Meat rejection and the worry experienced when a child rejects meat is common.
As a common source of protein, iron and B12, many parents feel stressed and worried when their child refuses to eat meat or chews and spits out their meat.
This article will help you to understand why some children refuse to eat meat, how you can encourage your child to eat meat and what you can offer instead of meat for protein, iron and B12.
WHY DO SOME CHILDREN REJECT MEAT?
In a 1991 study, adults were more likely to reject new animal foods than they were new non-animal foods. It was suggested that disgust may be the driving factor behind meat rejection. For children however, the foods most commonly rejected (vegetables, fruit and meat) are foods that are typically the most dangerous foods if not prepared appropriately. A study examining food neophobia (fear of new food) in 2-6 year olds suggested that meat rejection may have been protective historically as animal products are a main source of food poisoning bacteria.
Another hypothesised reason we see meat rejection and children spitting out meat, especially in the toddler years, may be related to the texture of meat. Most meats require a lot of time in the mouth (chewing) which in turn requires a lot of sensory processing. For children who are more sensitive to sensory processing information, the additional chewing time (and therefore additional time in the mouth) may be off putting.
The good news is that while neophobia is common in toddler years, there are evidence-based strategies to help children increase their accepted food intake.
HOW CAN WE ENCOURAGE CHILDREN TO EAT MEAT?
Taking into consideration the above possible reasons for meat rejection, we can consider the following ways to encourage children to accept and eat meat:
Consistent exposure of foods we would like children to consume is a highly effective evidence-based tool we can use at meal times. If we would like children to consume meat we need to be offering it regularly, ideally as part of a family meal with other adults or children also consuming the meat on offer (social modelling). The more regularly and consistently a new food is offered, the more likely a child is to try the new food. Remember, it may take up to 20 (or more) exposures of a new food before a child will touch or taste a new food, so don't be discouraged if this does not occur straight away.
Starting with soft meats
If chewing meat appears to be difficult or off-putting for a child, starting with softer meats may help. Softer meats include fish (a great source of omega fatty acids) and some mince-based dishes. Pureed meat may also be more palatable for some children.
Slicing cooked meats into thin pieces before serving
Similarly to above, serving meat in a more palatable way that requires the least amount of time in mouth may support children who find the texture of meat difficult. For example, slice cooked chicken breast into thin strips before serving.
HOW CAN WE ENSURE OUR CHILD'S NUTRITIONAL NEEDS ARE MET?
Consistent exposure is a highly effective meal time tool. But unfortunately it also takes time. At the same time you consistently expose children to the foods you want them to eat, offer alternative sources of protein, iron and B12 at meals. If you're worried about protein, check out this article on protein requirements for children (and why you likely don't need to worry). This post briefly covers iron for children who reject meat. B12 can be found in other animal products such as eggs and dairy. If children are not consuming any animal products, medical guidance is recommended as supplementing B12 is likely necessary.
If you feel like the above article describes your child, you're worried and you're looking for evidence-based support and guidance to get your child to eat the food you serve, check out our 6 STEPS TO MEAL TIME SUCCESS program. This program is ideal for children from 12 months and includes step-by-step guidance to get your kids eating the food you serve in 6 weeks, nutritionist approved meal plans, 21 healthy recipes kids love and nutrition guidance for nutrients such as iron, protein and more.
Cooke, Wardle and Gibson. (2003). Relationship between parental report of food neophobia and everyday food consumption in 2-6 year old children. Appetite, 41; 205-206.
Pliner, P (1994). Development of Measures of Food Neophobia in Children, Appetite, 23(2);147-163.