Protein. Calcium. Iron. Zinc. For families with an avowed vegetarian among them, these nutritional components are more than just what's for dinner: they are essential nutrients that growing kids need to build strong and healthy bodies. But how can vegetarian kids get enough of the goods?
Individuals choose to consume a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons, and many vegetarian families are indeed knowledgeable as to their family's nutritional requirements and successfully raise their children on vegetarian diets. But handling children's diets to ensure that all the major nutrient categories are being met can be a challenge for newcomers, such as the omnivorous parent whose child suddenly shuns meat after realizing the connection between their hamburger and the cuddly calf at the petting zoo. One thing is sure: successfully raising a vegetarian child to ensure that all nutritional needs are adequately met and growth is on target takes some education and effort on the part of the family meal planner (also known as Mom or Dad).
Marilyn Tanner, Pediatric Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetics Association, stresses that parents need to inform themselves on the special nutritional needs of their vegetarian children. Says Tanner, "To parents, I would highly recommend a dietitian that has worked with vegetarians that can map it out for them and show them what's involved. By sitting down with a dietitian they can help the parent and the child to realize, 'Ok, this is what needs to happen to bring you up to standard.'"
For parents who are themselves starting out on the vegetarian journey, or who are wondering where to begin with their would-be vegetarian children, here are a few things to consider.
Protein: There are several nutrient groups that take some effort on the part of vegetarians to be met, and protein is one of the biggies. For children who eliminate only meat products but continue to eat eggs and dairy products, their protein requirements can be easily met this way. Reed Mangels, a nutritionist for the Vegetarian Resource Group, says, "The amount of protein kids need is not overwhelming. Particularly if they're eating dairy products and eggs, they're going to easily get it."
However, for those who cut out all animal products, the challenge becomes more difficult. Says Tanner, "You can't fully live on peanut butter and say you're a vegetarian. Kids need a variety and they need to be open to high-quality protein options." Good sources of protein for vegetarians include nuts and seeds, pulses (beans and lentils), soy products, cereals, eggs and dairy products.
Calcium: Dairy products are obviously a well-known source of calcium, but for those not consuming dairy, soy products also offer calcium. Although, as Tanner points out, "Because calcium is added to soy milk [and sinks to the bottom of the container], it needs to be shaken every time you drink it. It also needs to be fortified with Vitamin D."
Iron: Iron deficiency is quite common among children in general, and vegetarian children and their parents must take special care to ensure adequate iron intake, since iron from vegetable sources tends not to be absorbed by the body as well as iron from animal sources. Tanner recommends "Get the whole and enriched grains in, and iron-fortified cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits."
Vitamin B-12: Vitamin B-12 is found naturally only in animal products. For vegetarians, Vitamin B-12 can be added to the diet through fortified soy or nut milks, as well as nutritional yeasts and fortified breakfast cereals.
Zinc: Zinc is present in a wide variety of foods, particularly in association with protein foods. A vegetarian diet often contains less zinc than a meat based diet, and so it is important for vegetarians to eat plenty of foods that are rich in this vital mineral. Good sources for vegetarians include dairy products, beans and lentils, yeast, nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals. Pumpkin seeds provide one of the most concentrated vegetarian food sources of zinc.
Calories: The nature of vegetarian diets, along with their (typically) lower fat content, can make it harder for the caloric intake to be high enough for rapidly growing children and adolescents. This makes it especially important to get enough concentrated fats in. Full-fat dairy products, avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and seed butters can provide concentrated sources of calories.
Deciding to raise your child as a vegetarian should be a well-thought-out, well-informed decision. As Mangels points out, "Vegetarian children aren't any different from other children – they need all the same amounts of nutrients." The challenge to parents is making sure their child is getting enough.