Is being a vegetarian a healthy lifestyle choice for a child? In order to determine if a vegetarian diet is healthy for a child, the first question we must ask is, “What is health?”
Health is not just the absence of disease, it’s a complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing. These are factors that we need to take into consideration when exploring whether a particular way of eating is appropriate for our children.
What is a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet contains no animal products, all fruit and vegetables, beans, lentils, all grains, plant fats, nuts and seeds. We also refer to this as a vegan diet. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, commonly known as a vegetarian diet, is a variation of the diet where you can include eggs and dairy products.
A varied vegetarian diet can definitely offer all the critical nutrition a child needs to grow. This is dependent on two factors:
- That you as a parent ensure a variety of protein-rich plant-based foods and consciously including egg (especially egg whites) on a daily basis.
- That your child is willing to eat a range of plant foods and vegetarian proteins, including egg whites.
Key nutrients to include in a vegetarian diet for children
Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, legume pastas, nuts, seeds, eggs and dairy
Fortified plant-based beverages (unsweetened soy milk, almond milk and oat milk), tofu or tempeh, green leafy vegetables like collard and turnip greens, kale and broccoli, dairy
Fortified cereals, beans, seeds, leafy green vegetables, fortified tofu and egg yolk.
Expert tip: Pair these with vitamin C-rich foods such as strawberries, bell peppers, citrus fruits and tomatoes to enhance iron absorption.
Fortified breakfast cereals, soy milk and nutritional yeast.
Omega-3 fatty acids:
These are made by the body from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, chia seed, hemp seed, walnuts, soybeans and egg yolks.
The ideal vegetarian eating plan for a young child
It’s possible to include all the nutrients in a vegetarian diet to meet the physical needs of a growing child. Include over the course of the day, the following foods:
Fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit: Aim to include a fruit and/or vegetable from the different colour groups green, white, orange, red.
Grains: Provide 3-5 servings of unrefined grains like spelt, millet, quinoa, oats, stone ground wheat, rice.
Fats: Avocado, olives, olive oil, butter, coconut fat.
Proteins: 3 servings from the vegan protein group – tree nuts/ tree nut butter, lentils, beans.
Dairy: 2 servings from this group – yoghurt, cheese, cream cheese, milk.
Egg protein: 1 egg a day or two egg whites.
- The benefit of including egg in a child’s vegetarian diet is that you can ensure the protein needs are met 100%.
- The benefits of including dairy are to have a healthy food group that most children eat – a go-to food.
A vegetarian diet & your child
Initially your child won’t know that they are eating a diet free of animal products. However, a time will come when they will be aware and will possibly ask questions. As a family, pre-think how you intend to answer these questions and what your ultimate goal is.
Ask yourself how you would feel if at a friend your child has an animal protein. Lunchbox sharing is very popular (pre-Covid-19), how will you manage this? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. The important thing is to know what your expectations are, and as parents to be on the same page.
Food can easily become very emotionally laden and you what to avoid moral tags to foods. Food should remain neutral and be there for happy eating moments as it sustains your child’s health. Your child should never feel “naughty” for eating foods – rather buy into the reason why those foods are avoided.
For some children and families this may require some leeway to allow your child to try some protein foods at some stage in a safe environment, albeit outside your house, for example at uncle or granny.
You can then openly discuss why you have chosen not to eat these foods at your house. This will create open streams of debate and communication and avoid the food battle triad.
If this is approached maturely and thought through then a vegetarian diet will not only support physical wellbeing but also mental and social wellbeing. Then, dear parent, you have achieved the ultimate health journey for your child.
Try this Healthy Rainbow Veggie Quinoa Risotto Recipe
This is a colourful, easy-to-make recipe.
Reference: Allergy Sense, page 154
½ punnet mushrooms, sliced
1 cup baby spinach
1 medium zucchini, sliced
1 medium yellow pepper, diced
1 cup quinoa, cooked
½ cup grated dairy-free cheese
For the sauce:
4 fresh tomatoes
3 sun-dried tomatoes
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp ground sea salt
1 handful basil
1 clove garlic
1. To make the sauce, blanch the fresh tomatoes then combine the sun-dried tomatoes and blend with a hand beater.
2. In a pan, fry the onion in the olive oil until translucent then add the salt, basil and garlic.
3. Add the blended tomato.
4. Simmer and add the prepared veggies.
5. Cook until the zucchini is soft but firm.
6. Add the cooked quinoa.
7. Remove from the heat, sprinkle over the grated dairy-free cheese and stir through.
About Kath Magaw
Kath is a clinical dietitian with special interest in paediatrics. Her private national and international practice is not only built on assisting her little patients with their nutritional needs but also offering support to moms and dads.
She is a regular speaker at baby and toddler seminars, runs workshops on infant and childhood nutrition, writes for leading publications and she is a respected author in her field. Kath sits on three international boards including the European board for feeding premature infants.
Do you have a question for Kath? Ask your question here.