Kids Go Vegan!
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Virginia Messina, MPH, RD on

Vegan diets are a great choice for children. Raised in homes where the emphasis is on healthful plant foods, young vegans are likely to gain a few nutritional advantages over their meat-eating peers.

Health experts often caution that vegan diets for children require “careful planning.” That’s true, but then again, all diets for children require careful planning. Parents of omnivores need to make sure their kids are getting enough fiber and iron and not too much saturated fat. With obesity and diabetes on the rise among children, it is clear that there are plenty of problems with omnivore diets.

Vegan parents, on the other hand, need to make sure their children are getting enough calcium and vitamin B12 and that iron is well absorbed. Admittedly, choosing an eating style that is outside of mainstream culture adds a few challenges. But with the vast array of great vegan products on the market today, it really is easy to plan a healthful diet for young vegans.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when kids go vegan:

  • If you feel like your little one isn’t eating enough—a typical problem with preschoolers in particular, whether or not they are vegan—focus on higher-calorie foods like nut butters, avocado and tofu. Don’t overdo it with fiber which can fill up small stomachs. It’s okay to include some refined foods like pasta and cereals. And don’t skimp on fat. Children don’t need a low-fat diet.
  • No food is absolutely essential in any vegan diet, but fortified soymilk can go a long way toward meeting needs for protein, calcium and vitamin D. Many brands are also fortified with vitamin B12. (Milks made from almonds, oats, or rice are too low in protein and often in calories. They are fine for occasional use, just not ideal as a dietary staple.)
  • If kids aren’t regularly consuming foods fortified with them, supplements of vitamin D and vitamin B12 are essential. A multivitamin that contains these nutrients is fine as long as it is chewable. Vitamin B12 isn't well-absorbed when it's swallowed whole.
  • Vegan children have slightly higher protein needs than omnivores. They can meet those needs if they getting enough calories and eating a variety of whole plant foods. But if kids turn their noses up at legumes, give their diet a little protein boost with veggie burgers, soy products, and wheat seitan.
  • Fortified vegan milks and juices can easily supply enough calcium for children. It’s good to include some foods that are naturally rich in calcium, too, such as hummus, figs, blackstrap molasses, and almond butter.
  • Make sure kids get plenty of zinc. Good sources are wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, beans, peas, and tahini.
  • Include a good source of vitamin C with every meal. Vegan children get plenty of iron; the key is making sure they absorb it well. Vitamin C consumed at the same time as the iron source is important.
  • Leafy greens—collards and kale—are vegan super foods, but not always a kid-friendly favorite. Temper their strong flavor by mixing them with bland foods like mashed potatoes or sweet ones like applesauce. Or chop greens finely, mix them with rice, and roll up in a tortilla.

What doesn’t work for children? Raw foods, very low fat, and fruitarian diets are off the menu for kids. They make it much too hard to meet nutrient needs during growth. Macrobiotic diets that don’t include fortified foods can be risky, too.

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