There is a lot of speculation surrounding the benefits of a vegetarian diet for children and quite a few people argue that it isn’t healthy because this meal plan is lacking in essential nutrients. However, research clearly indicates that vegan and vegetarian kids grow up to be stronger and healthier than their meat-eating peers. They are also less prone to obesity and some studies even claim that this diet has a positive effect on cognitive abilities.
If this is what you want for your kid, you should transition them to a vegetarian diet as early as possible. As long as you understand the nutritional needs of your child at different stages of their development and make sure to meet them with healthy plant-based meals, you would be able to prevent any health issues caused by nutrient deficiencies. We’ll help you by offering a detailed meal plan that would help you raise a healthy vegetarian child. Note that this diet is based on the assumption that the baby is breastfed from birth.
Vegetarian Diet for Children: Nutritional Needs Based on Age
To develop a healthy meal plan for your precious baby, you need to know which elements they need most during the first months and years of their lives.
This element is of vital importance because it’s the ‘building material’ the body uses to grow. Without animal-based proteins, you will need to rely on a mix of grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables to provide this essential nutrient. The upside of vegetarianism in this particular case is that plant-based proteins are easier for the body to process.
Yes, children need healthy fats, and they require more of them than adults do as these elements play an important role in the body’s development. One of the best things about a vegetarian diet for kids is that plant fats are the healthiest kind there is. Including avocados, nut butters, and soybeans into your child’s meals will provide them with enough fats to help them grow into a healthy person.
- Vitamin B12.
Of course, kids require all vitamins for proper development. However, the one shortcoming of a vegetarian diet for children is that it doesn’t provide much vitamin B12. As supplements can be introduced only when your kid gets older, you will need to prevent this particular deficiency with the help of fortified soymilk and cereals.
- Vitamin D.
Very little of this vitamin can be acquired through diet, regardless of whether it’s plant or animal-based. Our bodies generate this vitamin on their own when they are exposed to sunlight, so make sure your kid spends some time playing outdoors every day. However, you shouldn’t forget about the dangers of UV radiation, so applying a sunscreen is a must. Once your kids get a bit older, regular multivitamins will be able to provide that with a sufficient amount of this element.
One of the greatest parental fears is that a vegetarian diet will rob their kids off calcium. However, this meal plan doesn’t exclude dairy products, and even if you want to avoid them, fortified soymilk, broccoli, leafy greens, and legumes will provide your children with enough calcium to develop a healthy and strong bone structure.
Note that excluding animal proteins and salt helps the body retain this mineral more efficiently.
This element should go hand in hand with vitamin C, because the latter increases the rate of iron absorption. Note that this mineral is very difficult for the body to process, so even eating iron-rich foods doesn’t mean that your child gets enough of it. The best solution in a vegetarian diet for children is to combine legumes with tomatoes (think bean burritos with salsa). Iron comes from leafy veggies and beans, while the best sources of vitamin C are bell peppers, tomatoes, kiwi, and citrus fruits.
Vegetarian Diet for Infants
Breastfeeding is the healthiest nutrition option for newborns, but you will need to start introducing other foods into your little one’s diet at the age of about 5 months. This is how the first stages of a vegetarian diet for infants should go:
- 5-6 months.
Start feeding your baby fortified cereals. Prepare them using breast milk or soy formula. Note that the first cereals in your baby’s diet should be rice, oat, and barley. Rice first as it has the lowest risk of triggering an allergic reaction. Don’t give your infant wheat until they are 8 months old at the least and be sure to watch out for any allergy symptoms after this.
- 6-8 months.
At this point, you can start introducing vegetables, fruits, tofu, beans, and breads (crackers and dry cereal). Be sure that all the food is well-cooked and mashed. Steam cooking would be the best option for an infant as this is the healthiest cooking method available.
Vegetarian Diet for Children
Starting at the age of one, kids can eat almost anything, save for mushrooms and whole nuts when they are very young. However, you should be careful and introduce new food groups gradually to ensure the child’s body adjusts to processing new products and flavors.
Here are a few tips for a healthy meal plan based on the kid’s age:
- 1-4 years.
Provide your little one with 4 servings of grains (breads or cereals) a day. Complement this with 2-4 tablespoons of green veggies and ¼-½ cups of other vegetables. They should be followed with ¾-1½ cups of fruits and 3 servings of milk (breast milk or soymilk). You should also give your baby up to ½ cup of well-cooked and thoroughly mashed legumes for protein and minerals.
- 5-6 years.
At this age you’ll need to stick to the same food groups, though the meals can be cooked in a variety of ways and fruits and veggies should be eaten fresh as often as possible. To ensure a healthy development of your child, you’ll need to provide them with 6 servings of grains, ½-1 cup of legumes, ½ cup of vegetables and 1-2 cups of fruits every day. Don’t forget to include an extra ¼ cup of dark green veggies. If your little one doesn’t like them, get creative and add this vital ingredient to delicious smoothies.
- 7-12 years.
Now your kids can eat absolutely everything, including nuts. Though, you should still be careful with mushrooms and ensure they are well-cooked. As the body is growing very fast at this age, a proper vegetarian diet for children should include at least 7 servings of grains, 4 servings of veggies, 2 servings of legumes, and 3 servings of fruits per day. Milk is always a welcome ingredient in a child’s diet, especially if it’s fortified with calcium and other minerals. About 3 servings of milk a day would suffice to keep your kid healthy.
Vegetarian Diet for Teens
By the time your children turn 13, they would be perfectly accustomed to a vegetarian diet and you can focus on expanding their horizons with introducing new flavors. Spices and creative recipes will help you teach your kids to love this particular meal plan. In order to stay healthy, they’ll need to eat at least 10 servings of grains, 3 servings of legumes, 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables (each) and 2-3 servings of milks.
This is the right time to introduce some vegetarian food supplements that will provide your kids with vitamin B12 and other essential nutrients. They will make up for any imbalances in their daily meals. However, remember that a multivitamin can’t help deal with serious nutrient deficiencies.
It’s vitally important to keep your teenager’s diet well-balanced. You’ll need to teach your child how to do this on their own and explain why healthy eating plays such a vital part in their life. Teens can be notoriously difficult about this, so you should start educating your children when they are younger.
You’ll definitely need to resort to some special tricks to get your kids eat healthier. However, if you make them love good food since their first years on this planet, the habit will stick with them through the rest of their lives. Therefore, introducing a vegetarian diet for children during the first months is the most efficient approach.