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A well-planned vegetarian diet can provide all the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals a child needs to grow and develop. This handout will help you plan this diet for your child.
Types of Vegetarian Diets
There are many diet options for people who want to eat less meat. Vegetarian diets are named for the foods that are eaten.
Semi-vegetarians, or flexitarians, eat a plant-based diet most of the time. They may include meat, poultry and fish every now and then.
Pesco-vegetarians eat plants, dairy, eggs and fish. They avoid red meat and poultry.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat plants, dairy and eggs. They avoid red meat, poultry and fish.
Lacto-vegetarians eat plants and dairy. They avoid eggs, red meat, poultry and fish.
Vegans eat only plant foods. They avoid all foods of animal origin.
A vegan diet is much more limited in food choices. You will need to plan your meals well to make sure your child gets the nutrients they need.
Your child needs calories from food to grow and develop. Vegetarian diets are often high in fiber, which can cause young children to feel full before they have eaten enough calories.
Ideas to Increase Calories
Spread hummus or nut butters on breads, vegetables and fruits.
Offer granola cereals and dried fruits.
Add avocado, olives, nuts or seeds to dishes (be careful if you give nuts or seeds to children under 5 as these are choking hazards).
Cook with healthy fats like olive oil or canola oil.
Use beans and peas in stews, soups and casseroles. Prepare tofu or other meat substitutes.
Just like diets that contain meat, vegetarian diets can be unhealthy if there are too many full-fat dairy products and refined starches.
Protein from food helps build and maintain body tissues. A well-planned vegetarian diet can provide enough protein. The key is to include different kinds of protein foods. This ensures that you get all the amino acids or protein building blocks that your body needs. Most cow milk substitutes (coconut, almond, rice milk), except soy milk, have only a small amount of protein.
Good sources of protein include:
Tofu and other soy based products
Texturized vegetable protein
Cauliflower used as a meat substitute
Beans or lentils
Nuts or seeds
Cow, soy or pea protein based milk
Cottage cheese or cheese
You need calcium for strong bones and teeth. Dairy products are the most common sources. Leafy green vegetables, nuts and beans also contain small amounts. Fortified non-dairy milks, juices and cereals are also good ways to add calcium to a vegan diet.
Good sources of calcium include:
Fortified soy, almond, rice, oat milk
Fortified orange juice
Tofu (made with calcium sulfate), ½ cup
Ice cream or frozen yogurt
Cooked greens (spinach, collard greens, bok choy)
Cooked broccoli, soybeans/edamame
Children require high amounts of iron. The iron in plant foods is not absorbed as well as the iron in animal foods. Try to include foods with vitamin C along with iron rich plant foods at the same meal. Vitamin C can help the body absorb more of the iron. Cooking with non-enameled cast iron pans may also help improve iron intake. If you give your child an iron supplement, do not give it with dairy products, which can limit the amount of iron the body absorbs.
Good sources of Vitamin C include:
Strawberries and other berries
Citrus fruits and juices
Good sources of iron include:
Cream of wheat
Baked potato with skin
Lentils, kidney, lima or navy beans
Whole wheat bread
Cashews, walnuts, Brazil nuts
Meats are the best source of zinc in our diets. Nuts, beans, wheat germ, tofu, dairy products and whole grain pastas, cereals, and breads also supply zinc. Enriched bread products are not good sources of zinc.
Children who eat many types of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds should be getting enough of most essential vitamins. Vitamin B12 and vitamin D are exceptions.
Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products. A vegetarian diet that includes milk products and/or eggs will supply enough B12. Children who follow a vegan diet (no animal products) will need to take a B12 supplement or eat food products that have added B12.
Products Fortified with Vitamin B12
Some non-dairy milks
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals
Meat substitutes (such as veggie burgers)
Nutritional yeast (Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula). Non-supplemented yeasts do not contain vitamin B12. Although it may take months or years for a B12 deficiency to appear, it is very serious.
The body can make vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunlight. Most children need to take a vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter. Ask your health care provider or dietitian.
Food Sources of Vitamin D
Fortified ready-to-eat cereals
Fatty fish like salmon
Give your child many types of foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds, milk and cheese.
For the first few months of life, feed infants breast milk or store-bought soy or cow’s milk formula alone. This will provide the nutrition they need.
Supplement the diet with breast milk or formula until about 12 months of age. This will make sure they get the protein they need.
Use whole grain products to increase intake of iron, zinc and fiber. Whole grains include whole wheat, bulgur, barley, brown rice, cornmeal and oatmeal.
Consult a dietitian/nutritionist to help you plan a vegetarian diet that is right for your family and fulfills your child’s nutrient needs.
To Learn More
Kids Health at http://www.kidshealth.org (search for “vegetarian”)
The Vegetarian Resource group at http://www.vrg.org/
Who to Call
If you are a UW Health patient and have more questions, please contact UW Health at the phone number listed below. You can also visit our website at www.uwhealth.org/nutrition.
Nutrition clinics for UW Hospital and American Family Children’s