More and more families are choosing to become vegetarian, and a balanced, meat-free diet can be very healthy. However, it is important to replace the nutrients meat provides — particularly protein, iron, zinc, and possibly some B vitamins, says Annabel Karmel, author of SuperFoods for Babies and Children.
Adults’ and children’s diets do not always follow the same guidelines and whereas a fairly bulky high-fiber vegetarian diet might suit adults, it is not suitable for young children who are growing, as it can replace more energy-dense foods such as fats and carbohydrates. Also a lot of fiber in the diet can inhibit the absorption of minerals such as zinc, iron, and calcium and is very bulky and filling and can even cause a toddler diarrhea.
Bringing up a baby on a vegetarian diet with a good volume of either breast milk or infant formula can provide all the nutrients she needs.
The importance of protein
Protein supplies your child with amino acids, essential chemicals that are the body’s building blocks. While all animal proteins, including eggs and dairy products, provide a high-quality protein containing all the essential amino acids, cereals and vegetable proteins (such as peas, beans, lentils, and nuts and seeds) have a lower quality. Soy is the only plant-based food that contains all the amino acids.
To ensure your child gets a high-quality protein at each meal try to combine a cereal food, such as pasta, bread, or rice, together with eggs, dairy products like cheese, legumes, or nuts. Good ideas are peanut butter on toast, lentil soup with a whole-wheat roll, peanut butter sandwiches, baked potato with cheese and milk, and pasta with cheese sauce. Good vegetarian sources of protein include eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, soy, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Examples of good protein combinations:
- A cereal food such as pasta, bread, or rice with eggs, cheese, legumes, or nuts.
- Peanut butter on toast.
- Baked potato with cheese and milk.
- Pasta with cheese sauce.
The importance of iron
It is important to make sure that children brought up on a vegetarian diet have an adequate supply of iron. Good vegetarian sources of iron include fortified breakfast cereals, egg yolk, whole-wheat bread, beans and lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried fruit, especially apricots and peaches. Iron is absorbed more efficiently by the body if combined with vitamin C, so offer a food or drink high in vitamin C at each meal.
The importance of calcium
Calcium is important for the health and formation of bones and teeth, and breast or formula milk contains all the calcium that your baby needs. However, from six months you can introduce cow’s milk and dairy products as a food. Other good vegetarian sources of calcium are tofu (calcium fortified), dried figs and apricots, nuts, sesame seeds and hummus, and fortified soy milk.
Vitamin B12 is needed for growth and division of cells. It is only found in foods of animal origin such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy produce. Some breakfast cereals are also fortified with vitamin B12. Vegetarians can obtain sufficient vitamin B12 from eggs and dairy products.