What to consider when providing a vegetarian or vegan diet for your child

Posted by / Wednesday 19 December 2018 / Parenting Tips Eating
nutrition

by Claire French

 

Following a vegetarian or vegan diet is becoming more common in the UK. A recent survey reported that 14% of the population are vegetarian, and 7% are vegan. People are choosing these diets for a variety of ethical, environmental and/or health reasons.

Vegetarians generally avoid meat, poultry and seafood, but may eat:

  • dairy and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarians);
  • eggs but not dairy (ovo-vegetarians); or
  • dairy but not eggs (lacto-vegetarians).

Vegans follow a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods e.g. meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs, honey and any other food or ingredient from an animal source.

Children can get the energy (calories) and nutrients they need from a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it is important that these diets are well planned to ensure they provide enough calories, and sufficient sources of nutrients that would normally be provided by meat and/or dairy foods. The tips below highlight some of the things to consider where children are following a vegetarian or vegan diet:

1. Following the Eatwell Guide: Vegetarians and vegans have the same requirements for energy (calories) and nutrients as the rest of the population. The UK Government’s Eatwell Guide can therefore be used to help plan the types of food and drinks, and proportions in which to provide them, for a healthy, balanced family diet, using vegetarian and/or vegan foods included within each food group.

The Eatwell Guide encourages eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day; basing meals on starchy carbohydrates (wholegrain where possible); having some dairy or dairy alternatives and some beans, pulses or other proteins; and eating only small amounts of foods and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar. The Eatwell Guide applies for children over five years and adults - younger children (particularly those under two years old) need a higher fat, lower fibre diet than shown.

2. Energy: Children (particularly children under five years old) have high calorie requirements relative to their size to fuel their growth and development. Vegetarian and vegan diets can be higher in fibre and lower in calories than diets containing meat and dairy, and so it is important to include energy and nutrient-dense foods like nut butters, hummus, seeds and vegetable oils in their diets.

3. Variety: All children need to eat a wide variety of different foods from each food group to help ensure they get a good balance of nutrients. This is especially important for children following vegetarian or vegan diets.

  • Provide a variety of protein sources as part of children’s diets (from foods such as beans, lentils, tofu, soya, nuts and nut butters* and seeds plus eggs for vegetarian children) to ensure sufficient intakes.
  • Provide a wide variety of foods containing iron as part of meals and snacks. These include wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta, brown rice, fortified breakfast cereals, dark green vegetables, dried fruit (with meals only, to help protect teeth), pulses, nuts and seeds. Providing food or drink containing vitamin C (such as fruits, vegetables or diluted fruit juice) at the same time as these foods may help to increase the amount of iron absorbed.
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4. Calcium:
Milk and dairy foods are a good source of calcium, which is important for development of healthy bones and teeth in children. If children do not drink milk or eat dairy products, they should have a non-dairy alternative, such as an unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternative like soya or oat drinks (rice milk isn’t suitable for children under five years). They can also get calcium in their diet from bread, tofu, leafy green vegetables, pulses and almond butters.

5. Fortified foods and supplements: The Department of Health recommends that all children six months to five years old are given daily vitamin drops containing vitamins A, C and D to ensure they have sufficient intakes of these vitamins. For children following a vegan diet, it is also important to ensure that children have sufficient intakes of:

  • vitamin B12 (from fortified foods such as some milk alternatives, or from a supplement)
  • Iodine (an iodine supplement is recommended by the Vegan Society)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (from non-fish food sources such as flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, walnuts or enriched eggs for vegetarians, or by considering a supplement of long chain omega-3 fats from microalgae).

Families can ask their Health Visitor or another health professional for advice on appropriate supplements for children.

 

More detailed information on providing a vegetarian or vegan diet for children is available from:


Our Eat Better, Start Better practical guide is ideal for people who run nurseries and children’s centres, work as a childminder, or those who oversee early years education in a local authority. The Eat Better, Start Better guidance and materials have been developed to help practitioners meet the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) welfare requirement when it comes to providing healthy, nutritious food and drink.

*Avoid giving whole nuts to children under five years due to the risk of choking.