Raising Vegetarian Babies and Children

Kids can be healthy and meat-free too

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Tips and suggestions for vegetarian parents deciding whether or not to feed their young children meat.

Alice Yang, of Fort Worth, remembers the first time she realized where meat came from. On a family trip through Texas, Yang looked outside the car window at grazing cows. Gnawing on a favorite snack of beef jerky, she felt sick to her stomach. But it wasn’t until college that she decided to go completely meatless. When her daughter was born two and a half years ago there was no question in Yang’s mind that she wanted to raise Aria to be a “veggie” kid.

Along with Yang, nutritional experts and other vegetarian parents agree that the key to successfully raising vegetarian children is to educate yourself, and lead by example, and your kids will probably follow.

Are Veggie Kids Healthier?

“There’s not a lot of data about the immediate health benefits of a vegetarian diet,” explains Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, a nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group. “But vegetarian kids tend to be leaner, and in a society where close to one-third of the children are overweight, that’s important.”

Because vegetarian children tend to eat , they often get more vitamins and minerals than their meat-eating peers. Dr. Mangels points out that the potential long-term benefits of a plant-based diet are more dramatic. In general, vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and a diminished risk of high blood pressure.

Vegetarian parents also seem to be more aware of what their children are eating because they are conscious of their own food choices. That’s not to say that any vegetarian diet is healthy. As Yang points out, “It’s just as easy to eat poorly on a meatless diet.”

Find a Supportive Pediatrician

To alleviate concerns you may have about your child’s health, make sure that your pediatrician understands your desire to raise your child on a plant-based diet. You may have questions about whether your child is getting enough protein, zinc, or other nutrients usually associated with a meat-based diet. Your pediatrician can help guide you through the maze of nutritional guidelines. Dr. Mangels highlights that the American Dietetic Association “has affirmed that a vegetarian diet can meet all known nutrient needs.”

In the past, skeptics alleged that vegetarian diets were deficient in essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12. Yet many vegetarian staples, such as legumes and dark, leafy vegetables contain surprisingly high amounts of protein. For example, a hot dog contains six grams of protein per serving, whereas a serving of pinto beans contains seven grams per half cup. Breakfast cereals and other food products are fortified with other nutrients, including vitamin B12. Even children on a vegan diet (which doesn’t include animal products such as milk, cheese, and eggs) can take in all the nutrients their bodies need. Work with your pediatrician to ensure that your children’s diet is adequate for their growing nutritional needs.

Feeding Vegetarian Babies

“When children are still nursing, there’s really no concern about whether they’re getting the nutrients they need,” says Amy Joy Lanou, PhD, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “It’s the mother’s body that will take the hit if she is not eating enough of what she needs.” As in pregnancy, nursing vegetarian mothers need to maintain a healthy diet. “If you’re eating a variety of foods, and not just high-processed products, you should be getting enough of the nutrients that you need.” Dr. Lanou advocates that women continue taking vitamins while nursing. Mothers who are giving their infants formula will find many soy-based options available.

When it’s time to introduce solids to your baby, at around six months, start with one food at a time. Wait three to five days after your baby has had the food before introducing another. This allows time for the baby to show any signs of allergic reactions to the new food. Dr. Lanou suggests weaning the baby directly to whole plant foods. As with any infant, start with single grain cereals, like rice or oats. Consider making your own baby food, instead of buying it. By carefully choosing the foods that your baby is eating, you will be able to introduce a variety of fruit and vegetables early in your baby’s life.

Of Toddlers and Tomatoes

Toddlers love to try new things and food is no exception. While you might be tempted to dress up vegetables, Peter Berley, author of The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen and Fresh Food Fast: Delicious, Seasonal Vegetarian Meals in Under an Hour, believes that “children like simple food.” Berley is the father of two grown daughters, one of whom is a vegetarian. He found that his children loved to eat food in recognizable shapes—cut up raw carrots, broccoli, and string beans, bread, and plain tofu.

“Introducing kids early to healthy, homemade food makes a difference,” says Melanie Underwood, who has been teaching children’s cooking classes at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City for several years. “Often, kids fail to realize where their food comes from, especially here in a big city,” says Underwood. Make food fun by taking your children apple or berry picking or by planting a garden.

Even picky eaters will enjoy eating foods that they’ve helped to prepare. Underwood says little helpers can tear basil leaves, spoon out peanut butter, or roll out scones. While kids love classics like celery sticks and cream cheese, don’t be surprised if they start wanting to make something more complex. Underwood recalls that her now seven-year-old son started making risotto when he was just 18 months old.

One word of caution: Many vegetables can be difficult to chew and pose a choking risk. Make sure to cut food into small pieces and supervise your children as they eat.

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