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Eating Wisely

Raising a Vegetarian Child

Melanie Wilson
New Guinea
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 4 July-August 2000, pp. 131-133, 151

The word "vegetarian" may mean different things to different people. There are many distinct categories of vegetarianism, each one embodying a set of dietary guidelines. Some also include ethical and/or religious belief systems. The term generally refers to someone who does not consume meat of any kind, including seafood. The vast majority of vegetarians fall into the ovo-lacto (egg and dairy products) category, meaning that they do consume eggs and dairy products, such as cheese, milk, and yogurt. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products. Lacto-vegetarians are just the opposite, consuming dairy products but not eggs. Vegans consume no animal products whatsoever. In common usage, the word "vegetarian" encompasses all these categories, though vegans sometimes choose to differentiate themselves from the group.

It may not make sense to the average omnivore to get so technical. Food is food, right? We define the foods we eat as artificial or natural, processed or unprocessed, harmful or healthful. Vegetarians take it one step further by making the commitment to choose certain foods as part of their way of life.

Even though health is the number one reason for choosing vegetarianism, not all vegetarians eat a healthful, balanced diet. It is entirely possible to give up meat and still eat candy bars, potato chips, and drink soda regularly. Some of the well-documented health benefits of consuming a well-balanced vegetarian diet include higher fiber consumption, lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, lower intake of pesticides, food additives, preservatives, and less chance of contracting meat-borne illnesses such as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or Mad Cow Disease) and e. coli from contaminated meat products. A diet high in vegetable products and low in animal products has also been linked to cancer prevention and lower risk of heart disease (Marcus 1998).

Populations the world over have been raising healthy vegetarian children for hundreds of years. Yet in Western cultures, the idea of vegetarianism for children is often received negatively or at least with some doubt. Even longtime vegetarians and vegans who know quite a bit about maintaining a good nutritional balance for themselves, begin to doubt their ability to raise healthy vegetarian or vegan children. Why is this?

Lack of support, knowledge, and experience are the major factors. If you have never been around vegetarian children, you may wonder if it is even possible to raise healthy children this way. In general, health professionals are not well informed about vegetarian diets, fueling the fire of doubt. In the face of such adversity one would do well to remember that even the American Dietetic Association approves a vegetarian diet for all ages. In their paper Feeding Your Baby the Vegetarian Way, the Association states that "when their diet is a appropriately planned, babies can get all the nutrients they need to grow and be healthy within a vegetarian eating style."

Pediatrics, a well-respected medical journal, reported on a landmark study in 1989. Researchers studied 404 children at the Farm, a cooperative community in Tennessee that encourages a vegan diet for all, and found no significant differences in growth between the vegetarian children who lived there and non-vegetarian children. The vegetarian children were slightly smaller than the average American child from ages one to three, but by age ten had caught up. This is not to say, however, that all vegetarian or vegan children are thin or small. They come in all shapes and sizes.

The best time to start teaching good eating habits is in early childhood. Research shows that diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which increase the risk of heart disease, begin in childhood (Marcus 1998). Though it is difficult to explain the more complicated aspects of vegetarianism to a toddler, a child that age doesn't really require much explanation. They can eat only what they are given, and it is at that time that eating patterns and tastes are beginning to take hold. Around the age of three, children will choose food based on familiarity with it (Yntema 22). Children develop strong opinions about what they like and do not like to eat at this age, though, so it is important to focus on healthful foods right from the beginning—whether you are a vegetarian or not! It may be difficult for a child to switch from white bread to whole grains or from hamburgers to soy burgers, but a child who has never eaten the former learns to love the taste of whole foods and healthy alternatives. Explanations do become necessary around preschool age when children begin to notice that others are eating different foods than they are and have more opportunities to eat outside the home. At this age, they are also beginning to understand more and share in the family's philosophy. Explaining why the family eats one food but not another is easier in the context of a shared family philosophy.

Still, there is no denying that there are different requirements for the diet of children compared to that of adults. The same holds true for vegetarians. One cannot simply eliminate an entire food group without replacing it with good quality and variety of vegetarian alternatives. Some basic knowledge of vegetarian nutrition is required to ensure that children receive the proper balance of nutrients. Virginia Messina, MPH, RD and Mark Messina, PhD write in their book, The Vegetarian Way, "Children's nutrient needs are highest for vitamin D, iron, calcium and zinc ... other nutrients of special interest in the diets of vegetarian children are protein, vitamin B 12 and riboflavin." That said, it is not as difficult to meet those nutrient needs as some would believe.

Breast milk is the very best option for babies. First solids for babies are generally fruits, vegetables, and cereals so most babies are vegetarian until they start heavier solids, usually protein sources, somewhere between six and twelve months. Contrary to common belief, protein is not difficult to obtain on a vegetarian diet. Protein is very important in the diet, even more so for children than adults, but parents should not be overly concerned about this. According to Messina and Messina, "When children consume adequate calories, eat frequently throughout the day, and consume a variety of foods, protein deficiency is virtually nonexistent."

Another common concern is getting enough calcium. The most common source of calcium in the Western world is dairy products, and this is where lacto-ovo vegetarians obtain the bulk of this mineral. It is also a good source of riboflavin and vitamin D (though the body will manufacture vitamin D with adequate exposure to sunlight several times a week). Luckily for those who cannot or choose not to consume dairy, there are plenty of other sources of calcium. These include tofu, dark green leafy vegetables, bok choy, broccoli, beans, figs, sunflower seeds, tahini (sesame seed paste), almond butter, calcium and vitamin fortified soy, nut and rice milks, fortified juices and even fortified breakfast cereals. Many fortified foods are readily available and affordable, which helps ensure that vegetarian children do not suffer from nutrient deficiencies. Parents of children who are dark-skinned or who live in climates where adequate sun exposure is not possible should make sure to include a dietary source of vitamin D.

Eating a wide variety of healthful foods will generally take care of zinc requirements. Foods that are high in protein are usually high in zinc as well. Vegetarian sources include specially fortified cereals, wheat germ, sea vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, cheese, milk, and yogurt, among others (Johnston 1999). There is very little information available on zinc for vegetarian children, but restricting fiber intake somewhat may increase zinc absorption. This is interesting to note, because fiber plays such an essential role in health. "Small children are much more sensitive to the effects of excess fiber than adults ... adding too much fiber too soon can not only speed things up too much, but the filling effect of fiber can replace more calorie-dense foods ... protein (and other nutrients) don't get absorbed adequately" (Eisman 20). Including some refined grains (such as white bread or rice) and peeled fruit in the toddler diet can keep the level of fiber manageable.

Another easily resolved issue is that of obtaining enough vitamin B12. Ovo-lacto vegetarians generally do not have worry, as B12 is available from eggs and dairy products. Vegans will want to verify that they have a reliable source of the vitamin in their diet, from supplements or fortified foods. (Some iron-rich foods are also good sources of vitamin C.)

No discussion of vegetarian diets for children would be complete without mentioning iron. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in America. It can affect children regardless of whether they are vegetarian or not (Messina and Messina 183-86). Still, the stereotype of vegetarian children as thin, weak, and pale (all symptoms of anemia) persists. In fact, though meat is the best source of absorbable iron, iron can be found in abundance in plant foods like enriched grains, dried fruits, soy products, broccoli, beans, and nuts. If foods high in iron are served with vitamin C-rich foods or drinks (e.g., orange juice, cantaloupe, strawberries, bell peppers, or watermelon) absorption is greatly improved.

With all this talk about whole grains, fruits and vegetables, one may assume that all vegetarian children, if not anemic, are at least very thin. It is an interesting paradox to note that America's obsession with thinness does not carry over to babies. Fat babies are cute and cuddly, thin ones scrawny, by popular opinion. Just as some breastfed babies are smaller than average and others are extremely chubby, some vegetarian babies and toddlers are small and some very large. Regardless of the size of the baby, however, parents would do well to remember that children under two need more fat in their diets—about 25 to 35% of total calories—to support the rapid growth of this early period of life (Melina, Davis, and Harrison 84-87, 113). Avocados are an excellent source of healthy fats, especially for those who do not consume dairy products.

It seems that nearly all parents, vegetarian and omnivore, worry about what their babies and toddlers are (or are not) eating. Often parents' level of confidence about what they are feeding their children, how much their children consume, and whether children's nutritional needs are being met, is directly related to their own experience with food. For American parents, these experiences are overwhelmingly dominated by a meat-eating, fast food society. At issue here are two things: basic familiarity with the wide variety of vegetarian options to meat (and dairy products for vegans) and knowledge of vegetarian cooking. Once families familiarize themselves with all the products available and learn to cook delicious vegetarian food, thinking changes from "what we cannot eat" to "what we can eat" and, eventually, to "what we choose to eat."

