I often get asked if it’s possible to feed kids a healthy and nutritious vegan, vegetarian, or mainly plant-based diet? Firstly it’s very important to know that you CAN raise healthy and thriving children on a plant-based diet. However, this involves a huge amount of commitment to cooking from scratch and educating yourself on optimising the nutrients your children consume – it’s certainly not the easy option. Every bite counts when it comes to feeding a vegan child and this means building a really positive feeding experience for your baby all the way from the start. There are some potential pitfalls to feeding your children a wholly vegan or mainly plant-based diet, and I share how to avoid these, as well as the nitty-gritty on how to ensure your little ones get the right nutrition both in the short and long term.
Raising kids on an entirely vegan diet can be successfully done and if this is a cause you are passionate about, then I totally respect this choice. However, bringing up kids on a wholly vegan diet is a huge commitment and responsibility; and if you choose this route for your family, my advice is to regularly run blood tests to check nutrient levels like iron, B12 and Vitamin D as well as consult with a nutritional therapist well versed in supporting plant-based families. This is to give you the peace of mind you are doing a great job!
Even though I wholly believe that most of us should be eating many more veggies and plant-based foods, restricting a diet in growing kids and cutting out whole food groups can make things much more complicated than a lot of people can handle. So if like me you do your research, you will find that unless you make optimal nutrition a top priority for your family, both vegan and vegetarian diets can potentially compromise a child’s nutrition, which in turn could affect their health and development. With this in mind here are my top tips so you gain confidence in your food choices and you make the right nutrition decisions for your kids so they blossom and thrive as they grow up.
Preparation and commitment is key
It’s no mean task to feed children a healthy diet at the best of times, and remember you will probably need to:
- commit to exclusively breastfeed for at least the first 12 months – there are no 100% vegan infant milk formulas on the market right now.
- prepare every single meal and snack from scratch, as many vegan convenience foods are not that nutritious;
- have kids who are always ok to eat different food from their friends – even at celebrations;
- always plan ahead where to eat when you are going out or going on holiday (you may be used to this already);
- find a nursery or school that is able to cater to your kids’ diet;
- pray that you don’t have any additional food allergies or food fussiness to deal with;
- learn about food supplements to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need, even during times of illness, teething or phases of picky eating; and
- if it’s not working, seek professional advice to help overcome the hurdles.
Eating more plants will always be a positive step for your health and our planet and that’s why the recipes in my book, The Good Stuff, contain lots of veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds and pulses. Most recipes can be adapted to being vegetarian or vegan. When a recipe is 100% plant-based, I don’t label it as vegan, but celebrate its natural deliciousness and healthiness instead.
If you are a vegan family or trying to cut back on eating animal products you probably have lots of questions about getting your kids’ nutrition right, so here are some of my top tips:
Oat ‘milk’ generally contains 60mg calcium per 100ml whereas cow or goat milk has 120mg unless it has been specifically fortified with additional calcium. Shop bought almond or coconut ‘milks’ unless fortified, contain almost none! Toddlers need 350mg daily, 4-6 year-olds 450mg, 7-10 year-olds 550mg and 11 years upwards 800-1,000mg of calcium a day to keep their bones strong, This is around 3 glasses of fortified oat milk daily or 6 of non-fortified organic oat milk for littles, which more than most drink in one day – so you need to look for other naturally calcium-rich foods to maintain enough calcium.
Oats and almond butter are more dense calcium sources, and these are better options than relying on the shop bought plant-based ‘milks’. The best vegan calcium I have found is marine-sourced Lifestream made from an organic sea vegetable called Lithothamnium calcareum. It also contains the other naturally occurring minerals such as iodine, zinc and magnesium which kids often miss out on when they swap to plant-based ‘milks’ and are essential for growth and neuro-development. This powder is tasteless and can be added to smoothies and baked products such as waffle, pancake and muffin mixes.
Research shows that dietary omega 3 plays a key role in preventing a wide range of modern diseases from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to cancer as well as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and depression. It is also important for visual and neurological development as well as maternal and child mental health. In double-blind, randomized, controlled trials, fish-based DHA and EPA combinations have been shown to benefit attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and aggression. Aim for 500mg omega 3 daily for under 1’s, 700ng for toddlers, 900mg for 4-8 year-olds, 1,200mg for 9-13 year-olds boys and 1,000mg for girls and 1,600mg for 14-18 year-old boys and 1,100mg for the 14-18 year-old girls.
It seems that oily fish is the best source of DHA which is the form of omega 3 important for brain development in the early years. Whilst the plant-based ALA form of omega 3 found in walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds is much harder to convert into this important DHA brain food. Even in the healthy and the well-nourished only 0.1%-10% of plant-based ALA can be converted into the useable DHA form, so as you can imagine you need spoonfuls of flax seeds, chia seeds or walnuts instead of one small piece of salmon to do the job. If you struggle to get your kids to eat plenty of these nuts and seeds then Cytoplan Vegan Omega 3 is good for supplementing a vegan diet.
