How to Get Toddlers to Eat Meat

And the protein-packed questions every parent asks.

Though our tastes can seem genetically hard-wired in the same way that eye color or blood type are singularly us, evidence shows that genetics account for only a fraction of the range in food preferences from person to person. Instead, factors like texture, flavor and neurological growth combine to create epic meal-time power struggles with our toddlers.

Meat is our primary source for protein, but popular choices such as beef and poultry also provide iron, zinc, and B vitamin-rich meals. In fact, the best food source of vitamin B6 is chicken. While toddlers can get the recommended 13 grams of protein from beans (¼ cup chickpeas = 3 grams), eggs (1 hardboiled egg = 7 grams) and dairy (1 cup milk = 8grams), there are ways to give the real stuff a chance in your kid’s diet. Here’s a look at the questions you need to be answered to get the muscle and brain-building nutrients into your picky toddler.

What meats should I buy?

Health-conscious parents provide their kids with the benefit of long-term healthy eating habits, but giving toddlers a diet of fruits and vegetables without fat can deprive them of essential DHA—an omega-3 fatty acid essential to retina and brain cell development. Babies also need protein. Neurons are complex cells primarily because of protein scaffolding, which means a lack of it can lead to significantly lower IQ and other impairments.

When buying meat, focus on lean and tender cuts. For pork, that means tenderloin or chops. For chicken, that means tender breast meat and eat-with-your-hands drumsticks. For beef, choose slow-cooked roasts or lean ground beef. If you choose to go beyond the typical barnyard options into wild game, simply ensure that it’s cooked with jus to promote moisture and tenderness.

What about deli meats?

The deli case offers cold cuts seemingly made for picky toddlers. Hide lunch meat in sandwiches, wrap it around cheese sticks, or serve individually as a snack and it becomes the perfect protein-packed finger food. But pre-packaged meats are known to contain fillers and high levels of nitrates commonly found in hot dogs, even at their best. Opt instead for cut-to-order meats or leftover servings from last night’s turkey or chicken dinner.

How can I expose a picky toddler to new meats?

In a Chicago and Cleveland-based experiment in the 1920s and ‘30s, the pediatrician Clara Davis aimed to discover what babies would choose to eat if released from the pressures and cues from their parents. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, babies were given ten bowls of pureed foods. Nurses were trained to administer one spoonful of the food that an infant pointed toward and to only complete the feeding if the child’s mouth was open. Children in Davis’s experiment chose liver, sour milk, and beets just as energetically as they chose chicken and bananas.

So why is your kid throwing a honey-baked ham in the floor vent?

Sometimes it’s all about the presentation. Here are some tips to make new foods less scary:

Lightly Bread it. Think mini schnitzels. Take the time to pound meat into thin, easy-to-chew pieces, then allow the crunch of whole-wheat breadcrumbs to work their magic.

Smooth Textures. Homemade burgers or meatballs can end up chewy, rubbery, even grisly. Remove any chance for texture aversion by blending ground beef, turkey or chicken in a food processor with splashes of water or milk. Cook to a crispy exterior and your kids will love the smooth and tender consistency of the meat itself.

Try Dips. Most adults prefer condiments with specific foods as a way to contrast both flavor and consistency. Toddlers are no different. Offer ketchup, mayonnaise, low-sodium soy sauce, ranch dressing, or barbecue sauce to help them learn how to tolerate challenging foods and give them an element of control over how they eat.

Bite-Size Bits. Keep it simple. Chop up chicken or pork into tiny pieces and mix with other foods like rice or peas. Consistently creating piles of mush can end up hindering a child’s ability to tolerate textural differences, but mixing small bits of meat with more palatable foods offers an easy alternative.

Model patience and persistence. The British Journal of Nutrition published a study that showed the value of parental modeling to reduce or reverse childhood food aversions. In other words, let them see you eat it and never stop offering the choice. Force-feeding is never recommended, but over time, young children become more comfortable with foods that are no longer “new.”

If your toddler just won’t eat it, it is possible to replace the nutrients missing from a meatless diet with healthy alternatives. Peanut and almond butter are great sources of protein. Legumes (e.g. black beans, pinto beans or chickpeas) can be blended for a dip or stirred into soups. Whole grains like quinoa and whole wheat are packed with fiber, minerals and B vitamins. And dairy products, including eggs, are often rich in calcium, protein, and DHA.

When all else fails, many pediatricians consider eating (of any kind) to be a victory. If that entails smothering bite-sized cubes of filet mignon with ranch dressing, well, a win’s a win.

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