Your child arrives home one day and proudly declares that he or she is no longer eating meat, or any other animal products for that matter. “What?!” may be the first thing that may enter your mind or come out of your mouth.
More often than not, parents don’t choose a vegetarian diet for their children and the declaration of new veggie ways has the potential to stir up some anxiety. Don’t fret! It’s more than possible for our kids (and us) to reap the benefits of a healthful vegetarian style of eating, and love it too!
Many toddlers and preschoolers simply don’t prefer the taste or texture of animal protein, while older kids and teens may choose to go veg for social, ethical or environmental reasons. Whatever the reason, it’s important to consider the nutritional adequacy of your child’s food choices within an overall healthy eating plan (because Pop-tarts® aren’t any healthier on a vegetarian diet!).
You probably already know this, but for the sake of review,l et’s cover the basics. There are different kinds of vegetarians, depending on what they choose to eat. Broadly speaking, someone who calls him/herself, “a vegetarian” does not eat meat, fish, or poultry, or byproducts of these items. There are some specific categories as well.
SEMI-VEGETARIAN: Some consider this stretching the definition of a vegetarian, but it is a category nonetheless. A semi-vegetarian is someone who eats animal flesh on an occasional basis. You mayhave also heard the terms, pollo vegetarian – someone who avoids red meat and fish but eats chicken, and pesco pollo vegetarian – someone who avoids red meat but eats chicken and fish.
LACTO-OVO VEGETARIAN: A lacto-ovo vegetarian (most common) excludes meat, fish, and poultry, but enjoys eating dairy products and eggs. Cheese, ice cream, yogurt, milk, eggs, and the like, may be part of alacto-ovo’s day.
LACTO VEGETARIAN: A lacto vegetarian takes it one step further than the lacto-ovo and excludes eggs. All dairy foods are considered acceptable.
VEGAN: A vegan is a vegetarian who avoids eating ALL animal products – meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, honey, and any foods that contain by-products of these items. Vegans may also avoid using non-food items made with animal by-products, such as leather, wool, and silk.
Variety & Simplicity
A vegetarian diet can be healthy at any age, and doesn’thave to be complex. One could choose to eat the many different types of available meat analogs on the market such as veggie sausage, chicken, or bacon. Perhaps the idea of this sounds a little bit too much like, well, meat. The key is to include a wide variety of foods, and the appropriate amount to meet calorie and nutrient needs.
Beans and legumes, nuts, nut butters and seeds, fruits, leafy greens and other vegetables, and whole grains can help you get all you need. Dairy foods and eggs may also be included for the lacto-ovos among us. Many popular dishes are already, or can be made to be vegetarian with the replacement of animal protein -– bean burritos, veggie pizza, or vegetable lasagna (made with soy cheese for our vegan friends), black bean soup, and hummus wraps are just a few examples. Replace chicken with beans on a salad, or beef with tofu in a stir-fry. Veggie burgers and dogs are simple summer staples for the grill. Start with grilled or roasted vegetables as the centerpiece of your meals, and accent with vegetarian sources of protein and whole grains. Tie a bow around it with fresh fruit for dessert, and you can’t go wrong.
Nutritional adequacy, and disordered eating or weight concerns are things for parents of vegetarian children to consider. Let’s talk nutritional adequacy first. There are a few key nutrients to attend to.
PROTEIN: Protein needs are easily met by eating a variety of plant foods. Vegetarian protein sources include beans and peas, nuts, and soy foods such as tofu and tempeh. Just two servings per day are all that’s needed of these foods; nuts make a great snack, and combinations of foods are not necessary to satisfy protein needs. Dairy foods and eggs are super protein sources for lacto-ovo vegetarians.
CALCIUM: This mineral is important, as you know, especially during childhood and adolescence. Three good sources each day are what we’re talking about here. Cow’s milk and other dairy products, calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice, leafy green vegetables like kale and collards, and tofu processed with calcium sulfate can give vegetarians what they need.
IRON: Young people have relatively high requirements for iron, and many plant foods (oats, beans, leafy greens, tofu, whole wheat bread) are good sources. It’s important to consider that iron from plant foods is not as well-absorbed by the body as iron from meat sources. However, vitamin-C-rich foods (i.e., citrus fruits and juices, tomatoes) eaten in conjunction with these iron-containing foods can help to increase their absorption.
VITAMIN B12: Since vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods, vegans should pay special attention here. Choose fortified foods such as cereal or soyproducts, or take a vitamin B12 supplement – the amount offered in a multivitamin is also considered adequate.
Tip: If you’re a breastfeeding vegan Mom, be sure to include a reliable source of B12 in your diet, as well as vitamin D or adequate sun exposure.
With regard to disordered eating, many teens (girls, especially) are concerned about weight. In some cases, teens may choose a vegetarian diet solely for the purpose of calorie restriction and/or weight loss. The choice to go vegetarian may actually mask disordered eating behaviors, or irrational thoughts about food and weight. If you suspect this to be the case for your child, don’t wait to discuss it with his or her primary care provider.
- Regular healthy snacks are important for all children, including vegetarian children.
- Nuts and seeds provide trace minerals and healthy fats, and they can be finely chopped and blended into soups, sauce,s and smoothies. Children who are three years and older, and who are vegan, should eat these foods daily.
- For pre-schoolers, try mini sandwiches with fillings like hummus, nut butter, mashed avocado, refried beans, egg or tofus alad, or cheese.
It’s easy to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, and with a little planning, it’s healthy and nutritionally sound for any age group. There are more than a few good resources on vegetarian foods and lifestyles — these are just a few of my most reliable favorites:
Take advantage of opportunities to try new foods and recipes, and veg OUT!
Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.