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.
Why Is This?
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 in Part 1, we will look at 3 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.
Include Healthy Fats
Intentionally incorporating healthy fats to the daily intake of children who are eating a vegan or complete plant-based diet is one of the key ways to ensure an adequate consumption of calories and essential fatty acids. 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”. However, be aware that all foods including those in the plant-based world contain some amount of fat (yes, even fruits and grains!), so this daily fat intake goal does not necessarily need to be met through added oils. Similar to adults, it is best for children to obtain their daily dietary fat intake naturally through whole plant-based foods.
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. Some good examples of rich omega-3 fatty acid sources are ground flaxseed, walnuts and chia seeds. Parents can help their little plant-eaters by intentionally incorporating these and other nutrient dense higher fat content whole plant-based foods into the daily intake of their children. Here are ten suggested ways to get a daily dose of healthy fats in for growing plant-based eaters:
- Regularly offer avocados as a snack or fruit, as part of sandwiches or as a dip like guacamole.
- Sprinkle on a teaspoonful or more of chia seeds into oatmeal, overnight oats, noodles, or onto toasts or bagels that have been spread with a nut or seed butter.
- Mix in a teaspoon or two of tahini (a paste made from ground up sesame seeds) or sprinkle on toasted sesame seeds into noodles or oatmeal.
- Offer chia puddings as a snack or after meal dessert. To make a chia pudding, mix 2 tablespoons of chia seeds into half a cup of calcium fortified soy milk (or other calcium fortified plant-based milk if the child is allergic to soy) and let this mixture sit in a lidded jar for at least 2 hours or overnight in the refrigerator until a gelled consistency is formed. Add some chopped fresh fruit if desired before serving. You can further boost the omega-3 fatty acid content of this chia pudding by sprinkling on ground flaxseed just before consuming!
- Make cooling Chia Fruit Pops! Simply blend frozen or fresh fruit together with some calcium fortified soy milk (or other calcium fortified plant-based milk if the child is allergic to soy). If you like, you can also blend in some plant-based yogurt as well. Then add about a tablespoon of chia seeds into this blended mixture and stir well to thoroughly combine. Let this combined mixture sit in the fridge for about 10 – 15 minutes until slightly gelled. Then pour this mixture into popsicle molds and freeze until frozen.
- Add ground flaxseeds and chia seeds into smoothies or blended fresh or frozen fruit and vegetable juices.
- Offer cut olives as a snack or incorporated into scrambled tofu, burrito or quesadilla fillings. You can also mix chopped or minced olives into couscous, quinoa, salads, soups or noodles.
- 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 and seed butters in general are also sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Spread 1-2 tablespoons of a nut or seed butter on toasts, bagels, pancakes, waffles or a gluten-free alternative.
Want to learn more? Read on for Nutrition Boosting Tips To Grow Thriving Plant-Based Children – Part 2!
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.)