Eating a diet centered on plants is linked to numerous health benefits, and working more meatless meals into a family’s eating can also benefit the planet. But is vegetarian eating right for children? Definitely! A vegetarian or vegan eating plan can be right for any age.
There are well-researched health benefits associated with vegetarian eating patterns, including: lower weight and body mass index, and reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer and high blood pressure. In general, those following a vegetarian eating pattern compared to non-vegetarians consume fewer calories from fat, fewer total calories, and more fiber, potassium and vitamin C, all of which could contribute to the health benefits associated with vegetarian eating.
Vegetarian or vegan eating patterns are considered appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.
There are also environmental benefits. For example: The water consumption of livestock is greater than that needed to grow vegetables or grains; it takes about 1,850 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, compared to only 39 gallons of water to produce a pound of vegetables.
The protein question
The No. 1 question I get about vegetarian eating is “How do you get enough protein?” A well-balanced vegetarian or vegan eating plan can deliver plenty of protein and all the other nutrients the body needs to grow, stay healthy and be strong. Additionally, research has found that when calories are adequate in a vegetarian or vegan eating pattern, protein needs are met or exceeded.
Ways to be a vegetarian
Why people choose to eat vegetarian differs from person to person. If you have a child who wants to become a vegetarian, I recommend you gain an understanding of the different types of vegetarian eating plans. Then have a conversation with your child about why he or she wants to change his or her eating routine. This will help you understand more about where your child is coming from with the request and help navigate what type of vegetarian eating plan your child will follow.
There are different variations of vegetarian eating; here is a brief overview of some of the common vegetarian eating patterns.
Vegetarian eating plans typically do not include any meat or seafood, including chicken, beef, pork, and fish.
The least restrictive form of vegetarian eating is lacto-ovo-vegetarian, which excludes meat but does include eggs and dairy products.
Lacto-vegetarians follow a similar eating pattern to that of a lacto-ovo-vegetarians but additionally do not eat egg or egg products.
The most restrictive type of vegetarian eating is vegan. Those following a vegan eating pattern will not have any animal-based products: They exclude milk, dairy products, lard, gelatin and honey as well.
Making the Change
Once you and your child talk about what type of vegetarian eating plan he wishes to follow, you can start to put together meal ideas. I encourage you to enter into vegetarian eating with an open mind because you can learn great ways to prepare vegetarian dishes that are delicious. I know this firsthand, as I have been eating primarily vegetarian for five years now. While my reasons for this choice still require some explaining to friends, co-workers and family, overall, eating vegetarian can be easy to adapt to.
Here are some tips to integrate vegetarian eating into your household:
Have the whole family eat meatless at least one or two times per week. This is great even for families without a vegetarian in the house.
When you are making meals with meat or seafood, consider just making a simple protein-rich alternative for the vegetarian, such as tofu or tempeh sautéed with a bit of barbecue sauce, or a sandwich with hummus and sliced veggies.
Always have a stockpile of beans on hand. In one cup of beans there are about 220 calories, 17 grams of fiber and 14 grams of protein. For a protein go-to, serve a cup of beans topped with a drizzle of olive oil, vinegar and spices at meals.
When throwing a party, have vegetarian options available: grilled, marinated tofu cubes, grilled vegetables, grilled cheese sandwiches, a flatbread pizza, or hummus and vegetables.
At restaurants ask to customize a dish to make it vegetarian. For example, order a grilled chicken salad without the chicken and ask for more of the vegetable toppings instead.
Stock up on prepared, easy-to-grab vegetarian foods like hummus, three-bean salad, Greek yogurt or Icelandic yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, guacamole, cottage cheese, peanut butter, almond butter, trail mix, nuts, seeds, dry roasted edamame or other dry roasted beans.
Watch outs and concerns
One of the biggest watch outs for parents of a prospective vegetarian: a child who will not include a wide variety of plant-based protein foods in his or her diet. A healthy vegetarian eater must be willing to incorporate foods such as nuts, seeds, peanut butter, beans, tofu, tempeh, edamame and hummus in her diet. If your kid is not willing or able to do that, you need to have a serious conversation with her and suggest that eating vegetarian may not be the best choice for her.
If you eat vegetarian or vegan and fill up just on foods like chips, french fries and bread—which are all potentially vegetarian
or vegan—you certainly will be missing out on nutrients the body needs.
Sometimes professional support is helpful, especially if vegetarian eating is unfamiliar to you. Working with a registered dietitian can help guide you and your child through the transition to vegetarian eating. Also, consider discussing the eating change with your child’s pediatrician and raising any concerns that person may have or blood work that he or she would like to monitor to ensure your child’s needs are being met.
Lastly, those following a vegan diet require vitamin B-12 supplementation because it is primarily found in animal foods. (Vegetarians routinely consuming dairy foods will not likely require a supplement.)
You can do it
If you or your child chooses to start eating vegetarian, you can do it! Enjoy the adventure of trying, tasting and preparing delicious vegetarian foods.
Molly Morgan is a registered dietitian and author of three books, including, most recently, Drink Your Way to Gut Health. She lives in the Southern Tier area with her two children and husband. Visit her website at creativenutritionsolutions.com.