At Mia & Ben we’re all about the fruit and vegetables, and we know many parents are too – with some opting to raise their children following a vegetarian diet. While we believe it’s possible to achieve a healthy, balanced diet if vegetarian, a little more planning is required. That’s why we’ve put together a list of the key things to remember and the nutrients to consider when raising little vegetarians.
It’s possible to meet protein requirements with veggie sources, such as soy products, legumes and pulses, but it’s even more important than normal to ensure that you’re thinking about variety. Non-meat protein sources are less likely to be ‘complete’ proteins, which means they don’t contain all the amino acids (protein building blocks) that meat sources do.
Also, as there’s usually a little less protein per gram in veggie sources, try to include two portions of protein a day when weaning, and three portions of protein a day when entering the toddler years.
Omega 3 fats
The best source of these is oily fish, so if you’re not including this in your little one’s diet then opt for chopped or ground walnuts, ground flaxseeds (chopped or ground if weaning!), or soy beans – and there are some fortified options out there; eggs, certain spreads and some dairy products are now ‘enriched’, so it’s worth reading the label.
There are two different forms of this nutrient, and the one that’s in plant-based foods is less accessible for absorption in our tummies, but we can give it a helping hand by being choosing the right cooking techniques and accompaniments. Here are our top tips:
- Ensure any iron-rich vegetables, like broccoli or spinach, are given a squeeze of lemon – the citric acid increases the availability of iron for absorption
- Eat greens with oranges, reds and yellows: the greens contain the iron, and the beta carotene that makes carrots orange and red and yellow peppers, well, red and yellow, also helps to increase absorption
- Always wilt your spinach – this decreases something called oxalate, which occurs naturally in spinach but inhibits iron absorption
Wholegrain foods, nuts and seeds, and beans are good sources of zinc. As these foods also contain phytates, which inhibit absorption, try to ensure there are plenty of zinc sources in your little one’s diet.
If your child is consuming dairy, it’s likely that they’re getting enough of this nutrient, but there are alternative, plant-based sources if not. Good sources include dark green vegetables, white and brown bread, fortified breakfast cereals, and fortified plant-based dairy products.
Although milk is typically recognised for being a calcium-rich food source, it’s also the UK’s number one source of iodine. The next best option is white fish, so if your little one is both dairy and fish-free you need to be thinking about plenty of fortified alternatives (always read the label though, as it’s not that common!) or even taking a supplement – but don’t start a supplement without speaking to a doctor, health care advisor or registered dietitian or nutritionist first.
This nutrient can only be found in animal-based foods, such as fish and meat. If your child is having eggs and dairy then you’re most likely okay, but if you’re concerned, then fortified breakfast cereals and some plant-based milks are a good option.
What about vegans?
Veganism is when any animal products are eliminated from the diet – which means meat, dairy, eggs and products like honey. Essentially, all of the above advice is still relevant, but the risk of calcium, iodine and B12 deficiency is greater. As with vegetarianism, it’s definitely possible to achieve nutritional requirements following a diet that restricts these products, but it’s extremely important that care is taken when planning meals and snacks to make sure that there’s plenty of variety and balance to include the above.
Whatever diet you and your child are following, it’s advised that everyone in the UK takes a vitamin D supplement of 10mcg/d (or 8.5-10mcg if under 1 years of age) in the winter months.
Once you’ve got the balance of nutrients down, why not check out our tips to help teatimes with toddlers run smoothly?