Making the choice to raise a vegetarian child can be challenging and sometimes daunting. But don’t despair – being a vegetarian is healthy and rewarding. More parents are choosing vegetarianism in their search for alternative lifestyles and children are naturally drawn to a low meat or meatless diet. Even the famous Dr Spock in his updated book advised parents to feed children a vegetarian diet without dairy foods after the age of two! Parents sometimes raise concerns regarding iron absorption, the amount of protein children are receiving and the generally balanced nature of a vegetarian diet. Raising a vegetarian child requires a parent to explore creative, healthy and balanced meal options. REASONS FOR BECOMING A VEGETARIAN The choice to become a vegetarian can encompass a multitude of reasons. These include –
- Religious – eg Seventh Day Adventist, Buddhist
- Ethical – feeling it is morally correct to slaughter an animal for food. Children are often put off when they realize a hamburger is made from the same creature they visit at the animal farm.
- Health Factors – nutritional studies have caused many people to re-think their meat eating habits as it has been linked to certain chronic diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Parents are also concerned about contamination from hormones and other chemicals found in meat. Eating lower on the food chain means children accumulate fewer pesticides and toxins which build up in fatty tissue from birth.
Many people just want to enjoy a better quality of life. NUTRIENTS Some nutrients are found predominantly in animal products but most are able to be sourced from a vegetarian diet. It is important to include the following essential nutrients and to be aware of which foods these can be found in. Calories and Fibre Toddlers need a lot of calories to thrive. A vegetarian diet will provide sufficient amounts if eggs and dairy are included but if a child is on a vegan diet the parent needs to be aware that the child’s small stomach can be filled up with bulky, fibrous foods before enough calories are consumed. The high fibre content of a vegetarian diet means a child will get sufficient fibre but due to the phytates found in grains, especially whole wheat, some minerals may be retained in the gut, leading to decreased absorption of iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and selenium. It is important to add foods that can pack a lot of calories into small quantities eg avocadoes, nuts and seed butters, dried fruits, soya products, eggs, dairy and avoid following a wheat based diet. Protein Protein is important for growth and energy. It can easily be replaced by eggs and dairy in a vegetarian diet but if strictly a vegan then it is important to complement proteins to create a high quality protein meal. This can be done by combining for example rice and lentils, rice and seeds, beans/legumes with rice, soya and a grain, tofu or tempeh. Sources – nuts, seeds, avocadoes, legumes (beans, peas lentils), nut and seed butter, dairy, eggs, soya products and grains. RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) Infant = 12-14 gm, child = 16-46 gm, teen =46-59gm Greens Green vegetables are an important addition to any vegetarian’s diet, especially a growing one. Greens will provide good sources of calcium, magnesium and iron. Many parents will find it challenging to get their child to eat, let alone embrace green vegies. It calls for creativity and persistence! (See recipes for ideas) Sources – broccoli, beet tops, kale, basil, parsley, coriander, spinach, silver beet, sprouts – (mung, alfalfa, sunflower), Spirulina, barley grass, wheat grass. Iron Iron is required for making red blood cells, too little can lead to anaemia, which can lead to learning and psychomotor problems, fatigue and infection. Anaemia tends to be a problem when the diet is predominantly fast food and refined carbohydrates.Iron from vegetarian sources is in a non-heme form, as opposed to the heme form found in meat. This makes it more difficult for the body to absorb and utilise and is why it is important to add Vitamin C rich foods with high iron foods therefore increasing the iron absorption. Sources – beans, parsley, tofu, dark green leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, dried fruit, seaweed, molasses (preferably organic), Spirulina and barley green. RDA Infant= 6-10mg, child=10-15mg, teen=12-15mg Calcium Calcium is very important for growing bones and teeth. The large amounts of leafy greens necessary to provide adequate calcium are