Helping families create a healthy relationship with food for their children.
My Child Wants to Be a Vegetarian!
My Dad was a big hunter when I was growing up and we ate a lot of wild game. I became a vegetarian,(ovo-lacto-pesca) in college after learning more about the meat industry and inhumane ways animals were raised and butchered. I also was studying to be a dietitian at that time and gave up meat for health reasons, by eliminating the saturated fat and hormones found in meat. When I married my husband, (a meat eater except beef), we would cook together and eat a lot of meals with fish since it was the main food we both liked. When pregnant with my first child I began eating organic free-range chicken after I discovered my fish consumption was too high, (important to limit fish to 2 weekly servings during pregnancy). This allowed us to both enjoy many new recipes together. When my daughter was born, I intended to raise her vegetarian and I remember her enjoying eating toast layered with hummus and green peas (one of her favorites). Now I have to laugh. Eight years later her food preferences include pepperoni, meatballs, sausage and bacon. Somehow she evolved into a big meat eater despite my attempts to feed her vegetarian fare. She ate a lot of new foods at preschool and my meat eating husband exposed her to it over the years. So lesson learned, we can’t decide our child’s food preferences, we can only expose them to lots of foods. I’ve even learned to enjoy chicken sausage myself.
When a child does want to be a vegetarian, they can be perfectly healthy following a vegetarian diet. As a parent it’s important to guide them to choices that will help meet their nutrient needs. The biggest mistake I see is when a child chooses to go meatless, an adequate vegetarian alternative is not put in in its place, (tofu, beans or soy). The main nutrients I see lacking which leads to deficiencies include iron, zinc, B12, calcium, vitamin D and Omega 3’s.
Iron: The most absorbable source is from heme iron (meat). For vegetarians, it’s important to include foods high in Vitamin C with vegetarian iron sources to improve the absorption. High vegetarian iron sources include spinach, black beans, fortified breakfast cereals and raisins. Often these foods aren’t the favorite with kids and get missed. Nuts, lentils and tofu also would be good choices. Read more about Iron on my blog post, Top Iron Rich Foods For Kids.
Zinc: Red meat and poultry are the highest sources of zinc, which is why this is a nutrient vegetarians need to look out for. Good vegetarian sources include hummus, tofu, lentils, fortified breakfast cereals, whole grain breads, seeds and nuts.
B12: Milk, yogurt, cheese and egg are the only vegetarian food items that naturally contain significant levels of vitamin B12. If your child is a Vegan, they’ll need to take a supplement.
Calcium: Milk, yogurt and cheese are excellent sources of this important nutrient for kids. Fortified orange juice, breakfast cereals and fortified milk alternative beverage would also be a good option. More on this topic and a list of food alternatives that are dairy free on my blog post: Growing toddlers with Strong Bones, Is Milk the Only Answer?
Vitamin D: Eggs, milk, yogurt, fortified orange juice and soymilk are great choices. If your vegetarian child eats fish, salmon would be an excellent choice.
Omega 3’s/DHA: If your vegetarian child eats fish then they are eating an excellent source of DHA, especially if it’s salmon. DHA is an important Omega 3 fatty acid required for brain development and eyesight and is the most important in the younger years. Vegetarian sources include flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, algae and seaweed. Vegetarian sources of these Omega 3’s are inefficiently converted for the body to use and a supplement would be a good idea. You can read more about Omega 3’s on an earlier blog post.