What to do when your child won't eat meat

So your child’s mad for broccoli and wants to eat heaps of veggies. You should be jumping for joy, right? But there’s a catch – they don’t want to eat meat. Ever again.

Dealing with a little vegetarian who shrieks at the thought of eating anything that once moved can seem daunting. However, with a little planning you can still support your child’s preferences and meet their nutritional needs.

No meat please

Mum Robyn wasn’t shocked when her six-year-old daughter Chloe told her six months ago that she essentially wanted to be a vegetarian.

“Chloe’s always been a fussy eater and never liked the taste or chewiness of meat,” says Robyn. “Occasionally she’d eat chicken, but that was it.” 

And even that changed after visiting an animal farm. “Chloe saw the cute baby chicks and announced she didn’t want to eat chicken anymore,” Robyn says. “She’s always been an animal lover as we have pets, and is very empathetic, so that had something to do with it. She wouldn’t budge.”   

Along with veggies and carbs, Chloe eats proteins like eggs, cheese and baked beans. “Her energy levels seem fine,” Robyn says. “I just hope as she gets older it’ll be enough to sustain her.” 

Bupa dietitian Gemma Cosgriff says the age of the child is important when going vegetarian. “It’s not recommended for babies or very young children due to nutritional needs,” she says. “However, older kids can still thrive on a vegetarian diet.” 

So how do you cater for a little vego, particularly if you’re not one yourself? 

“Discuss why they want the change,” says Cosgriff. “Is it because they don’t like the way you cook meat, which could be changed, or for another reason? If they’re certain, get them involved in shopping and cooking so they’re aware of their choice.” Continue to discuss their choice as time goes on.
girl helping cut tomatoes

Serve a variety of foods

Once you’ve accepted your child’s choice, stress they need to eat a wide variety of foods other than meat, and not just one favourite veggie like potatoes (aka hot chips!). This helps them get the different nutrients they need for strong, healthy bodies.

Cosgriff says all three daily meals, plus two snacks, should be as nutrient-rich as possible. “Make sure cereals are wholegrain with fortified iron, and dairy products are full-fat with good calcium levels,” she says. Cook with good quality oils such as olive or canola, and provide fruit snacks. 

Protein-wise, nuts, eggs, beans, legumes, tofu, and dairy are good sources, and will help ensure sufficient zinc and iron intake as well. You can also serve orange juice with baked beans as it aids iron absorption.

Adapt with options

If no-one else in the family is vegetarian, don’t run yourself ragged cooking different meals. Encourage your child to adapt. “If you’re cooking a stir-fry you may have tofu, nuts and vegetables in there, but also serve beef strips in a bowl so others can add meat,” Gemma suggests.

If you’re really out of your depth, chat to a doctor or accredited practicing dietitian. They may even recommend a blood test if you’re not sure if your child’s iron needs are being met.

“A vegetarian diet can be very nutritious; we could all benefit from eating vegetarian meals several times a week, anyway,” Cosgriff emphasises. “However, parents need the right information.”

The key to a good childhood vegetarian diet is research. It may not be what you feel like doing when you’re already juggling work and laundry, but kids have a knack of testing your boundaries. If done right, a meat-free diet can be healthy – not only for your child, but for the whole family.
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