inappropriate considering the small size of a child’s stomach. The lacto-vegetarian diet will provide good sources of calcium but the vegan child will need to consume extra plant sources of calcium eg fortified soya/rice milk, tofu, or alternatively supplements. Sources – carob, tahini, sesame seeds, soya products, cheese, milk, yoghurt, egg yolk, black-strap molasses, baked beans, broccoli, kale, turnips, mustard greens and fortified rice/soya milk. RDA Infant=210-271 mg, child=500-1300mg, teen=1300mg. Vitamin D Vitamin D is required to assist in the absorption of calcium. It is found in dairy foods and egg yolk but does not naturally occur in vegetable foods (except possibly sprouted seeds). It is synthesised in our skin through exposure to sunlight. Considering Australia’s warm and sunny climate, Vitamin D deficiency does not pose a serious problem although it is important to be aware that vegans will only synthesise it with exposure to the sun. Vitamin B12 There are many varying opinions as to the sources of B12 and it seems there has been insufficient research done to date. B12 is involved in the maintenance of growth and myelination of nerve and brain fibres. Anaemia can also be caused by a lack of B12 and a deficiency can cause neurological damage and slow growth in babies and infants. B12 is stored in the body and so if a child is deficient it can take years to manifest. B12 is found in greatest quantities in animal sources therefore vegans, vegan lactating mums and vegan children need to supplement periodically. It is found in bacteria, so children putting toys, dirt and objects in their mouths has positive effects! Sources – yeast, tempeh, spirulina, mushrooms (There is some controversy as to how active the plant fermented forms of B12 are but as a 33 year old life long vegetarian, I have never had a B12 deficiency). RDA Infant=0.3- 0.5mcg, child=0.7- 1.4mcg, teen=2 mcg Zinc Zinc is an important nutrient for growth, brain development, immune function, sexual development and maintenance of sensory functions. Insufficient zinc can reduce the appetite and resistance to infection. Something for vegetarian and vegan parents to consider is that very high levels of whole wheat can interfere with zinc absorption, as explained earlier under fibre. Sources – Legumes, brown rice, whole grain pasta, wheat germ, miso, nut butters, tofu, nuts , spinach, tempeh, pepitas, barley grass, Spirulina, yeast, milk and ginger. RDA Infants=5 –7mg, Child= 10-15mg, teen = 12-15mg Essential Fatty Acids The essential fatty acids are important for foetal and infant brain development. In the first two years a child needs high amounts of dietary cholesterol as it is used for myelin nerve coatings. Breast milk is very high in cholesterol and after 2 years of age children will make cholesterol in their liver. To promote synthesis of EFA’s include the following sources in the diet. Breast milk, flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil, seaweed, tofu, avocadoes, nuts, nut butters, olives, pumpkin and sunflower seeds and dark greens. HOW TO CREAT HEALTHY EATING PATTERNS AND ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO CHOOSE TO EAT NUTRITIOUSLY It is easy and tempting to reach for a quick snack or prepare a meal quickly which is not always the most nutritious. Our lifestyle requires that we have more instant and ready made meals available. Raising a vegetarian child requires planning and innovation around meal preparation as nutrient rich food is the priority. Some suggestions:
- A parent can have the cupboard, fruit bowl and fridge well stocked with healthy, tempting options.
- Food can be within reach of the child (if an appropriate age) so they can help themselves, eg apples mandarins, bananas, nuts, seeds, dried fruit. That way children will feel part of their eating choices.
- Make sure that there are choices but limiting them to healthy ones. A child will eventually eat what is around them if offered in varying, appetising forms.
- Offer a variety of foods as preferences can often change.
- Keep meal times relaxed, don’t force a child to eat or use food as a reward but remember persistence can pay off.
- Make food fun – different shaped food and contrasting colours.
- Involve children in food preparation.
- Some children prefer to eat single rather than a mixture of foods.
- Remember children have growth spurts. It is natural for them to eat copiously at times and then pick and choose at others.
- Set boundaries, for example allowing them vegi sausages if they have some steamed vegetables as well.
