Learn about the nutrition guidelines for plant-based children in this post and download a free guide of food groups to include in their diet
Many families have shifted their interest to raising their children on a plant-based diet. Moving towards becoming plant-powered families is a rewarding journey as it provides many health benefits such as a reduce risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases. Raising children on a plant-based lifestyle may seem challenging and worrisome for many parents but it is both safe and healthy for children. Providing plant-based meals for kids simply requires a little bit more attention and planning to meals to prevent nutrient deficiencies during periods of growth.
Is a plant-based diet safe for kids?
That is the top question many parents have about providing an all plant-based diet to their children. Yes, providing a plant-based diet or a vegan diet is safe for kids. The key here is providing a variety of foods throughout the day from legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, and whole grains to ensure children get adequate nutrition. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that “appropriately planned [plant-based diets] are healthful, nutritionally adequate...and appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes”.
In this post, I share why I’m raising my children vegan and what other plant-based dietitians are saying about raising their very own kids on a plant-based diet.
Nutrition Guidelines for Plant-based Kids
A plant-based diet is rich in nutrients and children can get all their nutrients through plant foods to grow and thrive properly, ensuring that they get a variety of foods throughout the day. Because they are in a period of growth, it’s important that they get adequate calories and protein to grow properly. Children do have small stomachs and plant-based diets are rich in fiber which can make children feel full much quicker. Focus on ensuring they are getting adequate calories from healthy fats like avocado and nut & seed butters.
Download this FREE guide that outlines the essential nutrients and meal guidelines for plant based toddler and plant based children.
Here are key nutrients to consider when providing an all plant-based diet to children:
Calcium is an essential mineral that helps maintain healthy bones and teeth. Plant sources that provide calcium include: calcium-set tofu, fortified plant beverages, dried figs, fortified orange juice, and green leafy vegetables. Plant milks are one of the easiest and most effective ways for children to meet their calcium needs. I share what plant milk I recommend for vegan kids in this blog post. Children between 4 - 8 years old need about 1,000mg per day. About 1 cup of non-dairy beverage provides 300mg.
Iron is important as it helps the body carry oxygen throughout the body and it is a vital nutrient for all children, regardless of diet. Vegan kids may need up to 1.8 times more iron than non-vegan kids due to type of iron (non-heme iron) found in plant foods but this can easily be met by making sure that there’s at least one source of iron at each meal. Plant foods such as lentils, beans, oatmeal, and whole grain breads are just a few examples that provide iron. Pair iron-rich foods with a Vitamin-C food to help with iron absorption such as lentil soup with tomatoes or oatmeal with strawberries. Smoothies with leafy green vegetables such as kale paired with fruit is also a great option. Children need between 7 - 10mg of iron per day. One 1/4 cup of black beans provides close to 3mg.
Protein is important for children as they are in a growing phase of their lives. Ensuring they are getting enough through a variety of sources ensures they are meeting their energy needs for proper growth. All plants have some amount of protein. Plant sources such as tofu, lentils, beans, peanut butter, and veggie burgers are all great options for children. Children between the ages of 4-6 years old need about 5 servings per day but total amount does vary per child.
Vitamin D helps maintain healthy bones and teeth with the help of calcium. Plant-based foods are typically not a good source and must be obtained through sun exposure, fortified plant beverages, or a supplement. Exclusive breastfed infants should be supplemented with 400 IU per day starting at birth. Children between 1 - 8 years old need need about 15mcg per day (or 600IU).
Zinc helps the immune system fight off colds and helps with wound healing as well. Plant sources include fortified cereals, beans, nuts, and tofu. Ensure to include a variety of legumes, nuts, and seeds in their diet to meet zinc requirements. Children need about 3 - 5mg per day.
Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin that helps nerves and other cells stay healthy and helps prevent anemia. Infants and children who do not get enough may develop failure to thrive or have problems with certain body movements. Vitamin B12 is naturally found only in animal foods and not plant foods. Infants can obtain Vitamin B12 through mom’s breastmilk/formula and children through fortified plant beverages, meat analogs, and/or supplement. Children ages 4-8 years need about 1.2 mcg/day. Exclusive vegan kids are recommended to take a supplement from the time they begin eating solid foods.
Iodine is important for all vegans as it helps maintain a healthy thyroid gland. Plant foods are not reliable in obtain this nutrient. The most reliable way to obtain iodine is through a supplement or using iodized salt in cooking. Infants can obtain iodine throughout breastmilk and/or iron-fortified soy formula.
Raising Plant-based Children
It’s completely possible to raise healthy, plant-based children. A great way for children to eat healthfully is not only by introducing them to plant foods early on but also being a role model in showing healthy eating behaviors. In addition, including children in planning plant-based family meals empowers them to eat a variety of plant foods. Ensure that they are eating a variety of foods and that they get enough calories and protein to grow properly.
Reference: Institute of Medicine (US) Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: A Risk Assessment Model for Establishing Upper Intake Levels for Nutrients. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1998. A, Recommended Dietary Intakes for Individuals. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK45183/