I am often asked for good practical advice on what to do if your child decides to become a vegan or vegetarian. So finally, I have pulled it all together in this blog post.
This is going to be particularly relevant for parents who aren’t vegetarian or vegan themselves and need some practical ideas on how to feed their children (or visiting vegetarians). But the principles are the same either way even if you are a longstanding veggie or vegan, because catering for a vegetarian or vegan child is a bit more complicated than doing it for a fully developed adult.
Choosing to go vegetarian or vegan or simply cutting down on eating animal-based foods is fast on the rise in school children; and it can be the first major independent decision a child makes in their life. However, they are often still too young to know the intricacies and complexities of eating a healthy plant-based diet, so this is where education at the outset is critical both for parents and the child.
It is important to encourage the child to take responsibility for what they eat and to help out more in the kitchen; as many convenience shop-bought vegan and veggie options do not contain the nourishment kids need to grow and develop. This is a key skill for life, even if giving up meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey entirely turns out not to last forever. So, roll your sleeves up and get busy in the kitchen with them!
When your child first tells you he or she has decided to turn vegetarian or vegan, there’s a lot to consider as a parent, even if you had an inkling already. Your reaction may vary according to your own views about meat, fish and animal products, but mostly you have to put them aside, because it’s not about you. In fact, if you try to dissuade them, you may strengthen their resolve and alienate them. So don’t. But do ask them about their decision. And make them feel listened to. A couple of things to be aware of.
- Firstly, it can be helpful to know if their friends have actively or passively influenced them. Have images on social media been part of the decision making?
- Secondly, consider whether there is an unhealthy weight loss motive in the background. A switch to vegetarianism or veganism can be just an excuse to eat less. But in order to get the right amount of the fundamental nutrients I detail below; they will usually have to pile their plates really high.
Explain to your child that it is harder work feeding them different food to the rest of the family and that you will need some help from them in the kitchen. Many kids also a quite fussy with what they will eat and often they are not that keen on the more highly nutritious vegan and veggie foods like beans, tofu and green veggies. Have an open chat with them emphasising that they will need to embrace eating many new foods that they probably haven’t tried or liked before, so they get the right nutrition to keep them happy, healthy and well.
Some kids are allergic to nuts, and most schools won’t let you go anywhere near them with a nut anyway, so these can’t be put in a lunch box or snack bag. Other allergies and dietary limitations like coeliac disease will make feeding your veggie or vegan kids even harder again. When you have multiple food limitations then it is important to monitor your child’s nutrient levels regularly and seek professional advice from a dietician, nutritionist or nutritional therapist.
And not eating enough can be the least of your problems, as there’s sometimes a tendency to gorge on sugary foods, white carbs and fatty foods like biscuits and chips as well as ultra-processed vegan food alternatives like vegan pizza and burgers.
I’m not going to discuss the ethics of food choices here. That’s because in my clinic, I come across the whole range of dietary approaches and I simply consider it to be my job to support people in maintaining a healthy nutritional balance, whatever their lifestyle, ethical, medical or religious choices or needs. And I also think that as a parent, this would be a good attitude to take with your child.
Why is nutrition important for vegetarian and vegan kids?
So you accept what your child is telling you. You support their decision, and you want to help them understand what it means in practical terms. The big thing for them to realise are that humans may have evolved to be omnivores, but we develop and perform best when we have nutrients in the right proportions. The good news is that vegetarians and vegans can often enjoy superior health to the general population.
On the other hand, get it wrong, and the results can be devastating. Can a vegetarian or vegan diet lead to serious physical or mental health problems? Absolutely yes, and especially so for a growing child. And remember the brain is still developing well into a person’s mid-twenties so teens and young people need to also watch out too.
Permanent physical damage and serious mental health problems have both been the result of well-meaning, but poor food choices. It hardly needs to be said that as a parent, you have a duty of care. No guilt should ever be felt from past food choices, and thankfully it’s rarely too late to feed them enough of the right foods and to get their health back on track.
What nutrients do children actually need?
There are a number of key nutrients that can easily dip when adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet and these include protein, iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, zinc and vitamin B12. The options are broader in a vegetarian diet, as foods like eggs and dairy products are rich in all of these key nutrients.
Here are some of the nutrients that children need to eat on a daily basis divided into age groups:
Sources: Protein 1 | Protein 2 | Iron 1 | Iron 2 | Calcium | Iodine | Zinc | Vit. B12
NB. UK data for children is sparse, and so international advice may have been used. Nutritional availability and absorption varies enormously from sample to sample of foods and supplements.
Surely I can just buy vegetarian or vegan ready meals or meat alternatives?
Certainly the quality of ready meals for vegetarians and vegans has improved hugely in the past couple of years, and there are better and better alternatives available. You may want to consider whether your child wants something that looks like meat or prefers not to be associated with it at all.
