Raising a Vegetarian Child
You can raise a healthy vegetarian! Raising a vegetarian child is relatively easy if your child’s diet includes eggs, fish, and dairy products. Raising a little vegan requires more planning and nutritional know-how to ensure that your child gets enough calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B-12, and some of the other B vitamins. Children can grow normally on a diet of grains, legumes, and greens, but it’s a bit risky. A wise parent should seek periodic advice from a nutritionist experienced in vegan diets.
Protein is no problem, since children can get all the protein they need from plant foods only, especially whole grains, soy products, legumes, and nuts. Calcium may present a challenge since traditional plant sources of calcium are not big favorites with children. (Good luck getting your child to eat kale and collards!) But many foods today are fortified with calcium, including calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice, so a vegan child can get enough calcium without relying on supplements. Fortified foods, such as cereals and soy beverages, can also be a dietary source of vitamin B-12.
Getting enough calories may be another challenge in vegan diets. Veggies have a lot of nutrients per calorie, but not a lot of calories per cup. Tiny tummies fill up faster on lots of fiber but fewer calories. One way to overcome this problem is to encourage your child to graze on small, frequent feedings that include higher-calorie foods, such as peanut butter and other nut butter sandwiches, avocados, nuts and seeds (for children over four years of age, who can eat them safely), pasta, dried fruits, and smoothies.
Vegetarian children should get the nutrients they need from foods rather than from pills, since pills don’t provide calories, and the nutrients in food , through the process of synergy, are better for the body. The growth of some vegan children may appear to be slower because vegetarian children, like vegetarian adults, tend to be leaner. A child’s position on the growth chart is not an accurate measure of the state of his or her health; where a child fits on the chart is influenced more by genes than by diet.
Maintaining a vegetarian diet can be more challenging during periods in a person’s life when there are extra nutritional needs, such as pregnancy, lactation, childhood, and adolescence. Once a person reaches adulthood, nutritional deficiencies are less of a concern. Even if your children do not remain vegetarians for life, by getting their little bodies accustomed to the taste and feel of a vegetarian diet, you have programmed them with a healthy eating pattern that will benefit them throughout life. Vegetarian children, because they get used to the comfortable after-dinner feeling of a vegetarian meal, tend to shun, or at least don’t overdose on, junk meats, such as hot dogs and fast-food burgers. But don’t expect your child to go meatless all his life. Give your children a vegetarian start and, as they grow away from your nest, let them decide what eating pattern they will follow. They may find reasons, such as concern fro the environment, that keep them on the veggie track. Model your excitement about eating a wide variety of plant-based foods, serve them tastefully, and the rest is up to your child.
Just as there are stages in a child’s development of motor skills or cognitive abilities, there are developmental stages in eating habits. You can make the most impact on your child’s eating habits if you respond to his development in age-appropriate ways. Here are the four stages of eating habits for children:
Stage 1: Infancy
Program your baby to appreciate the tastes of fresh fruits and vegetables. Every baby starts out as a vegetarian, since meat is usually the last food group introduced to new eaters. Between five and nine months, babies can be introduced to a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, pears, avocados, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, and mashed potatoes. Between nine and twelve months, introduce tofu. As a dairy alternative, get your one-year-old used to the taste of soy beverages.
Stage 2: Toddler Years
Toddlers love to graze, so make a toddler nibble tray with bite-sized fruits and vegetables, together with a yogurt and avocado dip. Your toddler will learn to snack on fresh fruits and vegetables instead of packaged stuff. Meat is not necessary as long as you use an iron-fortified cereal or formula or continue to breastfeed. (Alternative sources of iron are green, leafy vegetables, raisins, black-eyed peas, blackstrap molasses, and beans). During the first three years you have a window of opportunity to shape young tastes. Your toddler learns what fresh fruits and veggies are supposed to taste like and accepts this as the normal family fare.
Stage 3: Preschool and School Years
Plant a vegetable garden. Children are more likely to eat what they grow. Gardening gives you a chance to talk about good food. Talk about all the different colors in the garden and why it’s so important to have a lot of color in the food on your plate at dinnertime. Children can appreciate the concept of a rainbow lunch. Frequent restaurants that have large salad bars, planting in your child’s fertile mind the idea that salad bars are a real treat: all you can eat of a great variety of multicolored and multitextured foods. Also, encourage your children to help in the kitchen. They can wash fruits and vegetables, tear up lettuce, stir, pour, knead bread dough, and serve and eat their creations proudly.
Sandwiches made with peanut butter or other nut butters on whole wheat bread, with healthy fruit preserves and sprouts are a new twist on a traditional favorite for school-age children. This is a time to emphasize fish (salmon and tuna) and flax oil for essential fatty acids. School-age children can also begin to read labels. Teach your child to avoid foods with “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. Steer your child away from packaged snack foods, especially those with hydrogenated oils, and provide tasty and attractive alternatives in school lunches. If your family is semi-vegetarian, use meat as an accent in stir-fry or grain dishes, avoiding the usual picture of a steak in the middle of the the plate with only a garnish of vegetables. Or serve fish, plus a substantial vegetable side dish. Older school-age children can also appreciate ethical and ecological issues associated with eating meat. To our older children we have cited the inhumane treatment of calves raised to produce veal as a good reason not to eat veal.
Stage 4: Teen Years
Teens will dabble with junk food, but they won’t overdose on it. Unlike children who have grown up with a junk-food diet as their nutritional norm, teens raised on a vegetarian diet are able to make the connection between eating well and feeling well. Salad bars, vegetarian pizzas, bean burritos, and fruit snacks are likely to be vegetarian favorites for teens. When they go into a fast-food restaurant, they are more likely to seek out the salad bar than the greasy stuff.