This Health Special is reproduced from the Vegetarian Starter Kit, courtesy of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start

Eating habits are set in early childhood. Vegetarian diets give your child the chance to learn to enjoy a variety of wonderful, nutritious foods. They provide excellent nutrition for all stages of childhood, from birth through adolescence.

Infants

The best food for newborns is breast-milk, and the longer your baby is breast-fed, the better. If your baby is not being breast-fed, soy formulas are a good alternative and are widely available. Do not use commercial soy milk. Babies have special needs and require a soy formula that is developed especially for those needs.

Infants do not need any nourishment other than breast milk or soy formula for the first several months of life. Breast-fed infants need about two hours a week of sun exposure to make vitamin D. Some infants, especially those who live in cloudy climates, may not make adequate amounts of vitamin D. In that case, vitamin D supplements may be necessary.

Vegetarian women who are breast-feeding should also be certain to include good sources of vitamin B12 in their diets, as intake can affect levels in breast-milk. Foods fortified with cyanocobalamin, the active form of vitamin B12, can provide adequate amounts of this nutrient. A multivitamin may also be taken as directed by your doctor. Breast milk or infant formula should be used for at least the first year of your baby's life.

At about four to five months of age, or when your baby's weight has doubled, other foods can be added to the diet.

Add one 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.

 

Four to Five Months

  • Introduce iron-fortified infant cereal. Try rice cereal first since it is the least likely to cause allergies. Mix it with a little breast milk or soy formula. Then offer oat or barley cereals to your baby.

 

Six to Eight Months

  • Introduce vegetables. They should be thoroughly cooked and mashed. Potatoes, green beans, carrots, and peas are all good first choices
  • Introduce fruits next. Try mashed bananas, avocados, strained peaches, or applesauce.
  • By eight months of age, most babies can eat crackers, bread, and dry cereal
  • Also, by about eight months, infants can begin to eat higher protein foods like tofu or beans that have been cooked well and mashed.

 

Children

Children have a high calorie and nutrient need, but their stomachs are small. Offer your child frequent snacks, and include some less "bulky" foods like refined grains and fruit juices. Limit juices, however, since children may fill up on them, preferring their sweetness to other foods.

Some foods, such as veggie hot-dogs, carrot sticks, peanuts, and grapes, may present a choking hazard. Be sure to cut foods into small pieces and encourage children to chew their food well before swallowing.

Calorie needs vary from child to child. The following guidelines are general ones.

 

Food Groups for Children

Breads, cereals, and grains include all breads, rolls, flatbreads, hot and cold cereals, pasta, cooked grains such as rice and barley, and crackers.

Legumes, nuts, and seeds include any cooked bean such as pinto, kidney, lentil, split pea, black-eyed pea, navy beans, and chickpea; tofu, tempeh, meat analogues, texturized vegetable protein (TVP); all nuts and nut butters, seeds, and tahini (sesame butter).

Fortified soy milk includes all fortified soy milks and infant formula or breast milk for toddlers.

Vegetables include all raw or cooked vegetables which may be purchased fresh, canned, or frozen. Also includes vegetable juices.

Fruits include all fruits and 100 percent fruit juices. Fruit may be purchased fresh or canned, preferably in a light or natural syrup or in water.

 

Recommended Servings: Ages 1 to 4 years

Breads, cereals, and grains: 6 or more servings; a serving equals 1/2 to 1 slice of bread; 1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked cereal, grain, or pasta; 1/2 to 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal

Legumes, nuts, and seeds: 2 or more servings; a serving equals 1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked beans, tofu, tempeh, or TVP; 1 1/2 to 3 ounces meat analogue; 1 to 2 tablespoons nuts, seeds, nut or seed butter

Fortified soy milk: 3 servings; a serving equals 1 cup fortified soy milk, infant formula, or breast milk

Vegetables: 2 or more servings; a serving equals 1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked or 1/2 to 1 cup raw vegetables

Fruits: 3 or more servings: a serving equals 1/4 to 1/2 cup canned fruit; 1/2 cup juice; 1 medium fruit

Fats: 3 servings; a serving equals 1 teaspoon margarine or oil

 

Recommended Servings: Ages 4 to 6 years

Breads, cereals, and grains: 6 or more servings; a serving equals 1 slice of bread; 1/2 cup cooked cereal, grain, or pasta; 3/4 to 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal

Legumes, nuts, and seeds: 1 1/2 to 3 servings; a serving equals 1/2 cup cooked beans, tofu, tempeh, or TVP; 3 ounces meat analogue; 2 tablespoons nuts, seeds, nut or seed butter

Fortified soy milk: 3 servings; a serving equals 1 cup fortified soy milk

Vegetables: 1 to 1 1/2 servings; a serving equals 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw vegetables

Fruits: 2 to 4 servings; a serving equals 1/2 cup canned fruit; 3/4 cup juice; 1 medium fruit

Fats: 4 servings; a serving equals 1 teaspoon margarine or oil

 

Recommended Servings: Ages 7 to 12 years

Breads, cereals, and grains: 7 or more servings; a serving equals 1 slice of bread; 1/2 cup cooked cereal, grain, or pasta; 3/4 to 1 cup ready-to-eat cereal

Legumes, nuts, and seeds: 3 or more servings; a serving equals 1/2 cup beans, tofu, tempeh, or TVP; 3 ounces meat analogue; 2 tablespoons nuts, seeds, nut or seed butter

Vegetables: 4 or more servings; a serving equals 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw vegetables

Fruits: 4 or more servings; a serving equals 1/2 cup canned fruit; 3/4 cup juice; 1 medium fruit

Fats: 5 servings; a serving equals 1 teaspoon margarine or oil

 

Note: Serving sizes may vary depending on the child's age.

To add more calories to the diet, include more servings of nut butters, dried fruits, soy products, and other high-calorie foods.

Be sure to include a reliable source of vitamin B12 on a regular basis. Good sources include Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast, vitamin B12-fortified foods, such as soy milk, breakfast cereals, meat analogues, and vitamin B12 supplements.

If children do not get regular sun exposure (exposing hands and face to 20 to 30 minutes of summer sun two to three times per week), which promotes vitamin D synthesis, fortified foods and supplements are available.

Adapted from Simply Vegan, 3rd ed., 1999, pgs. 194-195. The Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203; 410-366-8384.

~ Sample Menus ~

Ages 1 to 4 years:

Breakfast:

  • Cheerios with soy milk
  • Orange juice

Lunch:

  • Hummus on crackers
  • Banana
  • Soy milk
  • Squash

Dinner:

  • Lentil-tomato loaf
  • Mashed potatoes
  • "Creamed" kale
  • Soy milk

Snacks:

  • Prunes
  • Soy milk

Ages 4 to 6 years:

Breakfast:

  • Apple-cinnamon oatmeal
  • Soy milk
  • Orange wedges

Lunch:

  • Tofu "egg" salad on bread
  • Apple juice
  • Carrot sticks
  • Oatmeal cookie

Dinner:

  • Baked beans with blackstrap molasses
  • Baked potato
  • Spinach
  • Pineapple chunks
  • Soy milk

Snacks:

  • Trail mix
  • Graham crackers
  • Soy milk

Ages 7 to 12 years:

Breakfast:

  • Raisin Bran with soy milk and sliced banana
  • Toast with almond butter
  • Orange juice

Lunch:

  • Macaroni and blended tofu with nutritional yeast
  • Fruit salad
  • Bread
  • Green beans with almonds

Dinner:

  • Lentil soup
  • Salad with greens and broccoli
  • Roll
  • Steamed carrots

Snacks:

  • Popcorn
  • Trail mix
  • Figs

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