Little is known about the effects of undernutrition on the specific muscles and neuronal circuits involved in mastication. The aim of this study was to document the effects of neonatal low-protein diet on masticatory efficiency. Newborn rats whose mothers were fed 17 % (nourished (N), n 60) or 8 % (undernourished (U), n 56) protein were compared. Their weight was monitored and their masticatory jaw movements were video-recorded. Whole-cell patch-clamp recordings were performed in brainstem slice preparations to investigate the intrinsic membrane properties and N-methyl-d-aspartate-induced bursting characteristics of the rhythmogenic neurons (N, n 43; U, n 39) within the trigeminal main sensory nucleus (NVsnpr). Morphometric analysis (N, n 4; U, n 5) were conducted on masseteric muscles serial cross-sections. Our results showed that undernourished animals had lower numbers of masticatory sequences (P=0·049) and cycles (P=0·045) and slower chewing frequencies (P=0·004) (N, n 32; U, n 28). Undernutrition reduced body weight but had little effect on many basic NVsnpr neuronal electrophysiological parameters. It did, however, affect sag potentials (P<0·001) and rebound firing (P=0·005) that influence firing pattern. Undernutrition delayed the appearance of bursting and reduced the propensity to burst (P=0·002), as well as the bursting frequency (P=0·032). Undernourished animals showed increased and reduced proportions of fibre type IIA (P<0·0001) and IIB (P<0·0001), respectively. In addition, their fibre areas (IIA, P<0·001; IIB, P<0·001) and perimeters (IIA, P<0·001; IIB, P<0·001) were smaller. The changes observed at the behavioural, neuronal and muscular levels suggest that undernutrition reduces chewing efficiency by slowing, weakening and delaying maturation of the masticatory muscles and the associated neuronal circuitry.