June 23, 2021
Raising children on a plant-based diet does not have to be concerning or complicated. Learn what to look out for and best methods for optimizing nutrition for your growing, plant-based kiddos!
We live in a world with so many food choices and yet it’s not always easy to feed our kids, for a few reasons. It could simply be that your child has particular preferences. Or perhaps they have food allergies, such as eggs and dairy, eliminating go-to calcium and protein sources that parents rely on to provide good nutrition to their children. Other times, when children become teenagers, they decide to experiment with veganism or vegetarianism for similar reasons that adults do. Whatever the reason may be – we may find our children eating a diet heavy in plants.
There is a big belief that veganism and vegetarianism is not a healthy lifestyle for children. Since the main concern for a Dietitian when it comes to counseling children is “are they growing and developing at the rate they should be?”, we tend to lean in the direction of “do not eliminate any food”. Ensure they are getting the maximum nutrition they can be.
So let’s discuss what to look out for when raising plant-based kids.
- Children are balls of energy and they need calories to support this. More calories than sometimes the average adult. And as they start reaching adolescence the amount gradually increases. Although we have seen more and more children experiencing obesity and high-caloric intakes, when a child is on a plant-based diet they might experience the opposite – too few calories. Non-starchy vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, etc are delicious snacks but provide few calories to the day. Try pairing these kinds of snacks with a hummus dip, nut butter or cheese, guacamole, or olive oil drizzle to enhance taste and add a few calories.
- Protein is tricky. We tend to really harp on our protein needs. And with children, it’s true that insufficient protein intake during periods of growth can be harmful. We need to be mindful that children are receiving enough. Of course there is always the option of purchasing chicken, fish, cheese and eggs from sustainable and reputable sources as protein options. However we can also get protein from foods such as tofu, beans, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, nuts, soy milk, etc. Also fruits and vegetables like broccoli, potatoes, spinach, and brussel sprouts. Plant-based eaters will need to eat their protein throughout the day to meet their needs since tofu or potatoes may not provide what a piece of chicken can in one meal. And that’s ok!
- It’s not uncommon for parents to find out their child is iron deficient from their pediatrician. This happens for a few reasons but a growing child, especially those in rapid growth stages, are more likely to experience this. When people think iron they think red meat, but there are so many other options out there! Try spinach, legumes, seeds, quinoa, broccoli, tofu, and even dark chocolate. Another neat trick is to cook in an iron caste skillet. The iron lining leaks into the food that you cook, as an easy fortification.
- Growing kids means bone health. And bone health means calcium and vitamin D. But this does not have to mean eggs, milk and dairy. It can mean those but some plant-based sources of these micronutrients include mushrooms, fortified drinks (i.e. soy milk and orange juice), dark leafy greens, beans, legumes, and grains. And don’t forget sunshine!
- Vitamin B12 is on the list because the main sources of this vitamin are organ meats, milk, eggs, fish, and cheese. Which becomes problematic for strict vegans and some vegetarians. If there is a nutrient to be concerned about in a vegan or vegetarian diet it is this one, and it should be mentioned more. B12 is an essential vitamin to many processes in our bodies and we need to be aware of our intake. Supplementation is definitely an option if someone is choosing to eliminate all animal products from their diet, and seeking out the help of a Dietitian is always a good idea.
- Lastly, it’s important to mention fiber. Fiber is essential for digestive health, heart health, preventing diabetes and obesity, and this is just as important in growing kids. Children on a plant-based diet have an advantage in this arena because a diet that is focused on fruits, vegetables, and WHOLE grains will provide all the fiber you need. But vegetarian and vegan diets that become heavy in junk foods like french fries, soda, candy, and other treats – tend to defeat the purpose. That is why I emphasize these lifestyles as plant-based.
All in all, ensuring that your child’s diet has a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is going to be very beneficial during their growing years. It will provide the nutrients their bodies need, without having to harp on each individual nutrient, and really seeing the body and nutrition as a complex system working altogether. Our bodies are smart and they want us to be healthy. We should listen to them and work with them. If you are worried that your child is not meeting their nutrient needs, talk to your doctor about seeing a Dietitian.