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Raise a Healthy Vegetarian Kid

By Melanie Wilson

In their position paper on vegetarian diets, the American Dietetic Association states, "Well-planned vegan and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy and lactation. Appropriately planned vegan and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets satisfy nutrient needs of infants, children and adolescents and promote normal growth."

I can already hear my opponents saying, "Yes, but they say appropriately planned, and that just isn't easy!" I disagree, and so would thousands of vegetarian and vegan parents around the world.

Misinformation abounds
In fact, one of the most difficult things about raising vegetarian children is not providing nutritious meals but dealing with the lack of support and the questions, comments and criticism from ill-informed friends, families, caregivers and doctors.

Providing a well-balanced diet for children is something most parents try to do already. With meatless (and in the case of vegans, egg- and dairy-less) diets, it's the same game; only the playing pieces have changed. Fifteen minutes on the internet will turn up not only all the nutrition information a veg parent could ever need but also complete meal plans for growing children as well.

Worried about protein?
Protein always seems to be the first concern to crop up. In today's burgeoning health food market, parents can find delicious and healthy meat substitutes for everything from chicken nuggets to hamburgers. These are convenient, especially for families considering a switch to a vegetarian diet with older children who are used to eating meat.

Though many veg families rely on these convenience foods, others find themselves eating more basic whole foods like tofu, lentils and chickpeas for protein and iron. Think that kids won't eat these foods? Think again! Kids like what they learn to like. In other words, families whose children eat these foods from the beginning have kids who consider them a normal part of the diet.

In fact, some items that were considered "health foods" not too long ago have now moved into the mainstream in a big way. Take soymilk, for example. You can find several brands on grocery store shelves across the nation right next to cartons of cow's milk. Non-vegetarians are drinking it, too. It offers a tasty, calcium- and Vitamin D-rich alternative for those who avoid dairy products, and it's a great way to get soy in your diet.

There are also fortified rice and almond milks widely available now. And don't forget that kids can get plenty of calcium from almonds, broccoli, green leafy vegetables and fortified orange juice -- just to name a few.

Nutrients, nutrients everywhere
Fortified foods provide nutrients for nearly all children. Enriched breakfast cereal is an all-American favorite that pleases kids and parents alike. Vegan families may consider including one fortified with Vitamin B-12, a nutrient that is only found in animal foods. (Ovo-lacto-vegetarian kids get their B-12 from eggs and dairy products.) Aha! Is this the nutrient that proves that humans are meant to eat an animal-based diet? Hardly. B-12 is produced by a bacteria, which is why it's so plentiful in animal products. Supplements and fortified foods such as cereals and some meat substitutes are comparable, reliable sources of B-12 for vegan families.

Many cereals also contain iron, another nutrient of concern among some nutritionists. In truth, vegetarian children are no more likely to suffer from iron deficiency anemia than non-vegetarian kids.

What about kids’ preferences?
So maybe you're convinced that it can be healthy to raise veg kids, but you still don't think it could possibly be easy. What parent could expect a child to attend a birthday party, for example, and pass on the cake and ice cream? What do you do when they have pizza day at school?

I'll admit that these scenarios have caused some worry for veg parents everywhere. What we've learned is that you start teaching children about vegetarianism when they are very young. You tell them the truth about healthy foods and where animal foods come from. You learn to make delicious, healthful foods at home, and you set an example every time you pass on non-veg party food yourself.

It's a long, slow process of passing on your belief systems to your children, and it's no different than instilling, for example, the spiritual values that are important to your family. Most veg parents will admit that there comes a time when you have to let go and let your children decide. Some do that at an earlier age than others. Each family has different rules about how to handle different situations, and we all do what works for us.

The veg advantage
Whatever our children ultimately decide to eat -- whether they become full-fledged, lifelong vegetarians, or end up following the tide of common culture -- we raise them vegetarian secure in the knowledge that we are providing them with the very best possible start in life. We ignore the outdated nutrition information sold to us by the meat and dairy lobbies that tells us kids have to eat meat and drink milk to be healthy. We know better.

Across the nation Americans are focusing more on fruits and vegetables, eating less meat, adding soy to their diets and cutting back on fat. Shouldn't we do the same for our children?

© Melanie Wilson; reprinted with permission from Vegetarian Baby & Child

Melanie Wilson is the senior editor of VegNews, the editor of and co-editor of This article first appeared in Los Angeles Family Magazine.

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