Meeting a Child’s Nutritional Needs on a Vegetarian Diet
I was inspired to write this post after a recent conversation with a parent whose first grader is constantly complaining that he is hungry! Of course, these hunger cues are likely due to a combination of being stuck at home, going through a growth spurt, but also needing more balanced meals and snacks.
If this scenario wasn’t challenging enough, there’s one big factor that makes it even more complicated: The household is vegetarian.
So what can this parent do? Is it even possible for this child to meet his nutritional needs with these limitations?
Absolutely! No matter what the situation or dietary constraint, nutritional goals are often always within reach—it might just involve some extra thought and effort at meals and snacks.
For a vegetarian diet, the first thing you need to know is what nutrients to prioritize and where you can find them.
· Protein: Dairy foods, eggs, tofu and soy products, beans, nuts/nut butters
· Vitamin B12: Dairy foods, eggs, fortified grains and fortified soy products, nutritional yeast
· Vitamin D: Milk, fortified orange juice, other fortified foods
· Iron: Eggs, beans, dried fruit, dark leafy vegetables, iron-fortified grains
o Serve these iron-rich foods alongside ingredients with Vitamin C, such as citrus fruit and tomatoes to enhance absorption
· Zinc: Wheat germ, nuts, fortified grains, beans, pumpkin seeds
Remember, the nutrients your child needs are (almost) always available—you just need to know where to look! And if you worry that your vegetarian child might be missing out on any of the above vitamins or minerals, feel free to tack on a complete multivitamin supplement as a safety net!
The second thing to remember is balance. Often times, especially with picky eaters, vegetarian children turn to grains—pasta, rice, crackers, cereal—as their main source of calories. But for every meal—and for every snack—you should always strive to have a wide range of nutrients represented. This means:
· Half the plate is fruits and vegetables
· A quarter of the plate is grains
· A quarter of the plate is protein
Here’s an example of a quick trick I played on my niece the other week. When she asked for crackers, I said, “Sure!” In a few minutes, I returned with a plate of crackers that also included some peach slices and cheese squares. Of course, she went for the crackers first. But she still ate the fruit and protein food as well, making for a well-rounded snack.
I want to end with some thoughts on a question that I often get from parents: “If I am a vegetarian,” they ask me, “should my child also be a vegetarian or should I serve them meat?”
This is absolutely a matter of personal preference! In general, I strongly value the importance of family meals and eating similar foods together at the table. If you are preparing primarily vegetarian dishes for yourself, then it makes sense to serve your child the same foods. Perhaps, when you go out to eat in a restaurant (or, more likely for the immediate future, order in) you can give the option to eat meat. It’s important to introduce your child to the concept that different people have different dietary habits and traditions.
Of course, each family has a unique set of circumstances that require distinct solutions. If you would like to discuss your family’s individual situation, feel free to reach out!