For the first half-year of your child’s life, their diet consists of one thing: milk. Whether it’s breast milk or formula, this dietary staple provides them with all the nutrition they need.
After that though, it becomes time to incorporate solids into their daily meal plan. And, if you follow a vegetarian diet yourself, you might wonder if you should put your baby on the same plant-based path you traverse. The most important thing is your little one’s health, of course, which will certainly have you posing the question — should my child follow a vegetarian diet, too?
They’ll Grow Just Fine…
The American Dietetic Association has given the vegetarian diet the all-clear for people at all stages of life. Pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence… the plan is nutritionally adequate throughout a person’s life.
On top of that, another study by the ADA followed more than 1,500 children in Southern California to see if their diets affected their growth in any way. It turned out vegetarian children were, on average, an inch taller than their omnivorous counterparts.
…So Long As Their Diets Are Varied
It’s not as simple as cutting meat from a child’s diet, though. If you’re a parent, you already know kids are picky eaters. They might push fruits and vegetables around on their plates, but that produce will be vital to the success of their vegetarian meal plans.
Start by coming up with a meal plan, so you can map out breakfasts, lunches and dinners to include the necessary nutrients. Along with fruits and veggies, kids should have a healthy dose of whole grains and legumes each day. Greek yogurt, cheese, eggs, tofu and more can provide protein, too.
In fact, infants ready to branch out into solid foods can start with some of the above. Whipping up baby food at home will allow you to make your own jars of pureed tofu, for instance, which will be a hearty meal for your little one. The same goes for yogurt and pureed legumes — they’re chock-full of nutrition and are also meat-free.
Watch Out For Extra Pickiness
Toddlers are a notoriously picky bunch, but their unwillingness to try new foods can hurt their overall nutrition. This is especially true for vegetarian kiddos — if they’re refusing to eat too often, they won’t get enough calories. As a rule of thumb, your toddler should ingest 35 to 40 calories per pound they weigh.
With that being the case, your toddler’s diet should also incorporate fortified foods, so they get the vitamins and minerals not often present in vegetarian diets. Look out for how much vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium and iron are in foods. Fortunately, you can find easy-to-eat options, like fortified cereals, that even your pickiest eater will like.
Older Kids Make It Easy
Once your young vegetarians get the hang of their lifestyle, meal planning will undoubtedly become a breeze. And, your kids will come to appreciate their meat-free meals, too. In general, vegetarian teens have an easier time maintaining their healthy weights in comparison to kids who follow an omnivorous plan.
Again, as your kids grow, it’s vital they get all the required servings of whole grains, dark greens, fruit, veggies and legumes. For reference, 13- to 19-year-olds should have 10 servings of whole grains, one to two helpings of leafy greens, three portions of legumes and four fruits. Those numbers are slightly lower for kids ages 7 to 12 and so on.
Adapt As A Family
Whether you choose a vegetarian diet for your child, or they decide to lead an herbivorous life, the bottom line is that careful planning can make it a nutrient-rich, healthy and rewarding dietary choice. With that in motion, it’s up to you to ensure the rest of the family adapts to your child’s vegetarianism, especially if everyone else prefers to eat meat.
As a parent, it’s up to you to make sure they have a balanced diet. Protein-rich alternatives and vegetarian-friendly sides will make them feel welcome at the dinner table, even if the rest of the family has a cut of meat for their main. Once you get the hang of it though, you’ll find out how simple it is — and how happy your child will be to follow an earth- and animal-friendly diet.
Emily is a freelance writer, covering conservation and sustainability. You can read her blog, Conservation Folks, for more of her work.