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.
Children have different nutritional requirements at the various stages in their lives, and this obviously applies to veggie kids too. Each stage brings its own challenges to the table, so having an idea of what they are can help.
I’ve broken the stages down into the following:
- Pre-school and Primary School Children
Obviously breast milk is the best food for newborns and, generally speaking, the longer you breastfeed your baby the better. However in real life this is not always possible and there are a variety of valid reasons why you might choose not to continue. It’s important to feed non-breastfed babies only on milk formulated for infants. Babies have special needs and need milk that is developed to meet those needs. The majority of infant formulas are based on cow’s milk, so if you are a vegan or ovo-vegetarian you will need to find an appropriate soy based baby formula.
While your baby is drinking only milk being vegetarian is irrelevant and you should follow the same guidelines as for any baby regarding vitamin D supplements, etc. Vegan mothers who are breastfeeding need to ensure their babies are getting enough vitamin B12.
It is usually only around 6 months that most babies begin to eat solid foods. However even then the first solids introduced are usually fruit, vegetables and cereals, so most children are still vegetarian at this stage.
Sometime between about 8 and 12 months babies can start to eat foods that are higher in protein. At this stage you can start to introduce them to foods like tofu or beans, making sure that they have been cooked well and mashed up. It’s best to avoid cow’s milk and eggs during the first year of your baby’s life, regardless of whether you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian or vegan.
Like babies, toddlers are unlikely to decide to be morally opposed to eating meat, so they are usually vegetarians because of their parent(s) choice. However older babies and toddlers often prefer plant based foods to meats anyway, because they are easier to chew, so avoiding meat isn’t usually an issue.
Using iron-fortified cereals or formula will ensure that your toddler gets enough iron without eating meat. Other good sources of iron are leafy green vegetables, black-eyed peas, blackstrap molasses, beans, raisins and dried apricots.
Although their stomachs are still small, they are usually very active at this age, so need plenty of calories and nutrients to grow. As toddlers enjoy grazing throughout the day, you can provide dried and fresh fruits, vegetable sticks and yoghurt for them to snack on throughout the day, encouraging them to eat healthily from an early age.
You can introduce foods like vegetarian hot-dogs at this stage, but make sure that they are cut into small pieces so as not to be a choking hazard, encourage your child to chew thoroughly and keep an eye on them while eating. This obviously applies to foods like carrot sticks, peanuts and grapes too.
Pre- and Primary-School Children
By the time children start school their dietary habits are usually quite well-established and if they’ve been fed a vegetarian diet up until now they are likely to be more than happy with plant based food selections.
School going children are able to start grasping the basics of good nutrition, and later on will also be old enough to start thinking about the ethical and ecological implications of eating meat (my son decided to become vegetarian when he was 8 years old). This can be both rewarding and challenging, depending on how their choices line up with your own!
One of the main issues that arises at school going age is the issue of school dinners. Most schools offer a vegetarian option, but you may still find you need to resort to packed lunches to meet your child’s nutritional requirements adequately. Parties and visiting friends can also bring up issues that need to be dealt with.
Teenagers are even less likely than younger school age children to let you dictate what they eat. If they have been vegetarian up until now, then chances are they are used to eating relatively healthily and will hopefully make better choices than most.
However this is an age for experimenting, so a vegetarian teenager may decide they want to try meat and a meat-eating teen may suddenly decide to go vegetarian. This is hard for parents, as you tend to feel that your own choices are the right ones, but forcing them to eat the way you do probably won’t work and may make them rebel even more. Peer pressure is obviously also an issue for teenagers and they may feel the need to fit in more than before.
Serving healthy vegetarian meals at home is probably the best thing you can do at this stage, as then you know that whatever choices they make out of the home at least they are eating well some of the time. Teenagers can also have voracious appetites (particularly boys!) so make sure you have plenty of healthy snacks and food for them to fill up on.
This is an age when the veggie meat substitutes can really come into their own, allowing your vegetarian teenager to indulge in burgers and hot dogs like their friends.
If you’d like more detailed information, TheVegetarianSite.com has a useful article on Vegetarian Diets for Children that specifies the recommended servings of each food group for vegetarian kids at different ages.
Another excellent resource with detailed information on the nutritional requirements of vegetarians throughout the various stages of life is the book The New Becoming Vegetarian (by Vesanto Melina, MS, RD & Brenda Davis, RD). It’s one I keep going back to for guidance as well as new ideas for meals, packed lunches, etc.
Please also see our article on common nutritional concerns for veggie kids.