This is for information only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Full disclaimer here.
Whether it’s by family choice or by toddler willpower, many little kids avoid eating meat. While parenting a picky eater has a host of challenges, skipping meat doesn’t have to be a source of stress. Kids can have healthy diets even if they don’t eat any animal meat like poultry, beef, pork, or fish.
Today’s post reviews the research behind why kids don’t necessarily have to eat meat in order to be healthy, as long as they get key nutrients from the rest of their diet. I’ll go into detail about what meat can provide and how other foods can also provide these nutrients. Then, I’ll conclude with when to think about other issues related to picky eating, beyond small diet adjustments.
This is not for vegans who avoid all animal products like eggs, dairy, and honey. Believe it or not, that’s another topic. This is just for toddlers who don’t eat meat itself.
So, whether it’s the texture of meat they don’t like (common) or the idea of eating an animal (also possible), meat just isn’t the preferred food for some kids. And, of course, many families in the United States as well as all over the world are meat-free by choice. Either way, with some careful planning and a little work, it can be perfectly fine.
Vegetarian kids and meat-eating kids have similar growth and bloodwork results.
This recent study, published in May 2022 in Pediatrics found no major differences between vegetarian kids and kids who ate meat. They measured growth and checked lab work, like cholesterol, ferritin, and vitamin D. They compared body mass indices (BMI). There just weren’t significant differences between the two groups of kids.
This alone should be reassuring for any family dealing with picky eating. It can be okay! Vegetarians do need to eat a variety of foods that include several key nutrients, so it’s not effortless. More on this in the next section.
I need to note that the research did show that the vegetarian kids had a higher chance of being underweight. This does not mean that all vegetarian kids are underweight. And, otherwise there were no statistically significant differences. A toddler’s pediatrician monitors height and weight closely as part of routine care. It’s important for parents to share any dietary restrictions, food aversions, and whether their child completely avoids any food groups.
Generally speaking, I don’t think most pediatricians would advise against a vegetarian diet due to this statistical possibility.
However, each child is unique and each family should discuss their child’s growth and eating habits with their individual doctors.
What nutrition does meat provide?
Even though kids can be healthy without meat, meat still offers some important nutrients. To be clear, I’m not promoting a meat-free diet or a diet that includes meat. Each family makes the best decisions they can for their kids. This is just to share what things to look for if a young child does not eat any meat at all.
While animal meat varies, of course, there are some general things that most meat offers:
- Vitamin B12
- Niacin (also called vitamin B3)
- Vitamin B6
These are all important parts of a toddler’s diet. And yes, there’s a lot of all these important nutrients red meat, poultry, and pork. Pork also has another B vitamin called thiamin.
Some families who generally eat meat will try many different methods to serve meat to their toddlers and young children. They may try ground beef, hot dogs, pork chops, chicken nuggets, and even preparing softer meats to make them more palatable. If meat is an important part of the family meal routine, then continuing to offer what everyone eats makes sense.
The good news is that all these things can be found in other foods too! Families often worry that their children get enough protein if they’re not eating meat. It’s absolutely possible. And, protein is important.
I also encourage families to think about iron when they’re picking out foods and reading nutrition labels at the grocery store. Iron is important for brain development (so much so that most toddlers are screened for anemia that could be related to iron deficiency).
A note on fortified foods:
The other nutrients listed above also matter, but don’t get as much attention. It’s a public health win that so many cereals, breads, and pastas are fortified with many of those nutrients. So, at the very least, families can read labels and choose some basic foods accordingly. This is especially helpful for those toddlers who prefer bread products or pasta.
Below are more details about each of the nutrients. I’ll include a few vegetarian sources for protein, iron, zinc, fat, B12, B3, B6, selenium, and phosphorus.
Meat-free Sources of Protein
There are many options for protein if someone does not eat much meat. Nut butters, eggs, legumes (like black beans and soy products), and dairy products all have protein.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for American (2020-2025), toddlers 2-3 years of age may need roughly 13 grams of protein a day. (This is a rough estimate as many things go into calculating dietary requirements. I use the number here to give a concrete example of how to think about getting protein without meat. Please talk with your child’s health care team to learn specific requirements for your child).
1.75 ounces of ground beef has roughly 13 grams of protein.
What else has about 13 grams of protein?
- 2 chicken eggs
- just under 3 tablespoons of peanut butter
- 4.5 ounces of tofu
- 4.5 ounces of plain Greek yogurt
This is a daily recommendation. As mentioned, there are many protein sources, so any combination of the different foods above during the day will likely get a child what they need. For example, a single egg in the morning, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and some yogurt for a snack or dinner may be enough protein. Smaller portions are fine (ideal!) and a little bit here and there goes a long way.
