Eating habits are set in early childhood. Choosing a vegetarian
diet can give your child—and your whole family—the opportunity
to learn to enjoy a variety of wonderful, nutritious foods.
Children raised on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes
grow up to be slimmer and healthier and even live longer than their
meat-eating friends. It is much easier to build a nutritious diet
from plant foods than from animal products, which contain saturated
fat, cholesterol, and other substances that growing children can
do without. As for essential nutrients, plant foods are the preferred
source because they provide sufficient energy and protein packaged
with other health-promoting nutrients such as fiber, antioxidant
vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Complete Nutrition for Children
Vegetarian diets provide excellent nutrition for all stages of
childhood, from birth through adolescence. Of course, an infant’s
nutritional needs are best met by his or her mother’s breast
milk. It’s nature’s way of boosting the baby’s
immunity as well as his or her psychological well-being.
Doctors recommend introducing solid foods in the middle of the
first year of life. The best weaning foods are soft plant foods
such as ground, cooked cereals, mashed fruits, and well-cooked vegetables.
Given a chance, toddlers and young children usually enjoy a wide
variety fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes—even more
so if they are involved in the preparation. School-aged children
are often curious about where their food comes from and delight
in learning how to cook, visiting farmers’ markets, and gardening.
Adolescents raised on a vegetarian diet often find they have an
easy time maintaining a healthy weight and have fewer problems with
acne, allergies, and gastrointestinal problems than their meat-eating
Some studies suggest that the growth of vegetarian children is
more gradual than that of non-vegetarians—in other words,
vegetarian children grow a bit more slowly at first, but they catch
up later on. Final heights and weights for vegetarian children are
comparable to those of meat-eating children. Interestingly, breast-fed
babies also grow more slowly than bottle-fed babies. Somewhat less
rapid growth during the early years is thought to decrease disease
risk later in life.
On the other hand, diets rich in animal protein, found in meat,
eggs, and dairy products, appear to reduce the age of puberty, as
shown in a 2000 study from the Harvard School of Public Health,
which found that girls who consumed higher levels of animal protein
compared to vegetable protein between 3 and 8 years of age went
through menarche earlier. Nature may well have designed the human
body to grow up more gradually, to reach puberty later, and to last
longer than most people raised on omnivorous diets experience.
In a 1980 study in Boston, researchers measured the IQs of vegetarian
children. Some of the children were following a macrobiotic diet,
a few were Seventh-day Adventists (many of whom follow a plant-based
diet), and the rest were from families that had simply decided to
go vegetarian. On intelligence testing, the kids were considerably
above average, with a mean IQ of 116. Now, the diet may have had
nothing to do with their intelligence. Rather, these vegetarian
families were better educated than the average meat-eating family,
and it is probably the parental education, rather than a dietary
effect, that was reflected in their children’s measured intelligence.
However, this study should reassure vegetarian parents who wonder
whether animal products contain something necessary for brain development.
Clearly, they do not.
Perhaps the most important consideration for feeding children
is this: Lifelong dietary habits are established at a young age.
Children who acquire a taste for chicken nuggets, roast beef, and
French fries today are the cancer patients, heart patients, and
diabetes patients of tomorrow. Children who are raised on whole
grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes will have a lower risk of
heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and many obesity-related
illnesses compared to their counterparts raised on the average American
diet. Because of this, they will also tend to live years longer.
The complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, beans, and vegetables
provide the ideal energy to fuel a child’s busy life. Cultivating
a taste for brown rice, whole wheat breads and pastas, rolled oats,
and corn, as well as the less common grains barley, quinoa, millet,
and others, will boost the fiber and nutrient content of a child’s
diet. In addition, steering children away from sweets, sugary drinks,
highly processed baked products, and overly sweet cereals will help
them avoid overeating and gaining unwanted weight.
Naturally, children need protein to grow, but they do not need
high-protein, animal-based foods. Many people are unaware that a
varied menu of grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits supplies plenty
of protein. The “protein deficiencies” that our parents
worried about in impoverished countries were the result of starvation
or diets restricted to very few food items. Protein deficiency is
extremely unlikely on a diet drawn from a variety of plant foods.
Very young children may need a slightly higher fat intake than
adults do. Healthier fat sources include soybean products, avocados,
and nut butters. Soy “hot dogs,” peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches, seasoned veggie burgers, and avocado chunks in salads,
for example, are very well accepted. However, the need for fat in
the diet should not be taken too far. American children often have
fatty streaks in the arteries—the beginnings of heart disease—before
they finish high school. In contrast, Japanese children traditionally
grew up on diets much lower in fat and subsequently had fewer problems
with diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other chronic diseases.
