Many adults choose vegetarian diets, each for their own reasons. Some cite animal rights while others believe that avoiding meat consumption is the healthiest way to eat. Whatever their reasons, some vegetarians express concerns about the healthfulness of a vegetarian diet for babies and children, wondering if it can provide growing kids with all that they need for healthy development. A well-balanced and carefully planned vegetarian diet can be beneficial to children, but parents must be sure to choose foods wisely.
- Feeding for the First Six Months: For the first six months of life, babies are typically fed a diet consisting exclusively of breast milk or commercially prepared baby formula. Most experts agree that mother's milk is the best choice for babies, providing complete nutrition and boosting the baby's immune system, but mothers who choose not to breastfeed can choose infant formula, with soy-based formulations widely available to vegetarian parents.
- Introducing Solid Foods: First food choices for most babies, even those who will ultimately not be fed vegetarian diets, are nonetheless vegetarian-friendly. Simple grain cereals, along with pureed fruits and vegetables, make up the bulk of most baby diets. Once babies are weaned to milk from breast milk or formula, soy milk can serve as a nutritionally sound beverage.
- Provide Adequate Protein: While many non-vegetarians assume that dietary protein comes from meat sources, a varied menu of beans, vegetables, fruits and whole grains can supply plenty of high quality protein. It is important that parents provide vegetarian children with a nice variety from which to choose so that the kids learn to develop a taste for many different healthy foods.
- Get Plenty of Vitamins and Iron: Meat provides iron, as well as zinc, folate, thiamin and Vitamin B12. Choosing iron-enriched cereals is beneficial to children, especially when consumed with ample Vitamin C, which aids in the absorption of iron. Adequate Vitamin B12 can come from fortified breads, cereals, nutritional yeast and soy or rice milk. Since vegetarian kids do not consume Vitamin D enriched cow's milk, allowing vegetarian children to get a short amount (15 minutes daily) of sun exposure can help them to get the Vitamin D that their bodies need. It's important that parents limit this exposure to early and late sun, being sure to provide adequate sunscreen for the remainder of the day. A good multi-vitamin supplement (dosed appropriately for each child's age and weight) can provide a bit of added insurance for all children, vegetarian or not.
- Fat Matters for Kids: Growing children need more fat in their diets than adults do, but the healthiest sources of fat are plant-based. Nuts and nut butters, avocados, and soy products all provide necessary fat, and many parents will attest to the fact that children readily accept soy "hamburgers" and "hot dogs."
- Teach Them to Enjoy the Food: Most anyone would tire quickly of a bland diet consisting only of fruits and vegetables, but vegetarian meals need not be bland or boring. Seasoning with herbs and experimenting with a variety of recipes will help families to discover many dishes that are sure to become family favorites.
- Stress the Benefits of Vegetarianism: As kids grow and mature, many will question their parents' preference for a vegetarian diet. By teaching them about the healthy benefits of a plant-based diet, including a reduction in the incidence of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even allergies, kids will understand the importance of choosing a healthy eating plan.
Vegetarian diets, when chosen carefully, can provide necessary nutrition for all stages of life. Additionally, parents should remember that the dietary habits that they establish when their children are young will likely influence their children's nutritional choices throughout their lives, so starting kids out with sound eating habits is wise.