- Decrease refined carbohydrates and sugars. Increase protein and green vegetables.
When introducing solids, protein rich foods can be added around 12 months eg pureed tofu, cottage cheese, pureed and strained legumes, mashed avocado, soya/sheep or goat yoghurt. A parent doesn’t need to have a degree in nutrition to raise a vegetarian child. Although at times it may seem like it! All children are individuals and the desire to foster this and to see them grow into healthy and happy beings is the key to your success. Haydie is a naturopath who practices in Kenmore, Brisbane and teaches yoga for adults and children. She has a beautiful boy, Teal who is five and is about to be married to the love of her life. References S.Gilbert .Guidelines for proper nutrition for vegetarian kids M Sterling (1998). Your vegetarian children R Mangels. Vegan nutrition in pregnancy and childhood H Osiecki (1995)..Nutrients in profile; Bioconcept; Publishing. Supplements FLAXSEED OIL Can be added to smoothies, cereal, porridge and soups (as long as its not heated).Flaxseed Oil assists in healing mucus membranes and reduces inflammation eg asthma, eczema, and psoriasis. It also improves concentration and learning. ACIDOPHILUS It is important that digestion is functioning properly so there is optimum nutrient absorption. Life Start is a dairy free powder that can be used for new born babies. Use it for thrush, diarrhoea, constipation or any gastric disturbances. P.P.M.P A Blackmores Celliod with magnesium and potassium that calms the nervous system and relaxes muscle cramping. P.P.M.P is very good if there is stress related digestive problem or colic. SLIPPERY ELM Can be used when there is a lot of acid reflux, diarrhoea or constipation as is coats and soothes the mucus membrane. FERRUM PHOS AND CALC PHOS These are tissue salts that can be used to treat simple anaemia. CALC CARB A homoeopathic remedy useful for children that are slow developers or have a reduced appetite . WHEY POWDER Can be used once a child has been introduced to dairy. It is a great protein boost for children that are undernourished, poor eaters or convalescing. It assists in muscle gain. SPIRILINA, WHEAT GRASS AND BARLEY GRASS POWDER Are very nutritious foods that are high in protein. Spirulina acts a multi vitamin with iron, EFA’S, and B12. It increases energy and can stimulate the appetite. All three are a rich source of chlorophyll. RECIPIES TACO OR MEXICAN MOUNTAIN BREAD Organic refried beans Mountain bread or tacos Grated cheese Avocado mashed Tomato Cucumber Grated carrot Shredded lettuce Raw de-cobbed corn Lay hot beans onto bread or taco ,a little cheese and pile with salad. BUCKWHEAT PANCAKES Buckwheat pancake mix Eggs Soya milk Fillings can be sweet eg fruit and yoghurt with almonds or savoury eg pesto ,cheese and lightly stir fried vegetables with seeds. GREEN SOUP Spinach Broccoli Zucchini Potato(optional) Parsley Basil Soya milk Boil all vegetables in a small amount of water(just enough to cover them),blend once cooked then add soya milk and seasoning. My child asks me to make this often! KEBABS Tofu or tempeh on skewers with cubes of easily cooked vegetables. Fry or grill these. Brown rice Peanut sauce = peanut butter, lemon and tamari ,stir over heat and add water until thick. LENTIL SOUP Red split peas or brown lentils well cooked Add stock at the end and baby English spinach, garlic and cumin are optional. Very simple but yummy! OMLETTES Eggs Cheese Shredded spinach Corn Peas etc SMOOTHIES Yoghurt/soya milk Spirulina L.S.A Honey Flax seed oil Dates Carob Banana, to name a few of the many ingredients that can be used. SNACKS Dry roasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds with tamari Vegi sausage rolled up into butter puffed pastry =sausage roll. Cooked chickpeas Banana dipped in carob , tahini or nut butters. Raw or lightly steamed vegetable sticks with a dip eg gomasio (toasted and then ground sesame seeds), guacamole, hommos and pesto.