Two-year-old Ellie will eat every veggie on her plate, but when she tries a bite of beef, she immediately spits it out. “It’s a bit of a concern, because I know protein is important,” says her mom, Kimberley Tremblay, of North Bay, Ont. Jennifer Hamm, a registered dietitian and mom of one in Bedford, NS, agrees that protein is a fundamental part of a kid’s diet. “It supports muscle growth and development, and foods with protein often have iron—an essential nutrient we don’t make ourselves,” she says.The healthiest yogurts that kids will actually eat
Whatever the reason for your kid’s meat aversion (texture, flavour, pure toddler willfulness), the good news is there are lots of other sources of protein. Plus, kids don’t need as much of it as you might think. According to the Canada Food Guide, kids ages two to eight need the equivalent of one adult serving of meat or alternatives over the course of the day, which works out to 85 grams of meat (picture a deck of cards), ¾ cup of legumes or two tablespoons of nut butter. There isn’t an official recommendation for kids between 12 and 24 months, so a bit less than one serving is likely fine, says Hamm. “Think of a 30-gram serving at each meal or even just twice a day: That could be half an egg, ¼ cup of hummus or a tablespoon of nut butter on toast,” she says. Here are some tips to help your toddler get her share.
Change the texture
Since many kids don’t like the texture of meat, try cooking it in a way that might be more appealing to them. Jennifer House, a Calgary-based registered dietitian and mom of three, suggests using your slow cooker to simmer meat in a liquid like tomato sauce or chicken broth to make pork, beef or chicken more tender and easy to eat. Ground meats are easier to chew, too, so serve up things like spaghetti with meat sauce, chilli and tacos (cut up for easy eating).
Legumes, nuts and seeds are good high-protein alternatives to meat, and they offer added nutritional benefits, like fibre and complex carbohydrates. House suggests serving cooked black beans as a finger food. She also notes that red lentils are versatile: When cooked, they can be mashed with sweet potato, served as a dip or whirled into a smoothie. Silken tofu is another easy option. While nuts and seeds are good sources of protein, they’re a choking hazard for kids under age four, so stick to the spreadable variety—try almond, pumpkin seed and cashew butters. You can also mix chia seeds or hemp hearts into baked goods.
Remember dairy and eggs
Animal proteins don’t have to come from meat—both dairy and eggs are good sources. Cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are particularly high in protein, but keep in mind that it’s important to choose products with high milk fat, which toddlers need for their growing brains and bodies, says Hamm. Eggs are also super versatile—they can be mixed into pasta, potatoes and other dishes, and you can even pick up pasteurized eggs in a carton to add to smoothies, notes House.
Think like a toddler
Young kids love finger foods and dipping. Try giving your little one small chunks of meat to plunk in a healthy sauce like tzatziki or unsweetened applesauce. Or offer a protein-rich vegetarian dip, like hummus, with some pita or veggies. To make fish more kid-friendly, coat pieces in high-fibre cereal for healthy fish sticks, or form cooked fish into patties and pan-fry them. Other high-protein finger foods include steamed edamame (cut into pieces) and green peas. You can also follow up meals with fun encouragement like, “Wow, you finished your protein, and protein helps you build strong muscles—show me your muscles!” Just don’t make the dinner table a battleground or offer rewards for eating something, says House. “Make protein part of your family meals without making a big deal out of it.”
Expert Tip: Even kids as young as one year old are usually much more interested in eating when they’re included in preparing meals and when they have a choice of what to eat, says House. “Get your toddlers involved somehow—let them stir the dip or make their own platefuls from a small selection of foods,” she says.