Parents will want to make sure their child’s diet includes
a regular source of vitamin B12, which is needed for healthy blood
and nerve function. Deficiencies are rare, but when they happen,
they can be a bit hard to detect. Vitamin B12 is plentiful in many
commercial cereals, fortified soy and rice milks, and nutritional
yeast. Check the labels for the words cyanocobalamin or B12. Children
who do not eat these supplemented products should take a B12 supplement
of 3 or more micrograms per day. Common children’s vitamins
contain more than enough B12. Spirulina and seaweed are not reliable
sources of vitamin B12.
The body also requires vitamin D, which children and parents are
happy to know can be obtained by simply playing outdoors in the
sun. Fifteen to twenty minutes of daily sunlight on the hands and
face is enough sun exposure for the body’s skin cells to produce
the necessary vitamin D. Children in latitudes with diminished sunlight
may need the vitamin D found in multivitamin supplements or fortified
For calcium, beans, dried figs, sweet potatoes, and green vegetables,
including collards, kale, broccoli, mustard greens, and Swiss chard,
are excellent sources. Fortified soymilk and rice milk and calcium-fortified
juices provide a great deal of calcium as well. In addition, eating
lots of fruits and vegetables, excluding animal proteins, and limiting
salt intake all help the body retain calcium.
Growing children also need iron found in a variety of beans and
green, leafy vegetables. The vitamin C in vegetables and fruits
enhances iron absorption, especially when eaten together with an
iron-rich food. One example is an iron-rich bean burrito eaten with
vitamin C-rich tomato salsa. Few people are aware that cow’s
milk is very low in iron and can induce a mild, chronic blood loss
in the digestive tract, which can reduce iron and cause an increased
risk of anemia.
Again, the best food for newborns is breast milk. When breast-feeding
is not possible, commercial soy formulas are nutritionally adequate.
There is no need for infants to be raised on cow’s milk formulas.
In addition to containing colic-inducing proteins that bother many
children, cow’s milk is a common cause of allergies. Unfortunately,
immune responses to milk proteins are implicated in insulin-dependent
diabetes and even in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Soy formulas
are commonly used in all hospital nurseries, although they can occasionally
be allergenic as well. Soymilk sold in grocery stores for adults
is not the same as soy baby formula, however, and is not adequate
Infants do not need any nourishment other than breast milk or soy
formula for the first half year of life, and they should continue
to receive breast milk or formula at least throughout their first
12 months. Breast-fed infants also need about two hours a week of
sun exposure to make vitamin D—a great motivator for Mom to
get back into a walking routine. Some infants, especially those
who are dark-skinned or who live in cloudy climates, may not make
adequate amounts of vitamin D. In these cases, vitamin D supplements
may be necessary.
At about 5 to 6 months of age, or when baby’s weight has
doubled, other foods can be added to the diet. Pediatricians often
recommend starting with an iron-fortified cereal because, at about
4 to 6 months, infants’ iron stores, which are naturally high
at birth, begin to decrease. Add one simple new food at a time,
at one- to two-week intervals.
The following guidelines provide a flexible plan for adding foods
to your baby’s diet.
5 to 6 Months
- Introduce iron-fortified infant cereal. Try rice cereal
first, mixed with a little breast milk or soy formula, since it
is the least likely to cause allergies. Then, offer oat or barley
cereals. Most pediatricians recommend holding off on introducing
wheat until the child is at least 8 months old, as it tends to be
6 to 8 Months
- Introduce vegetables. Potatoes, green beans, carrots, and peas
are all good choices. They should be thoroughly cooked and mashed.
- Introduce fruits. Try mashed bananas, avocados, or strained
peaches, or applesauce.
- Introduce breads. By 8 months of age, most babies can eat crackers,
bread, and dry cereal.
- Introduce protein-rich foods. Also by about 8 months, infants
can begin to eat higher protein foods like tofu or beans that
are well cooked and mashed.
Children and Teens
Children have high calorie and nutrient needs, but their stomachs
are small. Offer your child frequent snacks, and include some less
“bulky” foods like refined grains and fruit juices.
Do limit juices, however, since children may fill up on them, preferring
their sweetness to other foods.
Teenagers often have high energy needs and busy schedules. Keeping
delicious, healthy snack choices on hand and guiding teens to make
lower-fat selections when eating out will help to steer them away
from dining pitfalls that often cause weight gain and health problems
for adolescents. Caloric needs vary from child to child. The following
guidelines are general ones.
- Whole grains include breads, hot and cold cereals, pasta, cooked
grains (such as rice and barley), and crackers.
- One serving equals 1/2 cup of pasta, grains, or cooked cereal,
3/4 to 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, 1/2 bun or bagel, or 1 slice
- Dark green vegetables” include broccoli, kale, spinach,
collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, beet greens, bok
choy, and Swiss chard.
- Other vegetables” refers to all other vegetables, fresh
or frozen, raw or cooked.
