My Toddler Won't Eat Meat, Poultry, or Fish


Read time: 5 minutes

What to know when your toddler won’t eat animal proteins

  • Most toddlers go through a picky eating phase

  • Your toddler’s diet can be nutritious and balanced even without meat, poultry, and fish

  • A variety of plant-based protein sources can fulfill certain nutrient needs in your toddler’s diet

Feeding a toddler can be challenging enough, between the mess and their oftentimes absurd demands – ahem, requests – around food. But when your child refuses an entire category of food, for example, animal proteins, it can leave parents feeling worried they’re missing out on essential nutrients, like protein and iron.

As growth slows around the age of 2 years, your toddler’s appetite might decrease, leading them to favor quick sources of energy such as starchy, carbohydrate-heavy foods.1 And some toddlers may be turned off from meat due to its chewy texture.

If your toddler is refusing most animal proteins, including red meat, poultry, and fish, there are many ways to ensure they’re still meeting their nutrient needs through a wide variety of other foods. Read on to learn how.

Read more: Meal Plan for 18 to 24 Months Old Toddlers

Nutritional benefits of meat, poultry, and fish

Animal proteins contain important nutrients for growing bodies such as protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc.2 Some seafood contains important omega-3 fatty acids, which are good-for-you fats that are encouraged to be consumed as part of a balanced diet.2

The good news is that if your little one avoids most animal-based protein, many other foods provide these important nutrients.

Another nutrient that is abundant in animal proteins is vitamin B12.17 This vitamin is important for growth and development and is only found in animal foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, and milk products.

People who avoid all animal products, or even most animal products, may have a higher chance of becoming vitamin B12 deficient.17

Read more: Why does Vitamin B12 Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Alternate sources of these nutrients

If your child eats a variety of other protein sources such as eggs, dairy, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products, they’ll be getting many of the important nutrients that meat, poultry, and fish provide, including B vitamins, iron, zinc, and protein.2,13,16

Non-animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids include: ground flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and algae; as well as plant oils such as flaxseed oil and canola oil. There are also omega-3 fortified foods, such as certain brands of eggs, yogurt, cow’s milk, and soy beverages.4

Non-animal sources of vitamin B12 are harder to come by. Some foods are fortified in vitamin B12, such as nutritional yeast and breakfast cereals.17 Other foods that contain vitamin B12 include yogurt, milk, eggs, and tempeh.

Should you be concerned about your child’s intake of vitamin B12, or any of these other nutrients, chat with their pediatrician for more guidance.


Crispy Herb Salmon Bites with Steamed Broccoli and Cauliflower

Grilled Nut Butter and Berry Sandwiches with Chia

Other sources of iron for your toddler

While meat, fish, and poultry are among the best sources of iron, there are plant-based sources as well. These include foods such as beans and legumes, dark leafy greens, tofu, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, and raisins, as well as fortified breads, pasta, and breakfast cereal.3

Because plant-based iron is not as readily absorbed into the body as iron from animal sources, it’s important to make sure your toddler is getting adequate vitamin C and pairing it with iron-rich foods to help with absorption.13

Vitamin C is rich in fruits and veggies, especially citrus, bell peppers, strawberries, kiwifruit, cantaloupe, and broccoli.14


Bean Roll-Ups “Pinwheels”

Lentil Stew

Read more:

How to Include More Legumes and Beans in Your Family’s Diet

Why is Iron Important for my Baby and Toddler?

Why does Vitamin C Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

How much protein does my toddler need?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends aiming for the following protein amounts per age:

  • 1 to 3 years: 13 grams

  • 4 to 8 years: 19 grams5,6

This amounts to about 2-3 ounces of protein per day, depending on the age of your toddler.7

Remember that how much your child needs will also vary depending on their size. How much protein your child eats may change depending on their activity level as well as hunger and fullness on any given day.15

Don’t worry as much about meeting their protein goals every day, but rather provide your little one with quality sources at most meals – looking at how their protein intake averages out over the week.

