Raising Children as Vegetarians: Planning and Variety Are the Keys
More easily accessible food choices, environmental concerns, social acceptance of lifestyles once considered unusual -- all of these factors and more can contribute to a family's decision to raise children following a vegetarian eating style.
And with the subject of meatless, plant-based diets for even very young children cropping up regularly in the news and in public debate, parents may be wondering: Can it be done? Is it possible to raise a child as a vegetarian? Can children's growing bodies meet their needs for nutrition and calories without meat or dairy products?
According to experts with The American Dietetic Association (ADA), the answer is: with careful planning, yes.
"Vegetarian diets can be healthful for people of all ages," says Julie Covington, a Gastonia, N.C., registered dietitian and chair of ADA's vegetarian nutrition practice group. "The toddler and preschool years particularly are important for developing healthy eating patterns that can establish a foundation for a healthful adult diet."
"Research shows a carefully planned vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate and healthful for children from infants to teenagers."
That's true, she says, for both the lacto-ovo-vegetarian eating pattern, based on grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy products and eggs; and the vegan pattern, which excludes eggs, dairy and other animal products.
"With planning, it isn't difficult to provide a child with a healthy, well-balanced vegetarian diet," says Tammy Baker, a Phoenix registered dietitian and spokesperson for ADA.
"You can have meals and snacks that don't include meat products. It can be a balanced diet and it can be fun."
"But planning is the key," Baker says. "Anytime you're excluding food groups, you have to be more careful to make sure you're still getting all the nutrients you need."
Like all children, vegetarians need enough food variety and energy -- in the form of calories -- to fuel their rapid growth and provide for their high nutrient needs.
"A vegetarian diet, like any other, has the potential to be healthful or unhealthful," Covington says. "You're looking for variety."
ADA's vegetarian nutrition practice group offers parents practical advice for helping vegetarian children meet their nutritional needs in healthful and tasty ways:
- Calories and fat: Vegetarian children's diets sometimes tend to be high in fiber, filling their stomachs but making it difficult for them to consume the levels of energy they need. Avocados, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and soy products can provide concentrated sources of calories.
- Protein: Protein needs generally can be met by eating a variety of plant foods and having an adequate intake of calories. Foods high in protein include legumes, grains, soy products, nuts, dairy products and eggs. Grains such as rice, pasta, breads and cereals provide the same protein.
- Calcium: Good sources of calcium, especially for vegans, include calcium-fortified soy and rice milks and orange juice, tofu and dark green leafy vegetables.
- Vitamin D: Children regularly exposed to appropriate levels of sunlight -- 20 to 30 minutes per day on the hands and face, two to three times per week -- apparently have no dietary requirement for vitamin D. Children with darker skin or who have limited exposure to sunlight may require vitamin supplements. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified cow's milk, some brands of soy or rice milk and most dry cereals.
- Iron: Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common childhood nutritional problem, but it's no more likely to occur in vegetarian children than non-vegetarians. Good sources of iron include whole or enriched grains, iron-fortified cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits.
- Vitamin B12: Vegan children should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12, including fortified soy milk, fortified nutritional yeast and some breakfast cereals.
- Zinc: Sources include legumes, hard cheeses, whole grain products, wheat germ, nuts and tofu.
Changing social attitudes and the growing acceptance of vegetarian lifestyles have made it much easier to raise families on plant-based diets, Baker says.
"I am getting more questions lately from parents on how to raise children as vegetarians, particularly Generation X'ers. Their desire seems to be based largely on concerns about the environment."
And as consumers have begun to seek a wider variety of products, grocery stores and supermarkets have responded with greater selections. "Beans and legumes and tofu are much more mainstream than they used to be," Baker says.
Of course, children being children -- vegetarian or not -- means they can be picky eaters. To try to overcome this natural tendency, ADA offers some recommendations:
- Offer choices of foods: Letting the child make some decisions can increase the acceptance of foods.
- Make foods fun: Make pancakes in different shapes or with faces made from fruit, offer vegetables and dips, hide small pieces of fruit in yogurt.
- Set a good example: Let children see you eating healthy foods.
- Involve the child in food preparation: Young toddlers can tear up lettuce and put pieces of vegetables into a pot. Older preschoolers can wash vegetables, stir a fruit salad and help measure dry ingredients.
- Keep mealtimes pleasant: Don't force a child to eat or use food as a reward. Try to stay calm about food refusals.
Parents seeking more information about raising their children as vegetarians can turn to resources available at The American Dietetic Association.
The Chicago-based ADA is the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. With nearly 70,000 members, ADA serves the public by promoting nutrition, health and well-being.
American Dietetic Association - http://www.eatright.org/pr/press071598.html - Press Release July 15, 1998"