Raising healthy vegetarian children is possible and is not difficult once a parent has done some simple research. Each person who chooses to become a vegetarian should do his or her own research. Take your standard food chart and simply substitute vegetarian or vegan alternatives making sure your child gets the recommended number of servings. When looked at in this way, it becomes clear that the task at hand is really no more difficult than feeding your average picky toddler. Resources exist in many forms available to anyone willing to peruse the magazine or nutrition/cookbook section of the local bookstore, spend an evening surfing the Internet, or contact a local national vegetarian organization. A vegetarian diet for children can not only be adequate but also abundantly healthful.

Recipes

Coconut-Apple Sweet Potatoes

Ingredients:
  • 1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped
  • 1/2 C. sweet potato, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 T. dried coconut
  • water as needed

Instructions: Place the chopped sweet potato pieces in a steamer over boiling water. After 5 minutes, add the chopped apples and steam until tender. Place potato and apple pieces into a food processor with coconut. Process until baby food consistency, adding water as necessary.

Note: You can use a potato masher, fork, or baby food grinder to prepare this recipe, though the mixture won't be as smooth. This is also a great side dish for a toddler meal. Try using coconut milk instead of water for a creamier, more coconutty flavor.

Nutty Avocado Dip

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 of an avocado
  • 2 T. sour cream (or non-dairy sour cream)
  • 1/2 t. lemon juice
  • 1 T finely chopped walnuts
  • pinch of black pepper
  • pinch of salt (optional)

Instructions: Cut the avocado in half by inserting a sharp knife in the middle until it hits the pit inside. Run the knife around the entire circumference of the avocado dividing it in half. Twist the two halves until they come apart. Save the half with the pit, covered with plastic in the fridge. Scoop the pulp out of the other half into a food processor. Add the other ingredients and blend quickly, only for a few seconds, until evenly mixed. Serve immediately with crackers, oven fried potatoes, pita bread triangles, corn or flour tortillas, toast fingers or corn chips (for the older child who chews well).

Note: A bowl and fork will work just fine if you don't have a food processor. This recipe is enough for one adult and one child or several children. For one child, cut the recipe in half.

Tip: The lemon juice helps to keep this dip green longer, but don't make it too far ahead of time, because the avocado will turn brown. Wondering if your avocado is ready to eat? Press lightly on the stem end. If the flesh is soft and indents easily (not mushy!) then it's ready.

Potato Stuffed Mushroom Caps

Ingredients:
  • 2-3 mushroom caps per child, depending on appetite
  • mashed potatoes
  • margarine
  • grated cheese/soy cheese

Instructions: Remove stems from mushrooms and wipe caps with a damp cloth to remove any dirt. Brush with margarine and place bottom side up on an oven tray. Fill each mushroom with mashed potatoes and top with cheese. Bake for 8-10 minutes (or until the cheese is browned) at 425°F /220°C.

Note: This recipe sounds gourmet, but it's really very easy and a great way to use leftover mashed potatoes.

Tip: Add protein to the meal by placing some small chunks of veggie burger under the potatoes. Garnish with a sprig of parsley for fun.

Orange-Carrot Soup

Ingredients:
  • 1 T. oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 6 large carrots, sliced
  • 2 T. curry powder
  • 1 T. grated lemon rind (optional)
  • 1 C. orange juice
  • 1 1/2 C. coconut milk
  • 2 C. vegetable stock (or bouillon and water)
  • salt and black pepper to taste

Instructions: Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onions and sauté until clear. Add carrots, curry powder, lemon rind, and orange juice to pan, and cook until the carrots are soft. Stir in coconut milk and stock and simmer for 10 minutes longer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove pan from heat and set aside to cool slightly. Place soup, in batches, in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Freeze small portions of soup (an ice cube tray covered in plastic wrap works well for this). Reheat one serving at a time.

Note: Once your baby is old enough for citrus, usually over 1 year, this makes a great baby food.

Tip: Try this soup garnished with yogurt, sour cream and/or chopped cashew nuts.

Last updated Friday, November 3, 2006 by njb.
Page last edited .


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