With a little planning, plant-based foods provide all the nutrition and energy a child needs to be healthy and happy. Starting early in life gives children an advantage, because the years from birth to adolescence are when they can develop a taste for a variety of plant foods; eating habits are set; the growth rate is high; and the amount of essential nutrients that will be stored in the body, like calcium and iron, is established.
Is plant-based OK for babies?
Everyone agrees that nothing can replace breastmilk for infants’ nutrition. However, breast-feeding and soy-based formulas can be a good combination before transitioning to cereals and veggies. (Check labels for formulas without non-veg sources of fat.) The key to a healthy diet for kids is ensuring proper levels of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for each stage of physical development. The Vegetarian Resource Group delineates the specific dietary needs of vegan children by age group, from infancy to adolescence, along with simple diet plans that you can keep handy in the kitchen for menu planning.
What are the benefits for children?
Plant-based kids will grow up to be slimmer and healthier, and even live longer, than those brought up on the typical American non-veg diet full of saturated fats and refined sugar. Plants are nutrient-dense — with healthy fats (less cholesterol), plenty of fiber, and antioxidants — so every bite contributes to good health. Some studies suggest that veg children grow more gradually than non-veg. But, according to Physician’s Committee, slower growth is actually more natural and decreases the risk for disease later in life.
What are key nutrients kids need?
Planning a well-balanced vegan diet is easy, especially now that many plant-based products are fortified with essentials like calcium, and vitamins D and B12. Focus on the following key nutrients and their food sources:
Calories: Growing kids need plenty of calories for energy. Some people fear the increased bulk of plant foods will make a child feel full before getting enough calories. Just serve peeled cooked vegetables, nut and seed butters, avocados, and vegetable oils that boost calories without bulk.
Calcium: Calcium is needed for bones and teeth. Sources include fortified soy milk and cranberry, orange, and apple juices. Don’t forget collard, mustard, and turnip greens, plus kale and broccoli.
Iron: A mineral crucial for carrying oxygen in the blood, iron is found in chickpeas, rice, soybeans, and iron-fortified cereals, bread, and pasta. Vitamin C helps the absorption of iron, so choose foods rich in both C and iron like broccoli, Swiss chard, and other dark-green leafy vegetables.
Protein: Plants provide plenty of protein with all the essential amino acids, needed for building and repairing muscles and organs. Get protein from beans, nuts, seeds, soy yogurt, tofu, and whole grains.
Vitamin D: The “sunshine vitamin,” produced by exposure to sunlight on the skin, regulates absorption of calcium and helps immunity. But if kids aren’t playing outdoors or they live in areas with little sunshine, they’ll need D-fortified foods or supplements.
Vitamin B12: It makes DNA and is important for healthy nerves and blood cells. Plant foods contain little of this nutrient, which is why breakfast cereals, soy milk, and multivitamins are fortified with B12. Look for it on nutrition labels.
Organic Veestro meals are good for the entire family. Try Veestro juices for a super-healthy grab-and-go or lunch-box drink. Kids can eat wholesome desserts that are disguised as decadent, creamy Chocolate Cheezcake and Raspberry Cheezcake or a crisp Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake. Explore other dishes too, and give your kids a head start on health!
Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, “Feeding Vegan Kids,” from Simply Vegan, 5th edition, The Vegetarian Resource Group
“Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start,” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
“Vegetarian Diets: Advantages for Children,” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine