Thinking about starting more kid-friendly plant-based meals with your family? You’re in the right place! Learn about what goes into family-friendly plant-based meals and how to ease your brood into this healthy eating pattern.
Does your child or teen talk about becoming a vegetarian?
Are you intrigued by the health benefits of a plant-based diet for your family but don’t know where to start or if it’s safe?
A plant-based diet is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, making it one of the healthiest diets you can adopt for your family.
So what’s the benefit for kids?
A diet of processed foods and few fruits and vegetables takes its toll on the body over time.
The greatest benefit of a healthy diet is its role in the possible prevention of some diseases, and it establishes lifelong healthy eating habits.
A plant-based diet is rich in disease protecting phytonutrients.
And with a little planning, family friendly plant-based meals contain all the nutrients your child needs for healthy growth.
I’ll show you how to get your family started on a safe plant-based diet for kids.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
Let’s start with what a plant-based diet is not.
“Plant-based” doesn’t mean a diet of processed meat-free products like soy hotdogs or platefuls of cheesy pasta or pizza.
In fact, when we talk about a plant-based diet, we’re talking about a diet of mainly whole foods found in nature that’s processed only enough to get it from the farm to your table.
There’s a variety of plant-based diets, and it doesn’t always mean completely giving up meat or animal-based foods.
Eating a plant-based diet means making fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and whole grains as the basis of your family’s meals and snacks.
Vegetarian vs Veganism
If a plant-based diet doesn’t mean giving up meat, how does vegetarianism and veganism fit in?
These are two types of plant-based diets with different takes on animal products.
Vegans eliminate all animal foods such as meat, poultry and fish, and all animal products such as dairy and eggs.
Ethical vegans also eliminate any product that may come from an animal source, including honey (made by bees), for example.
Different types of vegetarian diet exist depending on preference or religion.
Vegetarians don’t eat meat or poultry, although some eat fish.
A vegetarian diet could also include dairy and eggs, except for lacto-vegetarians who eat milk products, but not eggs.
Any time your child eliminates one or more of the five food groups, it’s time to pay attention to the nutrients they might miss and to the foods they’re eating instead.
Is a Plant-Based Diet Safe for Kids?
Most parents are concerned about their child getting enough protein on a plant-based diet.
But lack of protein isn’t usually a problem, even for the most strict vegetarians.
Many foods have some protein, including grains and breads such as cereal and rice, so your child should get enough protein from a balanced diet as long as he adds some plant-based proteins such as:
- Nuts, seeds and legumes (peanuts and lentils)
- Soy milk and soy products (tofu)
- Quinoa (a grain high in protein)
The micronutrients mainly found in animal foods are the nutrients you want to make sure your child replaces with plant-based sources.
It’s crucial that kids get enough vitamins and minerals to ensure healthy growth.
You can get too much of a good thing, though.
Eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains means you’re probably getting enough fiber.
Making this diet change quickly can cause physical discomfort.
Gradually increase the high-fiber foods in your child’s diet to ease his gastrointestinal system into it.
As long as your child gets enough calories, protein and micronutrients (especially the ones below), a plant-based diet is safe.
This table lists the vitamins of concern for diets low in animal foods for children 1-18 years old and plant-based sources of these nutrients.
A note about milk: There’s a variety of plant-based “milks” (oat, almond, coconut, soy) but they don’t have the same amount of protein and fat as cow’s milk. If you have a young child, you will need to incorporate these key nutrients from other sources.
Who Is a Plant-Based Diet Not Recommended For?
A plant-based diet is a healthy diet, but the priority is always to make sure your child is eating enough to grow.
Here are some examples of when a plant-based diet might not be a good idea for your child.
- If your child’s a picky eater. A picky eater’s diet is already limited, so you don’t want to take away any foods he’s willing to eat. Introducing a whole new diet might increase a picky eater’s anxiety and make the situation worse.
- If you suspect an eating disorder. It’s not uncommon for kids with eating disorders to eliminate food groups, particularly the animal protein group. Plant-based diets are healthy, but you don’t want to encourage eliminating food groups with an eating disorder.
- If your child has multiple food allergies. Three of the 8 common food allergens are protein sources on a plant-based diet. If your child has a soy, peanut or tree nut allergy, it might be difficult for him to get the nutrients, calories and protein he needs without animal sources of food.
“Plant-based” isn’t a “diet” to restrict what your child eats.
It’s a healthy eating pattern and a lifestyle choice your family makes.
Here are some recommendations to transition to a plant-based diet for children:
- Don’t make separate meals for your kids.
- Offer kid friendly plant-based meals and allow your child to choose what and how much they eat.
- Don’t eliminate all the foods your child likes and is used to. Introduce new meals gradually.
- Your child’s old-favorite foods aren’t “bad”. Those are “play foods” he can still have sometimes.
A plant-based diet isn’t just about eliminating foods such as meat in the name of health.
After all, Oreos and Cool Ranch Doritos are vegan.
Focus on the foods that make up the bulk of what your child eats.
Keep your child’s pediatrician in the loop so they guide you and monitor him for nutrient deficiencies, especially if your child eliminates all animal products.