Vegan diets provide virtually no vitamin B12 which is an important nutrient for all-round good health. Vitamin B12 is critical for red blood cell production, for optimal brain and neurological function as well as helping digestion and improving iron uptake. Marmite & nutritional yeast do contain a little but most vegans mainly rely on B12 sprays and drops to supplement their diet. Babies need a minimum of 0.4-0.5mcg daily, toddlers 0.9mcg daily and school-age kids’ needs rise to between 1.2mcg and 1.8mcg. There are no upper limits for B12 consumption.
Your kids are going to have to love wholemeal bread, kidney & black beans, chickpeas and apricots as well as greens or rely on ultra-processed fortified cereals to get enough iron. Iron is critical for growth and brain development as well as energy production. When a little one is low in iron they can get tummy aches, have a poor appetite and poor immunity. Also remember to feed children plenty of vitamin C from oranges, lemons, red peppers and kiwi fruit helps to help absorb the iron in their food. Spatone Liquid Iron or Better You Iron Sprays are our choice for little kids who need a boost and are washed out and pale.
Babies need 11mg iron daily and toddlers age 1- 3 year’s old need less iron at 7mg per day. 4-8 year-olds need 10mg daily and 9-13 year-olds need 8mg. Ferritin levels, which is the measure of iron stores ideally need to be over 41ug/L (maximum 400ug/L) to feel well and to optimise energy growth, learning and immunity. Many plant-based kids fall in the borderline bracket of 16-40ug/L and these kids will need a boost to get them over the 41ug/L level.
Your kids need iodine to build a healthy metabolism and immune system. Iodine is an essential mineral needed for thyroid health and a child lacking in iodine may well have problems with learning and development as it is a critical brain nutrient. Seaweed is the best vegan source of iodine and your children can either munch on nori seaweed strips or you can add Seagreens seaweed salt of condiment grains to their food instead of normal salt. Prunes, bananas and peas naturally contain a little iodine. Iodine is also now added to some plant-based “milks” often labelled “potassium iodide”. A child needs 90-120mcg iodine daily.
To gauge your child’s iodine levels, you can rub a drop of kelp-based iodine with a cotton bud to make a patch on your child’s wrist or upper arm – the yellow of the iodine gets absorbed into the skin as fast as the child needs it, so you can’t overdose. The iodine patch should remain obvious for 24 hours, but those that are deficient can disappear within a few minutes. Apply a new patch daily until the iodine remains for a 24 hour period.
Choline is super important for pregnant women and babies as well as older children as it helps us to learn and develop a good memory. Working memory is poor in those with dyslexia, ADHD and many have processing issues too. Peanut butter, tofu, sunflower seeds, beetroot and spinach naturally contain choline and these are very important foods to give your children. Sunflower lecithin or ground sunflower seeds is a good way to boost up smoothies, porridge and baked foods such as muffins and pancakes. Our gut flora also creates acetylcholine from lactobacillus, so working on the gut microbiome with live coconut kefir, miso, apple cider vinegar and sauerkraut can also give this a boost. You can also get vegan kefir powders to add to juices or smoothies. Babies need at least 125-150mg per day of choline, toddlers 200-250mg per day with a maximum of 1,000mg daily. From 9 years up they need 375-400mg minimum and maximum 2,000mg (3,000mg for teens and adults).
The amino acids in protein are important building blocks for growth in children. Babies get quite a lot of protein from breast milk but their needs get greater as they grow older. 4-8 year-olds need 19g per day, 9-13 year-olds need 34g, a 14-18 boy needs 52g and a 14-18 year-old girl needs 46g per day. Plant-based protein options do need to be combined to get all the amino acids over a day. This means having lentils or dhal with wild rice, or chickpeas or peas with quinoa. You can also add protein powders to smoothies, as well as muffin, pancake and waffle mixes and add some to porridge if you feel they are not getting enough.
As you can see restrictive diets, even with the greatest intentions, can make life extremely complicated and most people would struggle to do this well. This is why we stock vegan-friendly food supplements at NatureDoc.Shop and offer family nutrition consultations.
I feel we could all benefit from eating more plants for our health and the future of our planet, but we also need to be mindful that our health is paramount – this means the families we work with usually end up deciding to boost up their kids’ plant intake – which slowly crowds out any excess animal products that a Western diet leans towards – rather than excluding any key food groups or relying on ultra-processed fortified foods and a shelf full of food supplements.
This has been updated from a post originally published Dec 2, 2018.