Children come in different ages, sizes and shapes with different taste preferences and likes. But they all need to eat, grow and thrive through good food choices and regular physical activity. Vegan or plant-based families in particular need to be mindful in planning well to ensure that their children, especially young children, get all the calories and nutrients they need in order to thrive optimally on a complete plant-based diet. This is because plant-based or vegan diets tend to be generally higher in fiber and certain micronutrients but lower in calories compared to a meat-based diet, so little children can be filled with these healthful high fiber foods but may not necessarily be eating enough to get all the calories and nutrients they need for optimal growth. Further, young children have smaller stomachs and appetites, so it is even more important for those on a complete plant-based or vegan diet to have 3 meals and 2-3 snacks on a daily basis.
Here are five nutrition boosting tips to grow healthy and thriving children in plant-based and vegan families. This advice will also be helpful for families looking for ways to incorporate more healthful plant-based foods into their family’s meals. Read these guidelines below and adapt them for your specific child or children in your household!
Use Fortified Alternatives
Pick a breakfast cereal fortified in the micronutrients that you would like your child to get more of. For example, plant-based and vegan children will benefit from good iron and zinc rich food sources, so you can look for a whole-grain low added sugar cereal that is fortified and provides more of those micronutrients per serving size. When buying plant-based milks, choose plant-based milks fortified in at least calcium and vitamin D. However, be mindful that some products provide a very low calorie content per serving (so may not be suitable for young children) and certain flavored plant-based milk products may have a higher overall sugar content compared to the original or unsweetened flavored versions. Fortified plant-based milk yogurt alternatives are also available, which will provide a calcium and vitamin D boost to your child’s diet. Note that depending on the age of your child, a fortified soy milk beverage may be a better choice than many other plant-based milk options due to its higher protein, iron and calorie content (to learn more, see: Can My 12 To 23-Month-Old Toddler Drink Plant-Based Milks? and Plant-Based Milk Recommendations For Vegan Children 2 Years & Older).
Layer It On
It’s easy to just give your child a piece of toast with a single layer of dairy-free margarine, jam, nut or seed butter in the mornings and be done with it. After all, something is better than nothing when your child is about to run out the door to catch the school bus, right? But the next time you prep breakfast, take just one extra minute to add another layer or two of nutrient dense goodness. Some super quick ideas are to slice a banana up into coins or use avocado slices to make a second layer. You could even make a 3 layered toast bonanza with another layer of chopped nuts, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, or frozen or fresh berries! Then add a finishing touch with a sprinkle of ground flaxseed, chia seeds or shredded coconut flakes. Want savory options instead? Here are some suggestions:
- Layer onto toast some baked beans topped with avocado slices or vegan cheese shreds.
- Do a quick sauté of a chopped vegetarian hot dog or lunch meat with diced onions and mushrooms to layer on a toast. Top with a sprinkle of vegan cheese and some ground flaxseed.
- Spread hummus onto toast, then add on sautéed spinach and mushrooms, and a sprinkle of seasonings like garlic powder, cumin or coriander. You could also add some sun-dried tomatoes on top! If you don’t want to make homemade hummus, try a variety of different commercial store-bought flavored hummus products to find ones that your child enjoys.
Add In Healthy Fats
Intentionally adding in healthy fats to the daily intake is one of the ways to ensure adequate caloric intake for children who are eating a vegan or complete plant-based diet. According to the Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intakes for total fat, an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) is set for children between 1-3 years of age to be 30 – 40 grams of total fat per day (g/d). For 4 – 18 year olds, the AMDR is set at 25 – 35 g/d of total fat. Since a teaspoon of fat translates to approximately 4.5 grams of fat, a good goal would be roughly 2-3 tablespoons (30 – 45 milliliters) of unsaturated fat daily. This correlates well with Canada’s Food Guide and their recommended serving sizes and amounts for persons 2 years of age and beyond. In this Guide, it is recommended to aim for 30 – 45 milliliters (2 – 3 tablespoons) of an unsaturated fat each day, which “includes oil used for cooking, salad dressings, margarine and mayonnaise”, instead of “butter, hard margarine, lard and shortening”.
Within this daily goal, aim for a greater intake of omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid) than omega-6 fatty acids (alpha-linoleic acid) to maintain an appropriate balance within one’s body for optimal health. For omega-3 fatty acids, choose oils such as canola oil and unhydrogenated soy bean oil more often instead of safflower, olive, sunflower or corn oil. You can also add in ground flaxseed or walnuts to foods. Here are a few suggested ways to get a daily dose of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in for growing plant-based eaters (especially for toddlers and little children who aren’t necessarily going to be getting that much oil from cooked foods and salad dressings yet):
- Regularly offer avocados as a snack or fruit, as part of sandwiches or as a dip like guacamole.
