Being a vegetarian adult is one thing. 

Telling the world that you plan to raise vegetarian children is quite another.

“But what about protein!!??” comes the inevitable, half-accusatory response from well meaning in-laws and meat-loving acquaintances.

In this day and age, whether for ethical, environmental or health reasons, adults choosing to forego meat in their diet is not only heard of, but relatively commonplace. But for some reason, a large portion of the population seems to believe it is impossible to raise healthy children without a steady diet of meat and potatoes.

That prejudice holds double when it comes to veganism.

But the truth of the matter is that it’s not only possible for children to survive on a meat- and even dairy-free diet —with a little care and attention they can thrive.

As Kimi Harris illustrated in her post about vegetarian public schools, however, it is crucial to pay extra attention to certain nutrients that may be lacking in a diet that is short on animal proteins.

The health benefits of being a vegetarian family

Before we get into a low down of “what’s missing” from a vegetarian diet, it’s important to first note that there are numerous health benefits to eating mostly plants – especially if the alternative is eating unhealthy, processed meats from factory farms. Lower blood pressure and cholesterol, a reduced risk of heart disease, and lower body mass index (BMI) are often attributed as benefits of a plant-based and/or vegetarian diet.

In an age where childhood obesity is becoming an epidemic, these benefits should not be taken lightly. Making the most of a meat- and/or dairy-free diet just means making sure that the basics of healthy nutrition are covered, either through food-based dietary replacements and/or supplements.

Vegetarian nutrition basics

It's important to pay attention to the following nutrients if you are raising a vegetarian or vegan family.

Protein: The perennial concern around protein is not actually the biggest nutritional issue likely to face vegetarian families. As explained in Judd Handler’s post on why it can be safe for kids to be vegan, children’s protein requirements are nowhere near as high as is often assumed. Babies require about 10 grams per day, toddlers need about 13 grams, young school age kids need about 19-34 grams per day, and teens need about 34-50 grams.

Proteins can be found in all sorts of non-meat foods including beans, nuts, tofu, veggie burgers, eggs, soymilk and dairy products. Not all proteins are created equal, of course, but by combining grains and legumes or beans you can easily create a complete protein from plant-based foods.

Iron: Iron can be found in enriched breads and cereals, dried fruits, dark leafy greens, soymilk, tofu and beans. Because plant-based sources of iron (non-heme iron) are harder for the body to absorb, it’s important to make sure children take iron with vitamin C, which helps aid absorption.

Vitamin B12: While concerns around protein are usually overblown, there are legitimate reasons to pay attention to children’s vitamin B12 intake if they are not consuming significant amounts of animal products. Vegetarians usually get enough from dairy and eggs, but because there are no plant-based sources of B12, vegans should include fortified foods like fortified breads, cereals and soymilk, and fortified nutritional yeast.

Calcium: Calcium is particularly important for children’s development. However, as with protein, vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy usually receive enough calcium. Calcium filled foods include dairy, broccoli, leafy green vegetables, fortified orange juice and some soy foods fortified with calcium. Vegan children may need a supplement to ensure they are receiving enough.

Vitamin D: Dietary sources for vitamin D include fortified orange juice and cereals, cow's milk and egg yolks. Regular exposure to sunlight is, however, usually all that is needed to ensure that children need much less vitamin D in their diets. For vegan families in particular, it is worth paying attention to warning signs of any vitamin D deficiency (asthma, respiratory diseases, muscle weakness and depression are sometimes considered a sign of vitamin D deficiency), and taking supplements accordingly.

Omega-3 fatty acids: Fat is essential for brain development in children, and their high energy lifestyles (yes, playing is exhausting!) mean that they burn through fats at a surprising rate. Unless your kids eat fish, you should make sure they are getting essential fats from other sources such as flaxseeds, tofu, walnuts or hemp oil.

Zinc: Zinc deficiency is not a particularly high risk for families following a Western vegetarian diet, but plant-based zinc is more difficult to absorb than its animal-based counterpart. Sprout beans, nuts, grains, and legumes overnight for optimal zinc absorption, or you can also buy bread products made from sprouted grains as a viable alternative. 

Fiber: There is usually no danger of vegetarian children missing out on enough fiber. In fact, the opposite is sometimes true. Because a vegetarian diet can be heavy in both vegetables and grains, children can sometimes eat too much fiber instead of other essential foods like fats, which they also need for their energy needs. (See above.) Make sure that children have nut butters, avocados and other healthy, fatty foods available to them alongside that multigrain loaf they keep snacking on.

Vegetarian and vegan meal planning for families

Ultimately, it’s important not to worry about being too scientific when it comes to exact “dosages” of each nutrient.

With the exception of a few key nutrients like B12, which may require supplements — especially for families who eat vegan — for the most part it is simply important to provide a diverse variety of healthy, whole foods with all the appropriate nutrients in them, and then encourage your family to explore, experiment and enjoy their food. Children and adults will, over time, learn to regulate their own diets and build a positive relationship to their food. And that holds true whether it contains animal proteins or not.

Related on MNN:

Healthy vegetarian diets for kids
Being a vegetarian adult is one thing. Telling the world that you plan to raise vegetarian children is quite another.