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Nurturing a Growing Plant-Based Family: Tips for Raising Vegetarian or Vegan Kids

In recent times, there has been a noticeable surge in the number of individuals adopting vegetarian and vegan diets, driven by various motivations. You and your family might be looking to reduce animal product consumption due to health, animal welfare or economic reasons. If your family has embraced this lifestyle, you might be wondering if it's possible to provide your infant, toddler, pre-schooler or older child with a vegetarian or vegan diet that ensures their optimal growth and development. The answer is yes, but it does require some extra planning and attention to their nutritional needs.

Plant-based diets are often rich in fibre due to increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and legumes. While this is generally beneficial for health, it can pose a challenge for young children who may feel full faster and, as a result, not consume enough calories to support their growth. To address this, incorporating "energy-dense" options into their meals, particularly during snack times, can be a great strategy. Think of delicious and nutritious choices like nut butter and coconut yogurt smoothies, chia seed puddings, bliss balls packed with nuts and seeds, and sandwiches spread with nut butters, avocado, or hummus.

When raising vegetarian or vegan children, it's important to pay special attention to certain nutrients to prevent deficiencies. Some plant-based products are fortified with essential nutrients, such as fortified milks and breads, making label reading an essential practice to ensure your child's diet is well-rounded.

Protein: Meat is a primary source of complete proteins containing all essential amino acids. Plant sources, on the other hand, offer only some of these essential amino acids. However, by providing a variety of plant-based foods daily, most children can meet their energy and protein requirements. Legumes, beans, eggs, nuts, and seeds are all excellent sources of protein for your little ones.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fish is renowned for being a top source of omega-3 fatty acids, vital for growth and brain health. To obtain these fatty acids from a vegetarian diet, children need rich sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body converts into EPA and DHA (components of omega-3’s). Foods like chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds (linseeds), and hemp seeds can supply the necessary sources of ALA.

Iron: Iron comes in two forms: haem and non-haem iron. Vegetarian diets mainly contain non-haem iron, which is not as easily absorbed. Enhance iron absorption by pairing non-haem iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich options. Be cautious with calcium-rich foods like dairy, as calcium can compete with iron for absorption in the gut. Try to offer milk after your child has eaten, rather than with their meal. Iron-rich foods for your child include tofu, legumes, leafy green vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, and iron-fortified products such as Weetbix.

Calcium: Vegan diets exclude dairy products, making calcium a nutrient of concern. Calcium is crucial for teeth and bone development. In place of dairy, opt for fortified milk substitutes, such as soy milk. Additionally, include calcium-rich foods like dates, figs, broccoli, kale, almonds, sesame seeds, and tofu in your child's diet.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is exclusively found in animal products. If your child is not consuming meat, dairy or eggs, they will likely need supplementation. Consult your Registered Nutritionist or healthcare professional to ensure their B12 intake is adequate.

Vitamin D: Most vitamin D is produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight. However, a small portion comes from dietary sources like eggs, oily fish, and liver. If these foods are omitted from your child's diet and they have limited sun exposure, vitamin D deficiency becomes a concern, particularly on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Speak with your Registered Nutritionist or healthcare professional if you suspect your child may be at risk.

It's not impossible to follow a plant-based diet with children and with proper planning and attention to their nutritional needs, you can ensure they get all of the nutrients they need. By incorporating a variety of plant-based foods rich in essential nutrients, you can ensure your child grows and thrives on their chosen dietary path. Remember, consulting a Registered Nutritionist is always a wise step to ensure your child's specific needs are met.

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