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Is it o.k for my child to be Vegetarian?

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Vegetarianism is on the rise with people choosing a plant based diet for a number of reasons. Vegetarians avoid meat for a number of reasons: they may express a concern for animals, they believe that a vegetarian diet is more healthy or better for the planet. Whatever the reason for choosing a vegetarian diet, it is likely you will want the same for your children… but is it o.k for children…or will it lead to deficiencies??

In order to adequately answer this question, it is important to distinguish between the different types of ‘vegetarian diets’.

Semi – vegetarian – this diet includes eggs, dairy foods and fruits, vegetables, breads, cereals, nuts and legumes BUT excludes all red meat. 

Lacto -ovo - vegetarian – this is the same as above but excludes all meat including fish.

Lacto – vegetarian – this is the same as Lacto-ovo vegetarian minus eggs

Fruitarian - the diet consists of fruits and nuts only! In our opinion a Fruitarian diet is not suitable for children (for the reasons outlined below).

Vegan - this diet avoids all foods of animal origin, including milk, eggs and cheese. Generally, a strict vegan diet for toddlers and young children is not recommended as it is difficult for a young child to eat enough to get the energy required for growth from fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts and legumes. Furthermore, generally vegan diets do not provide adequate fat, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins (B12 and D particularly) and riboflavin for children. In saying that, it is possible to provide children a Vegan diet with the use of conscious planning and professional advice to ensure they are obtaining all the necessary nutrients.

Please note, the information below relates to Semi, Lacto-ovo and Lacto Vegetarian diets. Always seek professional advice if you are planning to offer your child a strict vegetarian diet – particularly if you are planning to offer Fruitarian or Vegan diets.

So basically, a well planned, varied plant based diet can be just as nutritious as a diet which includes meat. Awareness, planning and a conscious effort are all that’s needed to ensure a vegetarian child is getting all the nutrients they require.  

Nutrients to Monitor

Below is a summary of the nutrients to monitor if you decide to go vegetarian….and some practical ideas.

  • In the beginning….

In the beginning, babies are fed a diet of breast milk or commercially prepared baby formula….so until about 6 months all babies can be considered vegetarian. At about six months of age, most babies begin to eat some solid foods in addition to the breast milk or formula. The recommended first foods are all vegetarian friendly, with most parents offering simple grain cereals, pureed vegetables and fruits. Instead of offering meat for iron intake, a vegetarian option is small quantities of pureed legumes or lentils. Keep in mind, for the first 12 months of a baby's life, breast milk or formula should remain the primary source of nutrition

  • Energy

Plant based diets can be bulky and tend to be lower in energy than a diet which includes meat. You can manage this by offering your child frequent small meals and snacks. Also, make sure you include plenty of more energy dense options like cereals, nuts, legumes, root vegetables, eggs and dairy products.

  • Protein
Although meat is a good source of protein, ample protein is found in vegetables, beans, fruits, legumes, eggs and whole grains. If you ensure a variety of protein sources are offered, then protein shouldn’t be a problem for Vegetarian children.
  • Fats
Dietary fats are vital for children's growth and development, however fat doesn’t only come from animals. Fat can be both saturated fat (chiefly from animal products) and unsaturated fat (predominantly from plants and fish). Children can eat both but it is preferable if the majority of fat intake is from unsaturated fats.   Good sources of saturated fat for vegetarian children are foods like cheese, whole milk, and yoghurt. There are plenty of unsaturated options for Vegetarians like oily fish; olive/vegetable/nut oils, soy products; avocadoes, nuts and seeds.
  • Iron
Iron is essential for toddlers and children to ensure healthy mental and physical development.   Iron is found in two forms – haem (from animals) and non-haem (plant foods). For vegetarian children ensure there is adequate non-haem iron in their diet. Good sources include dark green, leafy vegetables, dried fruit, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans) and wholegrains.    
Approximately only 5% of non-haem iron is able to be absorbed by the body so it is worthwhile considering iron fortified foods (cereals, formula and bread) for vegetarian children. Furthermore, try eating vitamin C in conjunction with iron sources as it aids in the absorption.
  • Calcium
Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth to provide structure and strength. Calcium is not widely distributed in the food groups and ensuring an adequate dietary intake for children can be more difficult than for other nutrients.
Milk, milk-based foods and dairy products are great sources of calcium. Milk should be full fat up to the age of two. Other sources include; tinned fish like sardines and salmon; tofu; eggs; green leafy vegetables; dried fruit like raisins, apricots and figs; pulses; seeds and nuts.
  • Zinc
Zinc is found in a wide variety of foods. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, but red meat and poultry are also excellent sources. Other good food sources include beans, nuts, certain seafood, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, and dairy products. Zinc absorption is greater from a diet high in animal protein than a diet rich in plant proteins.
Vegetarians may need as much as 50% more zinc than non-vegetarians because of the lower absorption of zinc from plant foods, so it is very important for vegetarians to include good sources of zinc in their diet.
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  • Vitamins to Monitor

the below vitamins can commonly be deficient in a vegetarian diet -

B12

Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products including fish, meat,poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. A deficiency of B12, can lead to impaired brain development, blood abnormalities and neurological problems.   Considering this,fortified products (breakfast cereals, bread) can be a particularly valuable source of vitamin B12 for Vegetarians.

Vitamin D

No bones about it . . . vitamin D is the vitamin you need for strong bones and teeth. Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium and therefore is essential for the development of bones and teeth. The most obvious source is sunlight; other food sources include cod-liver oil, oily fish (sardines, herring, salmon, tuna), full-fat milk and milk products, eggs and if required fortified cereal or milk

Riboflavin

Riboflavin is B 2 and is important to energy metabolism, normal eyesight and healthy skin. Foods high in riboflavin are milk, yogurt, cheeses, meat, leafy green vegetables, whole and enriched grains. Riboflavin is an essential vitamin and is easily destroyed by light.

Riboflavin is important to both vegetarian and carnivores (meat eaters). If you ensure your child is getting the above vegetables and grains - they will probably not have a problem with riboflavin.

  • Supplements

With careful planning, the nutritional needs of children can be met with a meat-free diet. It may however be necessary to supplement a Vegetarian child’s diet to ensure it is nutritionally adequate. Fortified products are widely available (cereals, formula, bread) and multivitamins designed especially for children. Always consult a professional to ensure the diet you choose for your child is appropriate.

 
Things to remember…
Vegetarian or not…remember the food choices you make for your children help to establish dietary preferences that children will take with them throughout their lives.
Habits learnt in childhood are often difficult to change, so it's best to develop a love for wholesome, healthy foods right from the start.
A well planned, varied plant based diet can be just as nutritious as a diet which includes meat. 
 
  • Awareness, planning and a conscious effort are all that’s needed to ensure a vegetarian child is getting all the nutrients they require.  
  • Include plenty of energy dense foods – dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt), eggs, nuts and cereals.
  • Use fortified products as required to ensure all nutrients are present in the diet.
  • Variety in the diet is essential to optimise the nutrients.
  • Some alternatives to meat include - legumes, lentils, baked beans, tofu and peanut/almond butter and commercially available vegetarian foods (eg.veggie patties and sausages).

If in doubt, always consult a professional to ensure the diet you choose for your child is appropriate.


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