my favorite ways to boost toddlers’ nutrition is with smoothies. I haven’t met many kids who turn down a smoothie, and you’d be surprise what you can get in there. I have a great chocolate smoothie recipe with black beans, and spinach is easy to blend up in smoothies too.
Here are a few toddler-friendly iron-rich recipes to try from some of my RD friends. BONUS- many of these are baby-led weaning friendly, too. Breastfed babies need iron in their diet starting around 6 months, so be sure to include high-iron foods in baby’s meals, too.
Recipes for Toddlers Who Won’t Eat Meat
Try a smoothie with chickpeas or even beans!
Here are a few simple ideas:
- quesadilla with black beans or refried beans
- veggies with hummus
- chickpea pasta (like Banza)
- any main dish paired with some frozen peas (peas have iron!)
Try veggie burgers! I like the Dr. Praegers California Veggie Burgers for a storebought option, or try these homemade ones: Black Bean Veggie Burgers. Surprisingly enough, everyone in my family enjoys these veggie burgers.
Try some of the recipes from my ebook, No Sugar, Still Sweet! The 2-bite brownie recipe is DELICIOUS and packed with chickpeas!