While many parents may worry whether it is safe to feed their baby, toddler, or older child a vegetarian diet, the fact is children can be perfectly healthy, and get plenty of protein, without eating meat. In fact, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, there are approximately 1.4 million youth in the United States that are vegetarian.
Yet we all know that simply avoiding meat does not mean that children will be getting all the nutrients that they need for healthy growth and development. For example, consuming excessive amounts of milk, along with grain heavy and processed foods, can lead to nutrient deficiencies and excess weight, while technically being vegetarian.
The key is to implement a vegetarian diet wisely. A healthy vegetarian diet is high in vegetables, fruit, legumes (such as beans and lentils), dairy (or equivalent sources of calcium and vitamin D), and whole grains.
Iron and Zinc
In order to support optimal nutrition for your child, include foods that are good sources of iron and zinc at least twice per day. Iron carries oxygen to all cells in the body, while zinc is vital for normal growth and immune development. While both of these nutrients are found in ample supply in meat, poultry, and seafood, they can also be found in plant foods.
Examples of vegetarian sources of iron include:
- iron-fortified oatmeal mixed with egg yolk
- hummus served on iron-enriched, whole-grain bread
- edamame (removed from pods) sprinkled with lemon juice
- Cheese quesadilla with mashed avocado and beans
Iron is best absorbed when a vitamin C containing food is included in the same meal, such as: orange, strawberry, melon, sweet potato, tomato, bell pepper or broccoli.
Zinc can be found in:
- beans and lentils
- dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, and milk
- zinc fortified cereals
Protein is found in many foods aside from animal products. Your child can get the protein they need in order to build and repair muscles, make enzymes and hormones, and support a healthy immune system from foods such as:
- beans, peas, lentils
- nut or seed butter
- Fortified soy milk
- milk, cheese, yogurt (either dairy or a plant based alternative)
You will also want to make sure that your child is getting adequate amounts of healthy fats, such as the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA. DHA is particularly important for brain development during the rapid growth that takes place during the first three years of life.
Breast milk and formula are good sources of DHA, but once your child is older than 12 months, they will most likely no longer be receiving either of those. While fish is an excellent source of DHA, vegetarian children will need to find their DHA elsewhere.
Look for DHA-enriched yogurt, cereal, milk, or eggs. If your child has a limited diet and you feel that they are not getting enough healthy fats, you can consider supplementation and consult with your pediatrician or registered dietitian.
If your child is drinking dairy milk, offer 3.25% homogenized whole milk until your child is two years old at which point you can then transition to the low-fat variety.
By making an effort to provide your child with a wide variety of nutritious foods, with an eye on foods that contain these key nutrients, you can ensure that your child is getting the nutrition they need from plant sources.
Do you have a question about how to feed your child a healthy diet? Let us know about your challenges and your wins!
Reference: Castle, J., Jacobson, M. (2013). Fearless feeding: How to raise healthy eaters from high chair to high school. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.