Meat-free Sources of Iron
Iron helps blood do its job of getting oxygen to a child’s body, including the brain. According to the same guidelines, 2-3 year-olds need about 7mg of iron daily.
There are different types of iron. Iron from animal products (called heme iron) may be more easily absorbed by the body.
Overall, vegetarian kids can get adequate iron from non-meat sources. This type of iron is called nonheme iron. Kids can actually absorb it better if they eat the nonheme iron with something containing vitamin C. (I talk about this more regarding baby food in this post). One good example is serving peanut butter (a good source of iron) with apple slices (contains vitamin C).
If anemia or iron-deficiency is a concern, your child’s pediatrician can make specific recommendations. Sometimes children do need iron supplements. Many people who do need iron supplements take it with a sip of orange juice for the same reason. The vitamin C in the orange juice helps the iron get absorbed.
Vegetarian sources of iron:
- canned or dried tomatoes (like those used in tomato sauce)
- dried fruits
- egg yolks
- green leafy vegetables
- fortified cereals
- black beans, lentils, peas, and other legumes
- soy products like tofu
Meat-free Sources of Zinc
Some of the best-known sources of zinc are meat, including seafood. Zinc is especially important for the immune system and for growth in general. However, zinc can come from other foods as well:
- beans and legumes (including peanuts and soy)
- zinc-fortified cereals
- dairy products like cheese and milk
Vegetarian Sources of Fat
Fat is also important for children’s nutrition. If does not need to come from meat. It can come from:
- full-fat dairy products (like whole milk or yogurt)
- nuts and nut butters
- olive oil
- coconut and coconut milk
- olive oil
Meat-free sources of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is vital for a person’s blood as well as the nervous system, including the brain and nerves. This is true for both kids and adults. It comes from animal products, but it does not have to come from the meat itself. Vegans may need to take a specific B12 supplement for this reason.
Toddlers aged 1-3 need about 0.9 micrograms of B12 daily.
Some vegetarian sources of B12 include:
- dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese
- fortified nutritional yeast
- fortified cereals
Although this post is focused on toddlers and older kids, it’s worth noting that both breast milk (especially from non-vegan mothers) and infant formula contain vitamin B12. This is especially relevant in the first year of life, of course.
Meat-free Sources of Niacin (Vitamin B3)
Niacin is in many animal products (especially chicken breast and beef liver), but it’s found elsewhere too, like:
- fortified foods, like cereal and bread
- sunflower seeds
- brown rice
Meat-free Sources of Selenium
Selenium is important for hormones as well as other bodily functions. Kids aged 1-3 years need about 20 micrograms a day. Poultry, fish, and other meats are a common source. If a toddler isn’t eating any meat, they can get selenium from:
- Brazil nuts
- cottage cheese
- dairy products
- brown rice
- whole wheat bread
Vegetarian Sources of Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 is important for many different parts of the body, including metabolism, brain function, and immune function. Toddlers need 0.5 mg (milligram) daily. Meat-free sources include:
- chickpeas (1 cup has 1.1 mg of vitamin B6!)
- cottage cheese
- winter squash
Meat-free Sources of Phosphorus
Toddlers need about 460 mg phosphorus daily. It can be found in many foods, including these vegetarian foods:
- kidney beans
- sesame seeds
- corn tortillas
Thinking Beyond a Vegetarian Diet for Kids
As you can see, it’s clear that kids can get what they need nutritionally even if they don’t eat meat. The key is a variety of foods from a variety of sources.
However, if a child is choosing to be vegetarian (especially if it’s not the family preference), it’s worth thinking about a few other things. The main concern may not be nutrition. If there is a fear of new foods, concerns for a food allergy or other medical condition, or just generally really selective eating, please discuss this with their pediatrician as it may be a sign of bigger challenges.
Pediatricians can help or refer to those who can offer more expert advice. So-called fussy eating can be stressful for families. Occupational therapists and registered dieticians can be the professional help a child needs in order for them to eat a balanced diet in a stress-free way.
Summary: Toddlers don’t have to eat meat if they have a thoughtfully varied diet.
Animal products can offer good nutrition. However, if children don’t eat meat, the best way for them to get the nutrition they need is by eating different foods from a variety of sources. Looking over the foods listed in the sections above, a few food groups keep showing up. Regularly including beans, eggs, dairy products, and vegetables is one easy way to get started. See this post for tips on incorporating more plant-based foods into their diet.
Unless they take specific supplements, they do still need some animal products like dairy or eggs (for vitamin B12 especially). The above lists can be a starting point, but please talk with your child’s pediatrician for specific advice.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.
Photo by Hannah Tasker via Unsplash.