Maybe your child figured out that the nuggets on their plate came from an actual once-living chicken. Maybe they read about animal abuse, or saw a documentary about factory farming, and want to change their diet as a result. Or maybe your family is raising kids as vegetarians or vegans for ethical or religious reasons.
Whatever the reason, the parents of vegetarian and vegan kids have the same concerns about diet and health as anyone else trying to get their child to eat a varied diet.
A 2010 survey by Vegetarian Resource Group found that three per cent of youth in the United States are vegetarian, which means about 1.4 million people. Celebrities who are vegan or vegetarian continue to help raise the profile of this dietary choice, and some teens are changing their diets as well.
It is perfectly healthy to be vegetarian, or even vegan. Millions of people around the world have survived and thrived on diets that eliminate meat or other animal products. But it’s also natural for a parent to be concerned about a sudden change in diet.
Read on to learn more about keeping kids' healthy on a vegetarian or vegan diet, including nutrients to pay attention to and signs that you should get outside help to ensure your child’s diet isn’t just kind to animals, but is also healthy for their growing body.
Talk to your kids: Find out why they are making this change — understanding their motivation can help you be more supportive. And don’t dismiss their feelings as a phase or a whim. Your child is much more likely to work with you to ensure their diet is healthy and nutritionally adequate if you show a legitimate interest in their passions, even if you don’t share this particular one.
Learn about the health benefits: In addition to being safe, there’s some evidence that a vegetarian or vegan diet has health benefits that even children will enjoy. Vegetarian and vegan diets have been associated with lower intake of cholesterol and total fat and higher intake of fruit, vegetables, and fibre.
Don’t raise a pastafarian: Kids — and sometimes their parents — can rely too much on food like spaghetti or packages of ramen noodles when they cut out meat. But while we all need carbs, a balance of nutrients is important.
Encourage variety: Let your child try a wide variety of foods across all the food groups, and include multiple sources of protein, iron, calcium, and other nutrients often found in animal foods in their diet. "A very restrictive diet can be low in energy, protein and essential vitamins and minerals, leading to poor growth,” says Alexandra Briceno, pediatric registered dietitian. “Hence, the importance of providing a variety of age appropriate foods from food groups."
Cookbooks are your friend: This is a great opportunity to try new recipes and find delicious meals that the whole family can enjoy, whether or not they eat meat. Even better, find opportunities to include your child in the decision-making around food, whether it’s by taking them grocery shopping, having them suggest recipes, or getting their help in the kitchen. Engaging them in their food choices at all levels shows your support and keeps them excited about trying new things. Oh She Glows, Post Punk Kitchen, and Manjula’s Kitchen are a few great places to start.
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Try these easy vegetarian recipes:
Pay attention to protein: There are plenty of non-animal protein sources available, and children should include a mix of them in their diets to ensure they get all their essential amino acids. "Before supplementing with vitamins and minerals, start by including non-animal protein and iron rich foods such as iron-fortified whole grains, quinoa, tofu, beans, lentils, chickpeas, edamames, hummus, nuts, nut-butters, chia, hemp and sunflower seeds,” Briceno says. If your child does eat some animal products, eggs and Greek yogurt are also good protein sources.
Watch vitamin D and calcium: Animal foods are also sources of vitamin D and calcium — yogurt, for example, is a good source, as is milk which has vitamin D added. Ensure your child is getting these two nutrients from some reliable source, preferably one that is food-based. "Make sure your child has adequate calcium/Vitamin D intake by including dairy products or calcium-fortified nondairy milks and yogurt, calcium-fortified whole grains and dark leafy greens,” Briceno says.
Get enough B12: Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy functioning of the nervous system, and is found only in animal foods or in foods that have been supplemented with the vitamin. If your child is removing animal foods, it’s essential to make sure they’re getting this vitamin by other means and to watch for deficiencies. Your physician can check for B12 levels with a blood test, and there are many options for supplementation; the liquids that go under the tongue are generally the best absorbed.
Talk to your physician: As with any other lifestyle changes, talk to your physician about your child’s diet. They may be able to suggest some resources that can help you and your child ensure they’re eating a healthy and varied diet, and can keep an eye out for nutritional deficiencies like low vitamin B12. Your doctor may want to regularly test for some nutrients depending on how your child’s diet looks, Briceno says.
Keep an eye on them: Be sure to watch that your child is growing as expected for their age, and not showing signs of particular nutritional deficiencies, Briceno says. Children on a vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy, of course, but if children have other dietary restrictions or are picky eaters they might not be getting enough of some nutrients. "A pediatric dietitian or a nutrition healthcare can help you meal plan and incorporate the right foods to meet your child’s protein, vitamin and mineral requirements,” she says.