Ensuring Nutrition in Young Vegan Children
by Katharina Bishop
As parents, we are committed to giving our children the best possible diet and ensuring that their nutritional needs are met. Some of us may be convinced of the benefits of a vegan diet for ourselves but wonder whether it is really safe and healthy for a growing child. Arguably, children and their specific nutritional needs are the greatest test for the adequacy of a vegan diet. The good news for vegan parents is that the vegan diet passes this test with flying colours. Vegan children usually eat more fruits and vegetables than their meat-eating counterparts. They are rarely sick and have few food allergies. The rapid growth that children experience in their early years requires adequate amounts of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Vegan diets, which are naturally less energy-dense as they are higher in bulk and often lower in fat, need to be adapted to the unique nutritional needs of children. The first foods a child eats are usually mashed fruits, cooked veggies, and iron fortified rice cereals. All of these items are vegan. To reduce the risk of allergies it is a good idea to avoid cow’s milk and eggs for the first year of a child’s life, whether they are vegan or not.
Toddlers love experimenting and trying new things. They are also notorious for strong food preferences (and aversions). Ensuring optimum nutrition can be a difficult challenge for parents under these circumstances. Young children need more than three meals a day. Nutritious snacks form a significant addition to the nutrient intake of the vegan child. Energy-packed favourites include mashed bananas with soy yogurt, bread or crackers with tofu spread, and homemade muffins. Avoid excessive fiber. Concentrated fiber products such as raw wheat bran, bran cereals, and bran muffins are not suitable for toddlers. Whole grain breads and cereals, such as brown rice, millet, quinoa, and oatmeal contribute important minerals to the diet and are appropriate in moderation. Refined breads and cereals, such as enriched pasta, can help limit total fiber in the diet. Toddlers prefer their fruits and vegetables peeled. This can also help to keep fiber in check.
Breast milk is an excellent source of calcium, protein and other nutrients. As it is high in energy and nutrients, and low in fiber, it helps to keep your toddler’s diet in proper balance. Toddlers are especially prone to iron deficiency anaemia. There are two types of iron, namely haem (found in meat) and non-haem, which is found in non-meat items such as eggs, cereals, vegetables, peas, beans and lentils. Non-haem iron is not as readily absorbed by the body as haem iron. Vitamin C supports the absorption of non-haem iron when given at the same time. Breakfast cereals fortified with iron and vitamins can be a useful addition. Soya milk provides a good substitute for dairy milk. Varieties supplemented with extra calcium are best for toddlers. The same goes for rice, oat or nut milks that are chosen as part of a vegan diet. If they are not vitamin and mineral enriched, the toddler will need to be given extra calcium and vitamins as a supplement. Be certain to discuss this with your doctor. Not all supplements are suitable for young children.
Nuts are an excellent source of protein in meat-free diets. They are also very nutritious, providing protein and vitamins A and E, as well as minerals such as phosphorous and potassium. Smooth nut butters are usually very popular with toddlers. In those children where there is a family history of allergy, peanut butter is best avoided until after two years of age. Whole nuts are not suitable for young children as they can lead to choking. Be sure to include plenty of higher-fat foods in your toddler’s diet. Tofu, smooth nut butters and creams, mashed avocado, soy yogurt, soymilk based puddings and soups, and moderate amounts of olive, canola, and flax oil are all good sources of healthy fat.
Parents of school-aged vegan children encounter a whole new series of challenges and potential difficulties. Many children in this age group have been following a vegan diet from birth. However, it is becoming increasingly more common for children as young as 7 or 8 years old to choose this diet for themselves. School snacks and lunches will probably need to be brought from home as school lunches may have limited vegan choices. Schools may sometimes offer vegan food options such as juice, vegetables and fruits, dairy free breads, baked potatoes and even bean burritos on occasion. Some parents are concerned that children who are vegan may find the diet socially difficult. This is a valid concern. It may be helpful to remember that numerous students avoid food items for religious reasons or due to food allergy, not to mention simply disliking the food. If a child is worried about being teased for bringing tofu and sprouts to school, a lunch bag with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, apple, carrots, and fruit-sweetened cookies may be the answer. This way no one will know that they are eating a “special” diet.
Children should eat plenty of fruit and vegetables for important vitamins and fibre. Five portions per day (ca. 400g) are ideal. Snacks of fresh or dried fruit also provide iron. Vegetables are easy to add to many types of dishes such as curries, casseroles and stir-fries. Salad vegetables may be included in sandwiches and wraps. Bean salads or hummous (chickpea and tahini paste) make tasty fillings for sandwiches and jacket potatoes. Protein-rich foods are important for this age group as their muscles and vital organs are growing and developing. Good sources of protein include peas, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, soya milk and special vegetable products made from textured vegetable protein (TVP). A vegan diet needs to be carefully balanced to ensure that substantial portions of these foods are provided. Tried and tested favourites of vegan children include spaghetti with tomato sauce, grilled soy cheese sandwiches, tofu and other meat substitutes in the form of burgers, hot dogs, ‘chicken’ nuggets and sandwich slices, vegetable lasagne and pizza with soya cheese, vegetable stew, baked potatoes, waffles and pancakes with fruit, fruit smoothies, popcorn and vegan ‘junk food’ such as ice cream and candy.
Vegan children have no need for nutritional supplements if the appropriate amounts of fortified foods are used. If fortified foods are not consistently used in sufficient quantity, a supplement may be required for Vitamin D (5 µg/day or 10-15 minutes of warm sun on forearms and face) and B12 (1-2 µg/day). A vegan multivitamin is suitable. Make sure it also contains zinc. Studies conducted in the US (1) and in the UK (2) on children eating a regular vegan diet have shown that vegan children are healthy, and as tall as or taller than their non-vegan peers. Childhood obesity and its related health problems are extremely rare among vegan children.
In summary, it is entirely possible for younger children to get all the nutrition they need from a vegetarian diet. World-wide, generations have been doing so for centuries. Parents bringing up vegan children should be aware of the particular nutritional deficiencies that their children may be prone to and provide proper supplements as needed. On the bright side, a vegan diet provides your child with an early start on a long, healthy and compassionate life.