Have you chosen to live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle and want your children to be a part of that? Or perhaps you are not a vegetarian, but your child has declared themselves to be one.
Some children decide to become vegetarians when they are old enough to make the connection between the cute face of a cow they see and the piece of meat sitting on their plates that they are told to eat and enjoy. The idea of this can be troubling for many children. Then there are of course some children who just do not enjoy the texture or taste of meat, poultry or fish. Regardless of what brought your child to the point of vegetarianism, common questions tend to come up for parents in each of these situations: Is a vegetarian or vegan diet healthy for a child? Will my child grow and develop properly on a vegetarian or vegan diet? How can I ensure my child is getting all of the right nutrients?
Specific areas of concern for vegetarians and vegans are protein, iron, B12, Calcium and omega 3 fats. Some children are at a higher risk for developing deficiencies depending on family history, certain health conditions or if they have limited diets due to food preferences. Ensuring a balanced diet can often be a challenge when dealing with a picky eater. For example, beans and lentils are important sources of protein for a vegetarian. If your child does not like these foods, you may need to get a bit creative to find ways they can enjoy them, and for some children this can be more of a challenge than others.
Here some things to keep in mind when your child has adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- If your child has not been vegetarian/vegan from birth (or from a very young age), removing meat from your child's diet may take some time. Unless the child choses this path for themselves, they won't have the same motivation that you have. Start by easing your child into this slowly by offering more meatless meals they already enjoy and converting some of their favourite meals to vegetarian versions.
- Be careful not to rely on processed vegetarian foods or fake meat products. These foods are often very high in sodium and offer little nutritional value.
- Avoid smothering everything in cheese. Most children love it, but if eaten in excess, it can become a problem.
- Be open with your children about your vegetarian choices, but don't scare them with animal horror stories. Be patient and consistent with them and continue to offer a wide variety of vegetarian options for them to try.
- If you have a picky eater, meal time may already a bit of a struggle. Remember that children like what is familiar to them, and it may take 10-20 times before they try something new that is offered.
- At a certain age, children will want to take control of their food choices and you don't want to make this a battle. This will likely happen in the teenage years, but I would have a conversation with your child before this point. Let your child know that they are free to make their own decisions about what they eat, however in your house, they may still be expected to avoid certain foods.
- Don't allow your children to lecture others about what they eat. Polite and informed discussion is always good, but not criticizing or judging people who continue to eat meat.
A vegetarian diet can be perfectly healthy for a child, as long as it is carefully planned to ensure a balanced diet. If you are unsure as to whether or not your child is getting the right nutrients or have questions about nutritional supplements, discuss these concerns with your child's pediatrician and speak to a nutritionist who is familiar with vegetarian/vegan nutrition.