Please be aware that I am not a qualified nutritionist or doctor, so the information on these pages is based on my own research in books and online. If you have particular concerns about your children’s nutrition or suspect a problem (whether they are vegetarian or not) please take them to see someone who is qualified to deal with any issues.
This section covers some common nutritional concerns that parents have regarding raising a vegetarian child. As you will see providing a healthy and balanced diet will avoid most issues, so the best thing you can do is to offer them a wide variety of different healthy foods and avoid filling them up on junk, which is the case with every child, whether they are vegetarian or not.
This is probably the most common concern but also the least likely to be a problem. There are so many sources of vegetarian protein that even vegan kids should have no problem getting enough protein in their diet.
Iron deficiency is another issue that often worries parents of vegetarian children. It can be a problem, but can be avoided if you ensure that enough plant based sources of iron are included in their diet.
Although the iron in plant foods is not as easily absorbed as that in meat, vegetarians tend to eat many more foods containing iron. Consuming a source of vitamin C at the same time will aid iron absorption, e.g. a glass of orange juice with their iron-fortified cereal.
Plant foods don’t naturally contain vitamin B12, so it is important to ensure your child gets adequate supplies of this important nutrient. A deficiency can result in neurological damage to babies and can slow the growth of young vegan children. It can also lead to anaemia.
It is found in dairy and eggs, so isn’t likely to be a problem for lacto-ovo vegetarians who consume plenty of these, but vegan kids will need to consume foods that are fortified with vitamin B12, such as tempeh, cereals, soy milk, meat analogues or brewers yeast, or take a supplement. Soy foods, including some forms of tempeh, can contain B12 but it is not as biologically active as that in animal foods, so check the label for the B12 content.
If in doubt, it may be best to give your child a supplement. While it may take an adult years to develop a vitamin B12 deficiency, the livers of vegan infants and children won’t have such abundant stores to fall back on.
Vitamin D is required to absorb calcium and a severe deficiency can lead to rickets. While those in sunny climates can manufacture their own vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, those in cloudier parts of the world may not get enough sunshine to do so, particularly if they are dark-skinned. Vitamin D is found in dairy products, fortified soy milks and egg yolks. It is particularly important to ensure vegan children get sufficient vitamin D, and they may need to take a supplement.
Calcium is necessary for strong bones and teeth and to help prevent the development of osteoporosis in adults. Dairy products are the easiest available source of calcium, but there are other sources and many foods are now fortified with it, including soy milk, orange juice and cereals. Leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and collards are also good sources, though they aren’t usually a favourite with kids. Tofu, beans, gigs, sunflower seeds, tahini and almond butter can also provide calcium. You also need to ensure your child gets sufficient vitamin D in order to absorb calcium.
This is more of a problem for vegetarian children than adults as they need more per pound of body weight and are also unable to adapt to a low zinc diet by absorbing a higher percentage as adults can. However, this is not usually a problem for lacto-ovo vegetarians, as it is found in dairy products. Vegans however can sometimes suffer from a zinc deficiency, so parents should make sure their child gets enough zinc by including plenty of nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and soyfoods in their diet. It is also found in spinach and brown rice.
Foods that are high in protein are often high in zinc too. Too much fibre can reduce absorption of zinc, so you may need to include some refined grains in their diet. Insufficient zinc can reduce appetite and lower resistance to infection.
Fats and oils
Eggs and dairy products provide plenty of fat, so this isn’t a concern for those who consume these products. Nuts, seeds and oils provide some of the healthiest forms of fat (unsaturated fats and essential fatty acids), but parents of vegetarian children may want to guard against deficiency of some fatty acids, like DHA, with a supplement (there are no pre-formed sources of DHA and some people can’t convert the essential acid ALA in food into DHA in their bodies).
DHA is an omega 3 fatty acid that is important for foetal and infant brain development, and later is necessary for a healthy immune system too. Omega 3 is not just a concern for vegetarian children, but the problem is that many supplements contain fish oil, which is unsuitable for vegetarians.
Good vegetarian sources of omega 3 are pumpkins seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed (and its oil) and rapeseed oil. Omega 3 rich eggs are also available. There are a few vegetarian omega 3 supplements available too.
See our article Easy ways to add Omega 3 for vegetarian children.
Another nutritional concern for parents of vegetarian children is that they get sufficient calories for their energy and growth requirements, as diets that include meat and animal products tend to be much higher in calories. In general, if your child eats a varied and well balanced vegetarian diet, is gaining weight and developing normally and is active and full of energy, you don’t need to worry.
If you like you can add more calories by including more servings of nut butters, dried fruits and dairy products (if permitted). If your child will eat avocadoes then they are also a very nutritious way of adding more healthy calories.
Sometimes if children eat too much fibre they feel full before they have met their nutritional and caloric requirements, so it may be a good idea to substitute some refined grains in place of wholegrains for younger kids.
You may also find the article on feeding a vegetarian child at different stages useful.