Wondering how to get a picky toddler to eat meat? Read my tips for how we got our toddler to eat meat and overcome texture aversion with meat!
Concern about protein
If you have a picky eater who doesn’t like meat, you might be worried about whether they’re getting enough protein. This is a very valid concern among parents of picky eaters, and it’s probably the second most common concern I hear after the usual “my toddler doesn’t like vegetables.”
The good news is, your toddler doesn’t actually need all that much protein. I wrote a whole article about how much protein a toddler needs – broken down by age from 1-5, and with lots of suggestions for how to meet that number daily.
And while it is very easy to meet the daily protein needs with non-meat sources, such as yogurt, lentils, nuts and nut butters, and other sources of protein, wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to cook one meal for the whole family and have everyone eat chicken for dinner if that’s what on the menu?
I, for one, was very tired cooking separate foods for my son back when he was a super picky eater.
And it would be nice not to have to count up grams of protein and worry about your child’s protein intake daily. Meat has a lot more protein than most of the other sources of protein, so if your child eats a nice serving of meat per day you can pretty much guarantee that they are getting enough protein for the day.
So let’s get in to how to get a toddler to eat meat (and like it)!
Pickiness about meat or texture aversion?
A lot of toddlers don’t like the texture of meat. It’s not about the flavor, but about how it feels in their mouth when they first put it into their mouth, and when they chew it. Meat doesn’t dissolve as well in the mouth – unlike lots of carbs – so at some point you have to just swallow it, which can be a weird feeling to get over.
This was definitely the case for our son, and once I figured that out, I knew how to approach getting our toddler to eat meat. I realized I was starting with the wrong meats for my son and had to start with easier textures.
Before I get into any more tips, I want to give the necessary disclosure: only give your toddler meat if they already know how to chew other foods pretty well. Give them small bites appropriate for their age and small servings appropriate for their age. Discuss this with a pediatrician or a feeding expert if you are not sure. And of course, talk to your pediatrician about testing for food allergies before introducing any new foods.
Meat 101 – starting with the right meat for picky eaters
A lot of parents start with either chicken nuggets or steamed chicken breast as one of the first meats, with the logic being that “toddlers love chicken nuggets!” or “chicken breast is so healthy.” Unfortunately, chicken breast can be bland and tough and hard to chew even if it is prepared really well. And chicken nuggets have that breaded texture and an odd chewiness that many toddlers love…. but many have a hard time with.
Every kid is different.
I know my son had a really hard time liking the breaded texture on chicken nuggets and refused them for a long time. Below you will find meats that my picky toddler learned to accept first, but of course you might have a different experience.
Start with one of these meats as a “first meat,” then continue to build off that if it goes well. If not, then try again in a couple of weeks, or think of a different way to present this food.
The good thing is you don’t have to try just one at a time. You can offer your toddler several of these over the course of a week and see which one they are more likely to eat.
1. Thinly sliced deli turkey or ham
Try honey ham if your child has more of a sweet tooth. The very thin texture of deli meat is a lot easier to get used to than if you are starting with other meats. Try to get nitrite/nitrate free deli meat. You can try giving your child a small piece of a thin slice, dice it up finely into other foods they like, wrap it up with a slice of cheese, or put it on a piece of bread if your child eats bread.
We started with just the thin sliced turkey and this was our son’s main source of protein for months. We gradually increased to thicker slices, until he was willing to eat and chew cubed ham. From then on, a whole world of “other meat” opened up suddenly, and he was willing to try lots of different textures, such as the ones below.
2. BBQ pulled chicken
This BBQ Pulled Chicken recipe made in the Instant Pot was the first “real” meat my son ate and loved. The BBQ sauce is totally kid friendly, and the Instant Pot makes chicken so tender that it doesn’t feel like chewing meat.
We had to cut the pulled chicken strands into even smaller pieces for my son so he didn’t have to chew too much, and this was key to getting him to eat it.
Once he was eating this, we made chicken thighs with BBQ sauce so he recognized the familiar flavor that he likes. The meat from chicken thighs is a lot softer than the white chicken meat and is a lot easier to chew. To this day, my son LOVES dark meat on chicken because it’s so easy to chew and will eat a ton of it… but will give up after just a few bites of chicken breast.
3. Canned chicken
Canned chicken is also a good option for toddlers who have a bit of a texture aversion when it comes to meat. It is usually soft, broken up into little bits, and lightly seasoned. It might need a bit of mayo or a dash of lemon juice to liven it up, but it is pretty easy to chew.
If your child likes crackers, having them dip the cracker into canned chicken meat is a good introduction to the canned chicken – they will not get any substantial chicken onto their cracker but they will get a taste for it, so they know what to expect if they actually scoop some up next time.
Try this 3-ingredient chicken salad recipe – get your toddler involved in helping to make it and they might be more willing to give it a try! (Just use non-spicy salsa if you are not sure how your child would like a little bit of spice.. though you really can’t taste it!)
4. Fish – canned or fresh
OK OK, fish is not what we consider a meat, and even many adults are super picky about fish, but hear me out.
Fish has a much softer texture than most meats and is a lot easier to chew. And while many toddlers are picky, many also love fish. My picky son LOVED tuna and salmon before he liked pancakes, bread, cheese, or cake.
Canned tuna is a super easy “meat” to try. This 3-ingredient tuna salad is the same as my easy chicken salad but made with tuna instead, and I always have my son help me make it.
Fresh fish is also very easy to chew (just don’t overcook it), and might be a good option for toddlers who are not eating meat yet. Any light, flaky fish would be great. We love swai in our family (here are a few of my favorite swai recipes), but you can try tilapia or salmon as a good “first fish” too.
5. Bolognese or meatballs
Ground meat might be easier for little kids to chew, so adding ground beef to Bolognese sauce or making little meatballs might be a great way to get some toddlers to eat meat. If they already like saucy pasta then it’s a no-brainer to try adding a few pieces of cooked ground meat into their pasta sauce and see if they will eat it like that. You know your kid best as to whether you need to hide those pieces of meat at first, or if your child would take a bite after they see that it’s so small and they have so much delicious pasta and sauce on their fork in addition to the meat…
If that works, you can transition to bigger crumbles of meat in sauce and work your way up to meatballs.
The great thing about meatballs is that you can also hide lots of vegetables in them, so your child can be eating a very healthy meal if they eat pasta with meatballs (especially if you have some tomato sauce on there for extra veggies).
By the way, here is my article on toddler-friendly recipes with hidden vegetables, which are amazing for getting extra nutrition into toddlers.
So what do you think? Would your child try any of these? Or have you tried them all and it’s just not working? Let me know in the comments below! That’s the only way I will know whether this is helpful or if you need me to help you brainstorm a few more ideas.
Other resources for overcoming picky eating:
- Feeding therapy for picky eating – this helped our son SO MUCH and was covered by our insurance… plus I talk about option for when insurance won’t cover it
- Hidden vegetable breakfast recipes for toddlers
- Toddler-friendly Instant Pot recipes for picky eaters
- Food chaining – how to get your toddler to eat tomatoes
- 20+ tips and tricks to get your toddler to eat when they refuse
- Distraction feeding
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