Some of the names to look out for include Deliciously Ella, The Happy Pear, Feed Me Vegan, Quorn, Tofurky, The Vegetarian Butcher, Strong Roots, Vivera, and Linda McCartney Foods. Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Iceland and other supermarkets have great vegetarian and vegan ranges. Many of these products are fortified with the vitamins and minerals that vegetarians and vegans need.
But… do I recommend them? Mostly, no. There is plenty of medical evidence showing that ultra-processed foods are not as good for you as proper home cooked food. And the nutritional content can be a bit hit and miss. For example, most vegan cheese doesn’t contain any protein. So, some of these products may give you a balanced meal, while others won’t.
This means that to feed your kids healthily, you have to plan quite carefully and know what is in and missing from the packets you (inevitably) fill your freezer with. Yes. I’m realistic. You will almost certainly buy these products. But I advise you to do home cooking instead as much as possible.
Surely I can just give my child food supplements to fill in the gaps?
It’s always better to get your nutrition from real food. It tends to be better absorbed and better quality than even the best supplements. But for vegetarian and vegan children, I do agree that supplementation to ensure you have filled their needs across the board is sensible.
In the sections on nutrients below, I give you specific recommendations for supplements that may help. But here are some general ones:
Lucinda recommends these general supplements for vegetarians and vegans
Protein is critical for kids’ growth and is one of the building blocks that create bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
Protein in veggie and non-veggie sources vary considerably, so these guidelines are only approximate.
A teen boy going through rapid growth should aim for 52g of protein daily and this means he would need to swap two thirds of a chicken breast (or a small steak) twice a day for 3/4 tin of tinned pulses or 200g tofu twice a day. Trendy meal options such as cauliflower steaks and jack fruit hardly contain any protein – a teen boy would need to eat 2.8kg of jackfruit in one day to meet their protein intake! Even tofu has quite a low concentration of protein, so you have to eat a lot. But you can get great lentil pastas which contain high levels of protein.
A particular thing to watch out for is that while animal protein contains all the types of amino acid that the body needs, plant based protein sources do not, so you have to combine them. This means having lentils or dhal with wild rice, or chickpeas or peas with quinoa.
NB. This is purely for illustration, as these will generally not be the only protein source in a day, and the protein content varies enormously from product to product.
Lucinda recommends these products for extra protein
As with all nutrition, getting it from wholefoods is best, but I can recommend the vegan Touchstone Essentials – Organic Super Protein Powder as a top-up if you are worried. Simply blend into a smoothie, add to a bowl of porridge or add to baking mixes when making waffles, muffins and pancakes.
Omega-3 oil is critical for proper development of the brain, central nervous system and eyesight. Without enough a child can become distracted, unfocused and struggle with their behaviour and academic work. One study found that supplementing with omega 3 and vitamin D stopped bedwetting in some older children. Lack of omega 3 has also been implicated in developing depression and is even a risk factor for suicide risk. There isn’t a specific guide RDA.
Vegetarians can get it from organic whole milk and eggs, or omega 3 fortified eggs. Vegans can get it from walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and cold pressed rape oil.
I’d recommend the Cytoplan vegan Omega-3 and Udo’s Choice Oil is also great, as you can add it to salad dressings. One day omega 3 supplement manufacturers will develop specific child-friendly vegan omega 3 supplements, but right now you need to open up the vegan caplets an empty the contents into a vegan yoghurt, fruit puree or smoothie.
Lucinda recommends these products for extra Omega-3
The NHS recommends that all children receive Vitamin D supplementation. You can get it from sunshine, but here in the UK, that’s sometimes not very easy as the sun can be quite elusive. For vegans, this presents a problem, because there ar very few true vegan cources fo vitamin D3. However, we do recommend the Cytoplan vegan vitamin D3 and BetterYou Vegan DLux1000 Vitamin D Oral Spray. But you can also find it in the BetterYou Vegan Health Daily Oral Spray and other multivitamins further up this page.
Iron is essential to transport oxygen around the body to our cells and our brains. Low iron levels can impair development and growth, so this is essential for growing kids. It is also essential for good mental health and if a child dips in their iron stores they can develop anxiety and OCD. Fussy eating can be a sign of iron deficiency as one symptom is lack of appetite and a sore tummy. Great sources of iron-rich foods include tofu, spinach, dark chocolate, chickpeas, lentils, black beans and kidney beans. The darker red/purple the bean the more iron it tends to contain. You need to eat more plant-based iron-rich foods, known as non-heme iron, than you would from animal-based foods like steak or liver.
Plant-based foods tend to carry a lot less iron than animal foods, so you need to eat much more in a wholefood diet. As a cheat, many commercial breakfast cereals are fortified with more than the daily RDA. But watch out for excessive sugar content.
