It’s time to wean your child off breast milk and he’s itching for more solid, filling food. What should you give him? The foods you start him out with are the ones he’ll eat for life, so choosing his diet is no small decision! More and more families are leaving out meat, and some leave out all animal products, including eggs and dairy. A national poll conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2010 found that about 7 percent of American children ages 8 to 18 had never eaten meat, and it’s safe to say the numbers have only risen from there.
“Evidence-based reviews show that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from heart disease, and when started from childhood, can help establish lifelong healthy eating patterns.” says Polli Phippen, a registered dietician with the American and British dietary associations. Families everywhere are still introducing their young ones to roasted chicken and meatloaf, and that’s totally fine too. But if you’re hesitant to go veggie because of nutritional hearsay, worry no more. No matter the diet path, with the right set of nutrients, each little babe has the potential to become Superman one day.
No tuna sandwiches or bacon burgers for your kids! Luckily, you can find proteins in many foods, so it’s easy (and fun) to find healthy and yummy alternatives to steak and potatoes. Vegetarians can whip up a terrific cheese omelette that will easily make up for the meat proteins. Plus, they’re so easy to make, soon you’ll have a little helper begging you to let him make it instead! If you’re raising your kid vegan, reach for a black bean burger or a tofu scramble pumped with veggies, and sub dairy products for rice or soy milk and butter. Hummus is a huge hit as a dip or on sandwiches!
Iron is a big one lacking in many vegetarian diets and super important for tiny tykes. It’s easy to find in red meat, which of course is a big no-no in any veggie household. “Iron is found in plant-based food, but it is not as well-absorbed as that found in animal products.” says Phippen. “To counteract this, it is important to include a good source of vitamin C at the same meal.” Keep your child’s blood pumping all day long and his red blood cell count high by combining a protein like tofu or beans with dark, leafy greens like kale and spinach. Broccoli has the benefit of being a big hit with the kids (Who doesn’t love to munch on tiny trees?), while being jam-packed with both iron and the vitamin C needed to absorb it. Mix and match your child’s diet with citrusy fruits and yummy soybean products for the perfect balance.
Since B-12 is almost entirely found in animal byproducts, your little animal lover is going to have more trouble getting its great hair and skin benefits, not to mention a great energy boost. Help your child get up to speed by supplying plenty of B-12-fortified foods. If you’re just nixing the meat options, look for the milk and eggs that contain it. Otherwise, try faux meat products like soy burgers and Tofurky that have B-12 added. An added perk: They’ll look just like your child’s classmates’ lunches!
For strong bones, look no further than calcium. If your child is going octo-lavo (eggs-and-dairy friendly, not meat friendly), he can munch grilled cheese sandwiches to his heart’s content. If even dairy’s out of the question, good kid-friendly sources of calcium are black beans, some types of tofu, almonds and … molasses! Vegan cookies made with this sugar product are so sweet, both for his taste buds and his bones. Look for calcium-fortified orange juice in the supermarket aisles, and stock up on soy, rice or almond milk, which all come in delicious flavors like vanilla and chocolate.
This one is no sweat if your child loves to soak up the sun. (Okay, maybe a little sweat.) Calcium needs vitamin D to help it absorb into the body, and direct sun exposure is the easiest way to get it—and also gives you an excuse to play outside. If your child isn’t a fan of sunbathing, look out for fortified foods—lots of calcium-fortified foods will also add vitamin D for good measure. Eggs are loaded with the stuff as well, so vegetarians should have zero problems meeting their needs.
Your child’s got to be able to sprint with the best of them, so keep his immune system up and running with plenty of zinc. Whole grain breads, nuts, black beans and fortified cereals will keep his entire system kicking.
Providing your child with a balanced and varied diet is important no matter what you eat, but it becomes even more important when you limit the food options. When you pay attention to the essential nutrients, bringing your child up vegetarian or vegan can be a breeze, as many of the foods are packed with multiple nutrients. With so many food choices out there, from veggie burgers to vegan mac and cheese and soy milk-soaked cereal, your child can be healthy, happy and look no different than his meat-loving friends.