When considering toddler food, pediatric nutritionists recommend that toddlers eat one to two ounces of meat, chicken, or fish daily, putting their well-earned teeth to use. When added to a diet of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, meat offers a source for protein, iron, zinc, selenium, vitamins, and the healthy fats that help their brains develop. But it can be tough to understand what meat to offer a toddler, particularly given not only the sheer volume of options at the butcher counter, but also kid preferences, and safety concerns.
“Provide tender, moist meats that are well cooked, not undercooked or rare, and that are in chunks larger than ¼ inch pieces,” says Nancy Z. Farrell, MS, a Fredericksburg, VA-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
For parents buying meat for little kids, “lean” and “tender” are the operative terms. Fat — the healthy kind, which is also found in avocados, olive oil, yogurt, and nuts — is a key element for child development, but that doesn’t mean parents should be serving up a slab of gristle off a well-marbled porterhouse.
“Add some broth or au jus to help moisten meats, and don’t overcook as they will become more dry and difficult to chew and swallow for toddlers just learning the motor skills required in eating.”
For pork, that means tenderloin or chops. Chicken is universally loved for tender breast meat and fun-to-eat drumsticks. However beef can be a bit more complicated. Parents should look for leaner ground beef: it’s as diverse an ingredient for kids as they can get. That said, cut-up steak or slow-cooked roasts work too. More exotic wild game meats like venison and boar are great, though they come with a very tough conversation about meat that goes beyond the barnyard.
How to Choose and Cook the Best Meats for a Toddler
- Look for lean tender cuts of terrestrial animals that are easy to chew.
- For fish, look for wild-caught species that are low in mercury, most often those on the bottom of the food chain.
- Buy deli meat cut to order rather than pre-packaged
- Cook meats to well done and add jus to help moisten.
- Cut meat into chunks no larger than 1/4 inch.
The deli case is another solid place to secure meat for kids, especially given that cold cuts are relatively easy to consume and diverse: They can be served in sandwich form, or even wrapped around cheese sticks to create their own superfood. However, it’s advised that parents stick with meats cut-to-order and avoid pre-packaged meats, which can be chock full of filler and contain elevated levels of nitrates. Those are also commonly found in hot dogs, which also function as an esophagus-sized choking hazard even at their most healthy.
Fish, too, is a great way to integrate meat (and some much-needed fatty acid) into a diet, Farrell explains. “Fresh wild fish is best one to two times per week. Enjoy wild or wild frozen salmon, rainbow trout and tuna for the Omega-3 benefits,” she says. “Fish lowest in mercury would be advisable, such as flounder, haddock, perch, pollack, salmon, scallops, shrimp, trout, whitefish and whiting.”
Fish can be a tough sell for some kids, and with it preparation is key. Ideally, that preparation would involve grilling, baking, or sautéing. But the temptation is to hit up ol’ Captain Gorton in the freezer aisle, for fish of the stick variety. Happily, while heavily processed fish sticks and other preservative-rich foods aren’t necessarily the best source of sustenance, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the occasional fish fry or chicken tender, for that matter.
Many pediatric dietitians, after all, consider just getting kids to eat something — anything — to be a minor victory. If that means serving up the occasional breaded meat, well, a win’s a win, though it shouldn’t be the norm. Moderation, with fried meat as with all things, is essential.