To maximise the uptake of iron, eat it in conjunction with vitamin C which might be some orange juice with breakfast, or an apple with lunch or parsley/red pepper or lemon juice with dinner.
Lucinda recommends these products for extra Iron
Calcium is an essential mineral for building strong bones and teeth and also helps kids sleep well. A 200ml glass of cow’s milk contains 240mg of calcium and so does fortified oat milk. However, many plant-based milks do not contain much calcium at all, so always plump for an oat based one if your child likes to drink milk.
The coconut and cashew nut yoghurts contain no calcium and almond contains a little and soya milk is quite a good source.
Oats, almonds, ground almonds, almond butter, tahini and chia seeds are some of the best calcium sources as well as broccoli, spinach, okra, figs and tofu. If you need to supplement we recommend ½ teaspoon of Lifestream Calcium which is made from algae and also contains some other trace minerals.
Lucinda recommends these products for extra Calcium
Iodine is critical for a healthy metabolism, for growth and also for learning and development. It’s an important nutrient for thyroid health and without enough iodine over time a child can develop hypothyroidism. This can manifest in symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, thinning hair, being cold all the time and constipation. Too much iodine and it can make you very ill too.
If a child is not eating fish or dairy products, then Nori seaweed wraps, Itsu seaweed sheets or seaweed condiment sprinkle added to beans stews and tomato sauces a few times a week is a good idea. Quite a few of the new vegan milks have are fortified with iodine in the form of iodised salt so if your child is drinking lots of these then scale back on the seaweed consumption. Seagreens make seaweed-based iodine rich supplements if you feel your child needs topping up.
Zinc is essential for a strong immune system, for growth, for a healthy digestion and for developing a sense of taste and smell. It is also a critical nutrient for learning and memory. Puberty is a time when kids need a huge amount of zinc and they can become depleted very easily. Signs zinc is dipping is if your child complains of a sore tummy, becomes less interested in food, seeks out strong tasting foods like chilli and spices and picks up infections more easily. A zinc deficiency is also often implicated in those with eating disorders and may be the precursor to a change in relationship with food.
It’s easier for a vegetarian child to consume zinc than vegan kids as it is plentiful in dairy and eggs. Whereas vegans need to rely on wholegrains, nuts and seeds and there is also a little zinc in maple syrup, potatoes, green beans and kale. Supplementation for those low in zinc should be around 15mg daily. I recommend Super Zinc from Metabolics, which is easy to add to food and drink.
Vitamin B12 is essential for our energy, immunity and central nervous system function, and without enough kids can get tired, pale and breathless. A B12 deficiency may be the reason why a child becomes a fussy eater as it can affect digestion and appetite. It may also affect learning and kids developing slower than expected. A B12 deficiency can also cause almost any psychiatric symptom, from anxiety, to panic, to depression and even hallucinations and intrusive thoughts.
You can find vitamin B12 in dairy products, eggs, nutritional yeast, nori seaweed sheets and shitake mushroom but most vegans choose to supplement with Vitamin B12 as it is difficult to get enough. The BetterYou Vitamin B12 Boost Oral Spray is a handy and tasty way of taking it.
- For a veggie or vegan child breakfast is an incredibly important meal of the day as school food options maybe limited or unpalatable.
- If you usually end up rushing breakfast in the morning, then aim to wake up 10 minutes early and cook up a feast of porridges, eggs, scrambled tofu, wholemeal toast slathered with nut butters, hummus or guacamole.
- Eating protein and fibre at breakfast are the best ways to keep them full up until lunch.
- Protein fuelled smoothies can be slurped on the way to school if you run out of time.
Lunch Box Strategies
- Remember to always pack some protein, carbohydrate, healthy fat, fruits and veg.
- Falafels, fritters and veggie burgers are a winner alongside hummus and dips.
- Invest in a wide necked insulated food jar to serve hot bean stews, lentil soups or pasta.
- Make pancakes from chickpea flour or buckwheat flour and super charge with grated veg.
- Try filled wholemeal wraps and nori sheets – stuff with rice, mixed beans, and salad.
- A good chance to fill up their lunch box with a rainbow of different raw crunchy veg and fruit.
- Bake healthy sweet goodies at the weekend and freeze. Simply pop a frozen muffin or cookie in their lunch box and it will have defrosted by lunch time.
This is your chance to try new foods, tastes and recipes. I usually put a new salad, dip or dish on the table for our kids to try alongside their known favourites and encourage them to try something new every day. Popular kids’ supper ideas include:
- Stuffed baked sweet potato
- Veggie chilli with guacamole and wholegrain rice
- Wholegrain pasta with walnut and spinach pesto, tomatoes and tofu.
- Butternut squash and sage risotto
- “Shepherdless” lentil pie
- Nut roasts
- Quinoa with roasted vegetable
- Rice salad with chickpeas
- Spanish tortilla with roast veg.