From infancy to adulthood- how and what to feed the youngest members of your plant-powered family.
There are plenty of parents out there that are raising happy, healthy children on a plant-based diet. If you're new to the game, you might be wondering how to go about doing this, or whether or not this kind of diet suitable for kids. I understand that it's common for people to have concerns about whether or not a plant-based diet is nutritionally adequate for children. But you’ll be glad to hear that the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada is that "...well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence."
Of course, it makes sense that a health-promoting diet is as beneficial for children as it is for adults; the key, of course, is in the planning. In order to ensure that your child is getting all the nutrients they need, it's important to prepare meals using a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. The Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine also recommend that you include foods fortified with vitamins B12 and D, or a vitamin B12 supplement, as these can be more difficult to obtain from plant foods. You'll find these are added to most brands of soy and almond milk, as well as many breakfast cereals.
Whether your child follows a 100% plant-based diet, or will continue to eat animal products at social events, is a decision to be made by you and your family. Be sure to explain your decision to relatives, friends, caretakers and your child's teacher, so they can understand why you have made this choice, and be aware of which foods are and aren't suitable. If friends or relatives are interested in learning more (or if they have concerns or questions) you can direct them to the articles listed at the bottom of the pag. All of these were authored by medical doctors and registered dietitians.
PLANNING FOR DIFFERENT STAGES
After weaning, infants are usually introduced to iron-fortified cereals, starting with rice, and later moving to barley or oat varieties. Plant-based parents will usually prepare this with breast milk or soy formula. Pure fruit and vegetable purees are also offered at this time, including sweet potatoes, carrots, peas, applesauce, peaches, pears and bananas.
Around the 8 month mark, parents will start to introduce dry breads and crackers, as well as proteins. Mashed tofu, mashed beans or lentils, and quinoa are all great plant-based options.
Children Aged 1-4
A lot of the foods that children commonly enjoy in early childhood are plant-based. This includes oatmeal, pasta, rice, fruits, carrot sticks, breads, mashed potato and milk, which can easily be substituted with plant-based alternatives. At this age, you should try to introduce your child to new foods and flavours, but be careful not to over-complicate things or overwhelm them at a single meal. Some meal ideas for this age group include:
- Fresh fruit salad
- Whole grain cereal with soy or rice milk
- Oatmeal sweetened with applesauce or raisins
- Healthy Wholesome Pancakes with sliced fruit
- Wholegrain bread sandwiches with hummus, sliced avocado, or tahini
- Whole wheat pitas with hummus or bean dip
- Corn tortillas filled with mashed beans and salsa
- Vegetable and bean soups
- Steamed veggies: favourites include carrots, peas, corn, green beans and broccoli
- Mashed potato or sweet potato
- Whole grains and whole grain products, including brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat pasta and whole grain breads
- Plant proteins: beans (well cooked), lentils, tofu, and veggie burgers
- Fresh sliced fruits
- Carrot and celery sticks
- Fruit smoothies
- Brown rice crackers
- Whole grain toast with tahini or jam
- Home-made baked goods
Children Aged 5-11
All the foods listed above are also great for children in this age bracket, but you should aim to incorporate a greater variety of foods by this age. A varied diet will help to ensure that they are meeting their nutritional needs, and encourage them to keep an open mind about trying new things.
Here are my top tips for ages five and up-
- Introduce new foods to your child's repertoire, including different varieties of grains, legumes, and vegetables, as well as varied cuisine types such as Asian, Mexican and Mediterranean. This may be met with a struggle, but it's important to persevere as it sometimes takes children 6 or 7 tries to get used to the taste and texture of a new food.
- Get your child involved in the cooking process by allowing them to choose recipes, shop for ingredients, and help in the kitchen. This way they can learn about food, flavours and healthy eating in a fun and engaging way.
- Create plant-based versions of familiar kid favourites, like bean burritos, veggie burgers, cheese-less pizzas, or sloppy joes made with lentils instead of ground meat.
- Keep lunchboxes fresh and interesting with different fruit and veggie snacks, healthy homemade baked goods, and varied sandwich fillings.
- Don't despair when it comes to birthday parties! You can offer fresh fruit skewers, raw vegetables and dips, baked tortilla chips with salsa, and even hot dogs and burgers made with veggie meat substitutes. There are plenty of plant-based birthday cake recipes on the internet as well. You can also offer to make a dish for your child to take to other parties or school events if they are following a 100% plant-based diet. Treats that they can share with other kids are best!
Ages 12 and Up
By this age, your child will probably be eating pretty much the same foods that you are, but may require more frequent meals as they are growing. If your child was raised vegan or vegetarian, the transition to a whole foods plant-based diet is likely to be fairly smooth. It could simply be a matter of eliminating the highly processed foods in your household, and replacing them with healthier snack options. However, if you are switching from a 'standard' diet, it's a good idea to discuss the change with them. You might find that your teen is also interested in healthy eating, environmental issues, or even animal ethics, and is happy to get on board. You may find, however, that they think you're trying to ruin their life with your horrible rabbit food. If the latter scenario should occur, come up with some compromises, and try transitioning with vegan versions of animal-based foods like veggie chicken chunks, lunch meats, burgers, and vegan cheeses.
Depending on your situation, it may also be beneficial to get older children and teens involved in decision making around meals. Ask them what the enjoy taking for lunch, or if they'd like to pick out any dinner recipes. If your young adult is interested in cooking, they may even want to prepare plant-based meals for the family once in a while (warning: this will almost definitely mean you are on clean-up duty.)
At the end of the day, your decision to adopt a whole food plant-based diet is one that will benefit both you and your children in the long run. You're helping them form life-long healthy eating habits, to understand the role that food plays in health and well-being, and to make informed decisions about what they put in their bodies.
Want some meal ideas? Check out the Kid Friendly Recipe Section!
If you'd like even more information on this subject, follow the links to these helpful resources:
(Please keep in mind that I am not a doctor, and the information provided on this page is intended to help you with meal planning and preparation, NOT to substitute for professional medical advice.)
Article photo courtesy of amboo who? via Flickr