As parents, we want to provide the best start our kids can get. When they are young they are developing and growing so struggling over what is on their plate and how much they have eaten is a normal part of parenting. There is no question that a plant-based lifestyle is healthier, yet many vegetarians are haunted by the notion that while it may be healthy for adults, it may not be the best choice for kids. Is my child eating enough protein? Getting enough calcium to build strong bones? How would I know if they are getting enough iron unless they eat meat?
HOW YOU DEFINE IT
Vegetarianism sounds healthy, but vegetarianism simply means not eating meat and can be just as unhealthy as any other diet if it consists of processed foods, refined sugar and cheese pizza. I prefer the concept of a plant based diet. A plant based diet consists of minimally processed foods, limited animal products and produce themed meals. Raising a healthy child on a plant based diet is safe and relatively easy if eggs, fish and dairy are included. Raising a vegan (no meat, eggs or dairy products) is a bit risky, but can be done successfully. Produce is nutrient dense, but calorie light and small stomachs fill up before they have consumed adequate amounts of nutrients or calories. Nutrient deficiencies are more common in children than adults and have bigger consequences during the growing years. It is highly advisable that you seek periodic guidance from a dietician experienced in vegan diets for children.
Vegetarian children benefit both from a plant based diet and from what they don’t eat. Feeding children plenty of produce from the start gives them healthy eating habits for life as tastes usually develop during the early years. By avoiding meat products, they avoid pesticides, preservatives, food additives and have a reduced intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. Vegetarian children can grow strong and healthy and tend to be leaner than children who eat meat (healthier body fat). They may even get common illnesses less often. Vegetarian children become accustomed to the comfortable, light feeling after meals and often voluntarily refuse, or at least don’t overdose on junk foods when given the opportunity.
Whether your vegetarian child is eating enough protein is rarely an issue. Children can get plenty of protein from plant only foods like whole grains, nuts, beans or soy. Dairy products are the easiest way to get calcium and also supply protein. Even vegans, who don’t eat dairy, can get enough calcium because so many foods are fortified with calcium including orange juice, cereals and soy products. Making sure children get enough iron is worth your worry. Iron is not as abundant or as well absorbed from plants as it is from meat. Vegetarian children can safely meet their iron needs with a well-balanced diet because vegetarians tend to eat a higher volume of iron and many plant foods contain vitamin C which helps in iron absorption. Good sources of iron include Cream of Wheat, beans, dried fruit, tomato paste, tofu and leafy greens. Children should get all the nutrients they need from food, not vitamin pills. If your child’s vegetarian diet is plant based, with plenty of variety, they are likely to be getting all they need. It is more likely that a meat eater isn’t eating enough produce and needs a diet change or supplementation.
WHEN YOUR TODDLER REFUSES TO EAT MEAT
Many small children choose vegetarianism naturally, even when the rest of the family likes meat. Parents sometimes panic, explaining and rationalizing to children that they need meat to be healthy. While eating vegetables, fruits and grains are necessary for good health, meat is not. In the interest of choosing your mealtime battles wisely, try to respect your child’s choice, after all it is a healthy one. As children learn about the world around them they may express that it is mean to eat animals. I have seen whole families dramatically reduce their meat consumption and eat healthier based on a toddlers love for animals.
WHEN OLDER KIDS BECOME VEGETARIANS
Preteens and teens often look for ways to exert their independence and individuality. Experimenting with a vegetarian menu is a way to differentiate themselves from their family while still being able to identity with a group; “I’m a vegetarian.” This is an important one to embrace. It may make meal planning or cooking more of a pain, but be grateful that they are skipping the meatballs rather than skipping classes. The best thing you can do for your child is to educate them and probably yourself. Ask them why they are interested in this lifestyle. Some teens use vegetarianism as an excuse to eat a diet of cheese pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, soda and cereal. This, of course, is not healthy. Hire a nutritional counselor to teach your child about nutrition and make them take an active role in meal planning and cooking.
Whether vegetarianism is a choice you made or one your child embraced, don’t expect them to go meatless their entire lives. Children raised on a plant based diet tend to have a lifelong appreciation for vegetables. An active, nutrient dense childhood is the healthiest start you can give them.
Danielle Federico, M.P.H. is the author of “MOMMY FABULOUS: Complete Pregnancy Fitness and nutrition Guide, Designed to Deliver a Fabulous Postpartum Figure.” (amazon.com) She holds a Masters of Public Health from UC Berkeley and is a personal trainer and nutritional counselor. Danielle’s popular blog www.dani-fabulous.com provides nutrition, health and fitness information for anyone looking to lead a healthier life.