We all want our kids to grow healthy brains and bodies. Serving nutritious food and modeling healthy food relationships are needed to reach this goal. Even children with more restrictive diets, like vegetarianism, are able to grow beautifully with a little planning and dedication. Here are five things to know about raising a healthy veggie.
Vegetarianism is a lifestyle that can be healthy for the whole family.
Research in people groups from all over the world support the health benefits of plant-based diets. Vegetarian diets are heart healthy, often high in fiber, and low in saturated fats. People who eat high vegetable-containing diets are found to have lower obesity rates, less heart disease, and a lower risk of diabetes. Some studies even support lower rates of certain cancers in plant-based consumers.
Becoming a vegetarian, however, does not guarantee these benefits. After all, it is possible to only eat potato chips, candy, and pasta and call oneself a veggie. Choosing high-quality foods, limiting salt and fat intake, and eating an appropriate number of calories are required to see the health benefits of vegetarianism.
Limiting your family’s non-animal product diet will determine if your child is at risk for any nutritional deficits.
The vast majority of vegetarians include dairy and eggs in their diets (lacto-ovo-vegetarian). For those families, nearly all the essential nutrients can be found in chosen food sources. The trick is being mindful to consume a generous variety of fruits and vegetables, and multiple sources of protein. Providing enough calories for every child is equally critical for healthy growth, as many vegetarian options are naturally lower in calories.
Families with more restrictive vegetarian diets (vegan or macrobiotic, for example) need even more dedication to insure adequate nutrition is maintained. Certain food elements are quickly depleted when all animal products are eliminated. These include iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, zinc, fatty acids, and calcium. Families may offer children supplements to avoid the growth complications that nutritional deficiencies can cause. If there are any concerns, seeking professional guidance with a registered dietitian can be very helpful.
Like any healthy diet, vegetarian meals need to be properly planned.
Vegetarians can obtain full nutrient balance with dedication and careful planning. A variety of food groups should be included every day. These include fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. There are great online resources for recipe ideas and meal planning to encourage balanced eating. In addition, be mindful of proper portion sizes for everyone around the table.
Infants and toddlers can be veggie, too!
Babies of vegetarian mothers will grow heartily on breast milk or iron-fortified formula during the first year of life. It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that all breastfed infants receive a vitamin D supplement for the first 6 months of life. Once baby starts eating solid foods, routinely offer items that are rich in iron, vitamin B12, and calcium. These nutrients can be found in things like eggs, yogurts, cheese, enriched grain products, and meat substitutes.
Toddlers are known for narrow food palates. These “picky” food behaviors can be especially difficult for vegetarian families. Avoid the trap of creating a high carb-consuming, high-calorie food lover. Offer a large variety of nutrient-dense foods and allow your toddler to choose how much to eat. Most toddlers will need an additional vitamin or supplement to hit desired nutrient goals simply because of the small amount of food a toddler consumes.
A great way to ensure that your child is getting enough food to grow is by following growth curves with your pediatrician. Schedule routine doctor visits to see their progress.
If your child chooses to go veg, offer support and guidance.
School-aged children and teens may choose to become vegetarian on their own. Peers, social causes, animal rights issues, or religious practices often influence this choice. Talk with your child to determine the reason behind their decision, ask questions, and provide support. See if their school is able to provide vegetarian options or help them pack a lunch. Explain to your child that if they choose a restrictive diet, part of their responsibility is to modify food normally prepared for the family on their own. Offering resources and education, while stocking the cupboard with some easy to grab vegetarian proteins and products, will help your child do that. In addition, consider preparing a vegetarian meal for the whole family once a week.
Pro tip: Although it’s perfectly safe for your teen to become a well-balanced vegetarian, children who suddenly desire very specific or limiting meal plans can be a clue to disordered eating behaviors or body image issues. Atypical or more restrictive diets may benefit from a consult with a nutritionist.
Good luck and bon appetit!