Creating a balanced diet for vegetarian kids
For parents who are not vegetarians, the idea that their children might want to explore a vegetarian lifestyle can be overwhelming. Vegetarian diets for kids and teens is not abnormal, and lately that diet choice is becoming more popular. Kelly Layton, a clinical dietician at Toledo’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital, explained that a vegetarian diet is chosen for a variety of reasons including health benefits, religious beliefs and compassion for animals. She adds that, with social media and global connectivity, kids and teens have more opportunities to learn about where their food is coming from and about vegetarianism directly from vegetarians, contributing to increased interest.
Vegetarian diet: pros and cons
If a vegetarian diet is well-planned and properly balanced, it can be very healthy, and has been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancers and other medical conditions.
However, Layton did warn that many junk foods are also considered vegetarian, so “switching from a diet that includes meat to a diet consisting of mainly refined white pastas and breads, junk food snacks and sweets is not a healthy way to be vegetarian.” Layton explains that, in order to follow a healthy and safe vegetarian diet, children need to eat a variety of healthy alternative proteins that substitute for meat in their daily diet. Alternative choices include low-fat dairy, beans, eggs, nuts or soy products like tofu. Each meal should have at least one of these alternatives incorporated. Adding these foods also ensures that enough iron is incorporated into the child’s diet.
Other helpful tips for a balanced vegetarian diet is to include flaxseeds or chia seeds to help boost omega-3 fatty acids that usually come from eating fish. If a child has decided to follow a vegan diet, one where they do not eat dairy or eggs in addition to meat, it is important to include a B12 supplement.
For a child already experiencing a limited food variety due to allergies, eating disorders, anemia or Celiac disease, a vegetarian diet might be too limiting, and therefore problematic. Layton warned that for children with those issues/ conditions, switching to a vegetarian diet should be considered with extra caution, and meeting with a dietitian for formal meal planning is strongly encouraged.
Support is key
There are several ways to help support a child who is considering a vegetarian diet. Support them by talking — ask them why they are thinking about vegetarianism and discuss with them the pros and cons to a vegetarian diet in an objective and non-judgmental way.
Layton also suggests starting small when introducing vegetarianism, such as starting with a Meatless Monday family dinner. You might also include children in the shopping and meal prep process so they can understand how to create a balanced diet. Do your best to accommodate vegetarian-curious children during mealtimes by including a vegetarian option. If Friday night is burger night, prepare a veggie burger along with the regular burgers. If your family enjoys taco Tuesdays, include some beans along with the beef for a filling option. These small adaptations can easily support the vegetarians in the family while, at the same time, allowing them to enjoy family meals.
Layton wants families to know that “it’s normal for some children to simply experiment with vegetarianism, while other children may take it more seriously. Both are okay and caregivers can raise a healthy child with or without meat.”
For information or guidance on a vegetarian diet, speak with a registered dietitian or visit EatRight.org.