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Tuesday
Jan112011

Raising Vegetarian Children

Even if you are confident about managing your own diet to make sure that you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals, when it comes to your children, you might still be nervous about putting together healthy meals for them. But with a little bit of thought and planning it should be no harder to feed your children a healthy vegetarian diet, than it is to feed yourself.

Vegetarian societies can provide a wealth of information on child nutrition, as well as your own GP or health visitor, so if ever in doubt don’t be afraid to ask for advice. A good place to start is the UK Vegetarian Society but in the meantime, here’s a quick summary.

Up to 6 Months

For the first six months of a baby’s life they should usually be taking in nothing but milk - whether they’re veggie or not. If you’re a breastfeeding mother you should take in extra calories to account for this (around 500 extra calories a day) and make sure that you are getting enough protein and vitamins in your diet. Make sure that you get plenty to drink and avoid alcohol.

If you’re using formula check that it is vegetarian, as some contain rennet or fish oils. Don’t feed your baby soya milk before checking with your GP or health visitor.

6 to 9 Months

When baby is around six months old you can start to introduce solids into their diet in the form of baby rice or pureed fruit or pureed cooked (and cooled) vegetables, in addition to their milk. (Don’t introduce solids before 4 months.)

Start with one taste at a time rather than combining vegetables, so that you can learn what flavours your baby particularly likes, and so that you can spot any allergies. Babies will only take a tiny amount of solid food at first, but gradually increase the number of times you give baby solids each day, over the course of the next few months.

Do not add salt or sugar to baby's food.

9 to 12 Months

As baby gets older they can start to try lumpier foods, and when they are able to chew you can start to give them pieces of fruit, toast or sandwiches. They will enjoy playing with the food at this stage as they begin to feel more independent. You can also increase the amount of ‘family food’ that you give to baby, for example if you are having mash for dinner, then baby can join in too (provided that the food does not contain salt). Well cooked mashed beans and peas can also be added to baby’s diet at this stage (they would have been too difficult for baby to digest before now).

By twelve months baby should be eating three meals a day and having snacks such as fruit, grated cheese or carrot sticks too. Solid foods now provide an important source of iron, so make sure that baby is eating two servings of well mashed pulses, beans and vegetables, pureed apricots or cereals every day (avoid high fibre cereal however).

Continue to avoid sweet foods or cows milk as a drink at this age.

Pre School Children (Up to 5 years)

If children are starting to get fussier about their food at this stage, keep an eye on their diet to make sure that they are getting enough calcium, iron, zinc, protein, vitamin D and vitamin B12 in particular. But don’t force young children to eat something that that they have decided they don’t like if you don’t want the dinner table to turn into a battlefield. Instead, give young children a wide variety of foods to try so that you and they can find out what they like, and so that you can make sure that they are getting a healthy range of vitamins and minerals.

Children use up a lot of energy at this age and so they need frequent, high energy foods - low fat, high fibre diets while great for us adults, are not suitable for children. Avoid foods with a high salt or sugar content and opt for healthier snacks like sandwiches, fruit, home-made biscuits or cakes, nut and seed purees (e.g. peanut butter). Nuts can be introduced into a child’s diet in the form of nut butters and spreads, from the age of six months, but children under five years should not be given whole nuts as they are a choking hazard. If you, your partner, or other children suffer from hay fever, asthma, eczema or other allergies, ask your GP for advice before introducing peanuts into your child’s diet.

School Children (Up to 11 years)

Children have smaller stomachs than adults and use up a lot of energy at this age, so they will probably still need to be eating high energy foods at regular intervals throughout the day. Include plenty of fruit and vegetable snacks in their diet, for example raw carrot sticks or bananas. Iron is particularly important for girls as they reach puberty, so make sure that your daughter is eating plenty of iron-rich foods, such as dried fruit, beans, lentils, wholegrain cereals and green vegetables. Vitamin C also aids iron absorption so include a glass of orange juice alongside dinner.

Avoid ‘junk food’ (fried, fatty or sugary food) as much as possible. Children are surrounded by messages from ‘junk food’ companies and it can be hard to resist, but a healthy diet at this age will really help to set them up for adulthood.

If you are packing lunch for your child to take to school, consider following the School Food Trust’s packed lunch policy, which supports healthier lunches and gives parents ideas and menu examples (including a veggie version).

Older Children

As children get older involve them in cooking and they will grow to have an interest in food. They may even be inclined to try more new foods if they have had a hand in making it. Borrow a few recipe books for children from the library and suggest that your child picks something for you to make together, then as children get old enough to cook for themselves they will already have a few recipes in their repertoire.

Invite them to join a Vegetarian Society if it’s something they are interested in, where they can meet like-minded veggies or veggie pen-pals. If they do become curious about eating meat at this stage (or even before now) however, it is often best to leave it to your children to decide whether they were going to eat meat outside of the home. After all, as children grow up they will have opinions of their own, and they do have the right to decide whether they would like to continue being vegetarian. That doesn’t mean that you have to start cooking meat at home if you don’t want to of course, but it is important to respect a child’s decision about whether they choose to stay veggie or not.

Common concerns

It’s only natural to worry about your children, whoever you are, but veggie parents can sometimes have additional concerns such as;

  • Is my child getting enough protein, calcium, iron, vitamin B12 etc?
  • How can I explain to my young child why we’re vegetarian?
  • Is my child feeling left-out at school, or with their friends?
  • Will it be possible for my child to go to another child’s house for dinner? Should I allow them to go?
  • What should I do if my child says that he/she wants to try meat?
  • My relatives/GP/child’s school/other parents, think that it’s strange that I am raising my child vegetarian, or that I am depriving my child of something. How can I explain my choice to them?

If you have these concerns try talking to a vegetarian or vegan society as they will be able to give you sound advice.

 

Important note: This article is intended as a guide only. Please consult your doctor if you have any dietary concerns or if you are concerned about your child's nutrition.

For more information on nutrition for vegetarian children contact the UK Vegetarian Society.

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