How do we help kids learn to eat meat?

I’ve been asked this question over and over by many a frustrated parent, carer and early childhood educator.

Meat is one of the most difficult foods to learn how to chew and eat. It is a “hard mechanical” food that requires a mature style of chewing called a rotary chew. Meat is also an exceedingly UNPREDICTABLE food (like fruits and veggies) that can taste, smell, look and feel very different from one meal to the next and from dish to dish.

Whilst there are no sure-fire ways to “get kids to eat” anything, we can support children to explore and become familiar with meat in the following ways:

  1. Provide plenty of opportunities for kids to strengthen jaw muscles and to practice moving food around in the mouth using their tongue (also called the transverse tongue reflex), especially from an early age.
  2. We can do this by providing children from a young age with food they can really bite and munch on. Store-bought rusks are good for this but real, whole foods like Frenched lamb chop bones with a little meat left on, or other harder foods like a whole carrot or a stick of celery. Foods like these provide added exposure to variations in texture, smell and flavour. By keeping the pieces big (aim for the size of a thick marker pen), they are too large to be a choking hazard but lots of fun to munch and chew down on. Of course it’s essential that you supervise children at all times for sit-down meal and snack times for safety.

  3. Regularly provide children with meaty finger foods to explore.
  4. Understand that tasting and eating are not the only measures of a successful meal. Is your child relaxed and happy at mealtimes? Can you see them slowly creeping up on new foods at their own pace? Show your child how meat “works”. If they are showing interest, demonstrate how to chop it or tear it into smaller pieces or how to use a fork to pick it up.  All of these things can help your child become increasingly familiar with different kinds of meat. Get used to waste and mess while your child is still learning, even as they move past toddlerhood and into childhood.

  5. Offer your child different kinds of meats at meal times and keep up the variety, no matter what.
  6. Eat types of meat, chicken and fish that you enjoy and ones that you’d like your children to learn to like. Don’t fall into the trap of only serving sausages and chicken nuggets. That is a one-way road to mealtime boredom. If the meat is going to be a challenge, serve it anyway alongside one or two foods your child will usually eat. By doing this, you will give your child countless opportunities to learn about meat, even if they’re not up for eating it yet. They might be up for serving it to someone else or exploring it by smelling, touching, chopping it, or tearing it into pieces.

  7. Involve your kids in cooking and serving meat.
  8. Learning away from the dinner table provides your child a pressure-free way to sneak up on and learn about meats. I won’t get your hopes up. Preparing doesn’t always = trying or tasting new foods, but think of it as another coin in the familiarity bank. It all adds up.

  9. Match meat with a familiar sauce or side-dish that your child usually enjoys.
  10. Consider adding something familiar. Familiar sauces or side dishes are called bridging foods. They can be any food that makes a new/not yet eaten food more appealing or palatable. Sauces, dips, spreads (e.g. nut butter, jams, honey), butter, yoghurts, spices or herbs and even bread! For example, bread is a great bridging food for soup.

  11. Show kids HOW to eat meat – “show me and I’ll learn”
  12. Eating is a learned skill, and it’s no news that kids learn best through watching parents and carers eat alongside them. When we eat with kids, we can’t assume they’ll know how or what to do. Sometimes we need to show them how. For example: “This meat is chewy, we need to chew it with our big back teeth”.  Allow kids to watch you and copy you, when they are ready of course.

Wishing you and your little carnivores many meaty meals to come.

Eat happy!

Deb Blakley
Accredited Practising Dietitian & Director

image of unhappy kid faceplanting on the sandwich on his plate

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