Read more: Protein: Getting Enough and the Best Sources

What protein foods can I feed my toddler?

Fortunately, protein is found in many foods, which can help ensure your little one is meeting protein needs without eating any meat, poultry, or fish. Foods such as milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, nut and seed butters, beans, legumes, and whole grains all contain protein.

Because serving sizes for toddlers are small, you may find your child is eating adequate amounts of foods to meet their protein needs.

Protein serving sizes for toddlers plus grams of protein:

  • ½ an egg = about 3 grams protein

  • 2 Tbsp of beans (1/8 or a cup) = about 2 grams protein

  • ½ cup milk = about 4 grams protein

  • 1/3 cup yogurt = 4 grams protein

  • ½ oz cheese = 3 grams protein

  • 1 Tbsp nut butter = 4 grams protein

Most parents are relieved to learn that just one 8oz cup of milk along with one egg can nearly meet their toddler’s protein needs for the day!8,9

Read more: Vegetarian Diet During Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, and for the Family

Is your little one a picky eater? We can help! Chat with our team of registered dietitian nutritionists, fellow moms, and lactation specialists, available from Monday – Friday 8 am – 6 pm (ET). Chat now!

Tips on how to get your toddler to eat meat, poultry, and fish

Offer protein foods over and over again

Our job as parents when it comes to feeding is to provide our children with a varied, balanced diet. It’s up to our children to decide how much and whether they’re going to eat.15

This means that even if we provide different types of animal proteins, your toddler is not necessarily going to eat them. However, exposure is key when it comes to getting your little one to try new foods, so keep presenting toddler-friendly forms of meat, poultry, and chicken to increase the chance that they may one day be willing to try it.


Learn about:

The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating

Helping Your Child Build a Taste for Healthy Foods

Try different textures of meat, poultry, and fish for your toddler

Because meat can be tough and chewy, try providing soft, moist, and uniform-textured meat.

For example, turkey burgers, meatballs, or a Bolognese sauce may appeal to toddlers who find meat tough to chew. Shredded meat, such as pulled pork or shredded chicken breast may also appeal to toddlers more than whole chunks of meat.

Try flaking soft white fish (watch for bones!) into rice or pasta so it’s paired with a familiar food, making little ones more likely to try it.



Mini Sweet Potato Chicken Meatballs with Cauliflower Rice and Steamed Broccoli

Baby’s First Bolognese

Baked Rice Balls with Salmon and Peas

Try new (or already enjoyed) flavors

Providing meat, poultry, or fish (or any disliked foods) with flavors that your toddler already enjoys is another way to get your little one to take a nibble.

For example, if your child enjoys BBQ sauce, salad dressing, or hummus, toss the disliked food in a bit of the sauce, or provide these on the side as a dip.

Does your child enjoy nugget-like foods? Toss soft sticks of poultry or fish in seasoning and then low-sodium breadcrumbs for a crunchier texture.

What if I don’t think my toddler is meeting their nutrient needs?

If your child enjoys a wide variety of whole foods except meat, poultry, and fish, there’s a good chance they’re meeting their nutrient needs. However, if you’re concerned that your child’s diet is lacking in nutrients, discuss the options available with your little one’s pediatrician.

Know that it’s perfectly normal for toddlers to go through stages of picky eating, especially around meat, poultry, and fish. And, since taste buds change, it’s likely your toddler will grow to like and accept these, as well as many other new foods!

With patience and persistence, you will be on the path to raising a lifelong healthy eater.11

Read more: Supplements and Vitamins for Your Toddler

Let's Chat!

We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.

Our Happy Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am-6pm (ET). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!

Read more about the experts who help write our content!

For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Does my Baby or Toddler have a Milk Allergy or Lactose Intolerance?

What Type of Milk Should My Toddler Drink?

Why Does Calcium Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?