- One serving of vegetables equals 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw
(unless an amount is specified).
Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, and Non-Dairy Milks
- Legumes include any cooked bean such as pinto, kidney, lentils,
split peas, black-eyed peas, navy beans, and chickpeas, as well
as soy products, such as tofu, veggie burgers, soy “hot
dogs” or sandwich slices, and tempeh.
- One serving of legumes equals 1/2 cup of beans, tofu, or other
item (unless an amount is specified).
- Non-dairy milks include breast milk and soy formula for infants
and toddlers, and rice-, soy-, and other vegetable-based milks
for children at least 1 year of age. Choose fortified soymilk,
such as Westsoy Plus, Enriched VitaSoy, or Edensoy, whenever possible,
or use other fortified vegetable-based milks.
- One serving of non-dairy milk equals 1 cup.
- Nuts include whole or chopped nuts, nut butters, whole seeds,
and seed butters.
- One to two servings of nuts may be included in a healthy diet,
but they are optional. One serving of nuts or nut butters equals
- Fruits include all fruits, fresh or frozen, raw or cooked, and
- One serving equals 1/2 cup cooked fruit, 1/2 cup fruit juice,
1/4 cup dried fruit, or 1 piece of fruit (unless an amount is
Daily Meal Planning for Children and Teens
1- to 4-Year-Olds
Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals: 4 servings
Vegetables: 2-4 tablespoons dark green vegetables , 1/4 to 1/2 cup
Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, Non-Dairy Milks: 1/4 to 1/2 cup legumes, 3
servings breast milk, soy formula, soymilk, or other non-dairy milk
Fruits: 3/4 to 1 1/2 cups
5- to 6-Year-Olds
Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals: 6 servings
Vegetables: 1/4 cup dark green vegetables , 1/4 to 1/2 cup other
Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, Non-Dairy Milks: 1/2 to 1 cup legumes , 3
servings soymilk or other non-dairy milk
Fruits: 1 to 2 cups
7- to 12-Year-Olds
Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals: 7 servings
Vegetables: 1 serving dark green vegetables , 3 servings other vegetables
Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, Milks:2 servings legumes , 3 servings soymilk
or other non-dairy milk
Fruits: 3 servings
13- to 19-Year-Olds
Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals: 10 servings
Vegetables: 1-2 servings dark green vegetables , 3 servings other
Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, Non-Dairy Milks: 3 servings legumes , 2-3
servings soymilk or other non-dairy milk
Fruits: 4 servings
Be sure to include a source of vitamin B12, such as any typical
children’s multivitamin or vitamin-fortified cereals or soymilk.
Ages 1 to 4 years
Breakfast: Oatmeal with applesauce, calcium-fortified orange juice
Lunch: Hummus (chickpea and
sesame seed butter spread) on crackers, banana, soymilk, carrot
Dinner: Corn, mashed sweet potatoes, steamed kale, soymilk
Snacks: Peach, Cheerios, soymilk
Ages 4 to 6 years
Breakfast: Whole grain cereal with banana and soymilk, orange wedges
Lunch: Tofu-Egg Salad Sandwich,
apple juice, carrot sticks, Oatmeal
Dinner: Baked beans with soy “hot dog” pieces, baked
potato, spinach, soymilk, fruit salad
Snacks: Trail mix, graham crackers, soymilk
Ages 7 to 12 years
Smoothie, toast with almond butter, calcium-fortified orange
Lunch: Hearty Chili Mac,
green salad, bread
Dinner: Steamed broccoli with nutritional yeast, steamed carrots,
Oven Fries, apple
Snacks: Popcorn, figs, soy “ice cream”
Ages 13 to 19 years
Breakfast: Bagel with apple butter, banana, calcium-fortified orange
Lunch: Bean burrito with
lettuce, tomato, and guacamole, rice, baked tortilla chips and salsa
Dinner: Braised broccoli, carrots, yellow squash, and mushrooms,
Peanut Butter Spaghetti,
cucumber salad, soymilk
Snacks: Hummus and baby carrots,
fruit smoothie, Luna or Clif Bar
Hearty Chili Mac
Peanut Butter Spaghetti
Makes 4 1-cup servings
2 russet potatoes (about 1 pound)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 450°F. Line a 9-by-13-inch (or larger) baking
dish with baking parchment or foil. Scrub potatoes, but do not peel.
Cut into fries or wedges. Place in a large bowl and toss with oil,
paprika, and salt. Spread potatoes in a single layer in the baking
dish and bake until tender when pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes.
For more information on healthy eating for
children, please visit…
— look for Healthy Eating for Life for Children by PCRM’s
expert panel of doctors and nutritionists in bookstores
order your free copy of Parents’ Guide to Building Better
— get information on how to improve food offerings in public
and private schools
Source from PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)