- Mix in about 1 – 2 teaspoons of canola oil at a time into cooked noodles, pastas, oatmeal and other hot foods throughout the day.
- Use 1-2 tablespoons of a vegan margarine spread without saturated or trans fats (meaning no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats in the product ingredient list) on toasts, bagels, pancakes, waffles or a gluten-free alternative.
- Use 1-2 tablespoons of a vegan mayonnaise to spread on sandwich breads.
- Add in a teaspoonful or more at a time of ground flaxseed onto spreads in sandwiches, into oatmeal or other hot breakfast cereals, and sprinkle onto pastas and noodles.
- Depending on the age of the child, you can also offer some ground, chopped or minced walnuts for an omega-3 fatty acid boost, and as a good protein and calorie source. Nut butters in general are also sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Sprinkle On Frequently
This is such a simple concept, yet it’s so useful! I cannot emphasize this point enough – whenever you have a chance, liberally sprinkle on nutritious additions such as ground flaxseed, chia seeds, sesame seeds or vitamin B-12 fortified nutritional yeast. Note that not all nutritional yeast products come fortified with vitamin B-12, so choose the product you want to buy carefully (e.g., Red Star and Trader Joe’s nutritional yeast product brands are vitamin B-12 fortified). If you keep these jars handy in your kitchen cupboard or on your kitchen counter (except the ground flaxseed which should be kept in an opaque lidded container in the fridge), then it becomes a good visual reminder and is easily accessible for you to add these items into your child’s foods.
A few ideas to get you going:
- Sprinkle a tablespoon or two of vitamin B-12 fortified nutritional yeast into your child’s bowl of pasta, bagel or baked potato.
- Liberally add ground flaxseed into oatmeal, or onto waffles, bagels, noodles, toast or salads.
- Sprinkle chia seeds into oatmeal, toast, waffles, cold cereals, smoothie drinks or use them to make puddings.
- Add sesame seeds to noodles, bagels, waffles, toast, oatmeal and salads.
Limit Processed Low-Nutrient Foods
It can be easy for children on vegan or plant-based diets to be filled up on an abundance of ‘vegan’ foods with low nutritional value such as fruit juice, cookies, cupcakes, cakes, biscuits, white bread and white pasta. It also doesn’t help that often they go to preschool or school environments where birthday parties and class functions are frequent and so they partake and eat many of these items too. I’m not saying a child should never have any of these things, but it is important to be mindful that young children tend to have small stomach capacities and therefore it is easy for them to be filled up with less nutrient dense foods. Remember the long-term goal is aiming for more whole-food, plant-based foods for optimal health. Hence, if a child is filling up on other foods, they will naturally have a smaller appetite for the foods that truly matter nutritionally. Thus, limiting some of the less nutrient dense foods from their intake will leave room and appetite for more healthful nutrient dense foods.
A Final Note
For toddlers and young children, mind how you prepare and present certain foods to your child to minimize choking risks. Some examples of these would be nuts, nut butters and vegetarian hot dogs. Depending on the child’s age, you may want to avoid these foods for toddlers or have close supervision when they are eaten and teach young children to bite small pieces of the nut at a time to eat. Instead of giving whole nuts, it may be best to grind them up finely, and spread a thin layer of a nut or seed butter onto bread or crackers instead of giving it by the spoonful. For vegetarian hot dogs, slice these first lengthwise, then crosswise (instead of chopping directly into ‘coin’ shapes) for young children.
What your child can or can’t handle really depends a lot on their stage of oral-motor development (i.e., whether they have developed good chewing and swallowing skills, the number of teeth they possess, and their willingness to take time to chew food carefully or take smaller bites of a food instead of putting the whole piece directly into their mouths).
Keeping all of these tips discussed above in mind and applying them in your household will help ensure your child is filling up on nutrient dense foods, and also getting the calories he or she needs for optimal growth!
Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate. Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (2002/2005). (Link to summary macronutrient tables). Accessed March 14, 2019.
Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116:1970-1980. Link to article. Accessed March 14, 2019.
Health Canada. Canada’s Food Guide. 2011. Accessed March 14, 2019. Link to publication.
Mangels R. RD Resources for Professionals: Vegetarian Nutrition for Toddlers and Preschoolers. 2010. Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.)