Vegetarian toddlers and children can get all the nutrients they need from a meat-free diet; it just needs a little more care and forward thinking on your part. In fact, many experts claim that a vegetarian diet will bring many health benefits later on, reducing the risk of problems like obesity and diabetes.
Good eating habits are formed at this stage, and your child is also growing rapidly, so it’s important to make sure that he gets enough calories as well as the correct intake of vitamins, protein and calcium. Meal-planning will also depend on whether you’re going to allow your child to eat fish, dairy and meat by-products such as gelatine.
A balanced vegetarian diet
For a good balance, every meal your child eats should include something from each of the four main food groups: carbohydrates, fruit and veg, milk and dairy and protein. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds:
- Breakfast: scrambled egg on toast (protein and carbs), banana (fruit), cup of milk (dairy)
- Lunch: cheese sandwich (carbs and dairy), raw carrot sticks with hummous (vegetable and protein), apple (fruit)
- Dinner: mixed bean chilli with rice (vegetables, protein and carbs), yoghurt (dairy)
Great alternatives to meat
It’s essential that vegetarian children get plenty of iron and protein – the nutrients traditionally found in meat. Beans and pulses, such as baked beans, kidney beans, lentils and chick peas (and foods made from them, like dahl and hummous) are all great meat-free sources of protein and iron. Other foods such as eggs, pureed nut and seed spreads and cereals also contain decent amounts of protein. Try to include a portion of a vitamin C-rich food or drink, like diluted orange juice, alongside meals to boost your child’s iron absorption.
By 12 months, your toddler will probably be joining in with family mealtimes, often eating the same foods as you. Tofu and soya mince are good alternatives to meat to use in sauces or casseroles. Quorn ™ can be served to toddlers, but as it’s very high in fibre and can make them feel full before they have had enough calories, try to limit it to once or twice a week.
Vegetarian diets tend to be naturally high in fibre, which is good for your child’s digestive system, but too much can prevent the absorption of essential minerals such as zinc, iron and calcium. To make sure he’s not getting too much fibre, give him white pasta and rice rather than wholemeal versions, although brown bread is fine.
Vitamins for veggies
Vitamins are crucial for your growing child. Vegetarian diets can be lacking in vitamins D and B12, which are needed for energy, bone health and red blood cell function; these are found in many dairy products and fortified cereals, but if you’re concerned about your child’s intake then seek advice from your health visitor as supplements are available.
Calcium is also vital for growing bones, so make sure that your child’s diet includes plenty of dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt.
Vegetarian essentials at a glance
The Vegetarian Society advises that every day, a vegetarian child aged one to five should be given:
- Fruit: one to three servings, including fresh, frozen or dried
- Vegetables: two servings, one of which should be a dark leafy variety like cabbage or spinach
- Dairy: three servings of milk, cheese, yoghurt, fortified soya milk or tofu
- Pulses, nuts and seeds: one to two servings, including nut butters, lentils, beans, tahini (sesame seed paste)
- Grains and Cereals: four to five servings, such as bread, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals