Are you worried because your child doesn't eat meat? Can they get enough protein and nutrients without meat?
Kids tend not to like meat because it's not all that tasty really (this might just be my opinion!). Kids naturally prefer foods that are sweet. Because sweet indicates that the food is an easy source of quick energy (think sugar!). Also, meat can be tough to chew and literally hard to eat.
Even though protein seems to be the main concern of parents who have kiddos that shy away from meat - it almost never is an issue.
To figure out how much protein your child needs, take their weight in pounds and divide by two. For example, a 40-pound child needs about 20 grams of protein per day.
For children of average weight, this works out to about 13 grams of protein per day for 1-3 year olds. And 19 grams per day for a 4-8 year old.
What does this look like in terms of food and meal choices? Read my blog on kids and protein here.
But as a quick example, if your child drinks 2 cups of milk per day, he is getting 16 grams of protein and likely meeting his protein needs!
So your child doesn't NEED to eat meat. A vegetarian diet can be perfectly healthy. And there are lots of other sources of protein and nutrients.
However, meat is the most easily absorbed source of iron in the diet. Basically, heme iron from meat is absorbed 2x that of non-heme iron from fortified or non-meat (fortified & plant sources) of iron. And we know that iron is really important for your child's brain and body growth.
Of course, there are vegetarian sources of iron too, including eggs, beans and lentils, tofu, cooked spinach and fortified cereals. In fact, cereal is often the main source of iron I see in a picky eater's diet!
Even higher in iron than regular cereal are fortified infant cereals. You can use these to sprinkle on yogurt or smoothies. Or substitute half of the flour in your pancake or muffin recipes for fortified infant cereal.
And if you include a source of vitamin C in the meal, it will increase the absorption of the iron. Top fortified pancakes or cereal with fruit compote, serve lentils in stewed tomatoes and add spinach to a fruit smoothie.
BUT if you have a meat-eating family and would like your child to partake as well:
Serve meat with a sauce like chicken cooked in BBQ sauce or ground meat in tomato sauce.
Dips are also fine if your kiddo likes ketchup, BBQ sauce, ranch or other dips that make the meat tastier for them.
Mixed dishes might be easier than slices of plain meat too and mask the taste. If your a meat and potatoes kind of family, try soups, chilis or tacos. Kids love dressing up their own tacos!
Use a pressure or slow cooker to make the meat tender and soft. Ground meats are good too. Try burgers, meat sauce, meatballs or meatloaf.
Marinating can also make meat more tender. And tastier!
If you're serving a steak, pork chop or chicken breast, make sure that you cut it into tiny bites. This will make it easier for your child to eat.
Fish sticks and chicken fingers are easy to grasp, soft in the middle and have a nice crunchy coating on the outside. Many kids love this crunchy texture!
It's the best way to encourage your child to expand their diet on their own without bribing, pressuring or rewarding on your part! The more you pressure the less they eat and like the food anyways.
If you struggle with picky eating and having your child branch out to try new foods on their own without fights sounds amazing - start by grabbing my 3 videos for picky eaters.
Jennifer House is a Registered Dietitian, author & mom of 3. From Baby-led weaning to picky eating and meal planning, she helps you to make feeding your family easier.