A vegetarian diet can support the healthy growth of toddlers and preschoolers – if it is done right. Since these years are key when establishing eating habits for life, it’s important to give your toddler a solid foundation, especially if you choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Kids who can learn to appreciate and enjoy greens, fruit, and grains at a young age are going to be set up for a lifetime of solid eating choices.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine,
Children raised on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes grow up to be slimmer and healthier and even live longer than their meat-eating friends. It is much easier to build a nutritious diet from plant foods than from animal products […] As for essential nutrients, plant foods are preferred sources because they provide sufficient energy and protein packaged with other health-promoting nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Below are some helpful tips and information of key nutrients that are important to remember when feeding your budding vegetarian.
Image credit – babble
Key Nutrients in a Vegetarian Diet:
Protein – found in beans and legumes, grains, tofu, tempeh and other fermented soy products, nuts and nut butters, dairy, eggs
As long as he is eating a good mix of greens, beans, and veggies, your toddler’s protein intake should be sufficient.
Vitamin D – fifteen minutes of playtime in the sun every day; also found in milk and fortified milk replacements
Calcium – found in green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, almonds and almond butter, milk and yogurt, calcium-set tofu, fortified milk substitutes (soy, coconut, almond), fortified orange juice
Iron – found in whole grains and cereals, dried fruits, beans and legumes, green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals
Try to pair plant-based foods containing iron with foods containing vitamin C (citrus, tomatoes, fruit, and more) as it promotes iron absorption!
Zinc – found in whole grains, nuts, beans, hard cheeses, tofu, fermented soy products
Vitamin B12 – eggs, dairy products, B12-fortified nutritional yeast, fortified milk replacements, fortified cereals
B12 is one of the few nutrients that isn’t easily found in a varied, wholesome plant-based diet, but is crucial for growth and development. If your toddler loves dairy, her B12 intake should be fine – if not, consider fortified foods or a supplement.
Fiber – found in whole grain breads and cereals, legumes, fruit, vegetables
We all know a diet high in fiber is good for adults, but it fills up small toddler tummies quickly and may cause children to feel full before eating enough. High fiber foods should also be high in calories, or try lower fiber foods like fruit.
Fats – found in nuts and nut butters, avocados, tofu, hummus, oils
Healthy fats are important for growth and brain development. Aim to provide monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (avocado, nut butters, tofu) and linoleic oil (canola, flaxseed, soy products).
The key to success with a vegetarian diet is mindfulness and planning!
Make every bite count – pack in plenty of protein, vitamins, and good fats.
Keep things fun by offering a variety of foods and introducing new ones frequently.
Toddlers are experts at mimicking. Make sure you’re eating your greens, too!
A well-balanced vegetarian diet contains things like nuts and fruit. Be sure to limit choking risk for toddlers by grinding nuts, halving or quartering grapes small fruits, and finely cutting vegetables and fruits – and of course, always supervise consumption of these foods!
Be sure to maintain regular checkups with your pediatrician, and listen to their recommendations.
Written by: Amanda Dunham
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine