Fear not: Experts say it's OK to raise your child vegetarian. In fact, there's some evidence that plant-based diets can be just as healthy as meat-based diets for kids. So if you've explored the health benefits of reducing or eliminating meat for yourself but have been curious whether a vegetarian diet is doable for kids, you should be in the clear.
POPSUGAR spoke to Reshma Shah, MD, a pediatrician and affiliate clinical instructor at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, a plant-based dietitian and author of Plant-Based Nutrition (Idiot's Guide), to find out whether it's safe to raise your kids vegetarian, how to ensure they get protein and other necessary nutrients, and simple ideas to help you make the switch.
Is it healthy to raise my child vegetarian?
Dr. Shah says that children can easily meet all their nutritional requirements by following an appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diet. "Vegetarian children have similar rates of growth to nonvegetarian children," she says. "They also have a greater likelihood of meeting the recommended total fat and saturated fat intake, as well as the recommended daily servings of fruits, vegetables, and fiber."
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states in its 2016 position paper on vegetarian diets that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets "are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." It also notes that both diets are appropriate for all life stages, including infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that "children can be well nourished on [lacto-ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, and vegan diets]." However, it does caution that "nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated" and encourages parents to carefully monitor and plan their child's diet.
How do I make sure my child is getting enough protein on a vegetarian diet?
"A diet that is sufficient in calories and variety can easily meet the protein needs of growing children," says Dr. Shah. "Beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, and whole grains are terrific sources of protein and have the added benefit of being fiber rich."
So how much protein is enough? According to national dietary guidelines, a 1- to 3-year-old child should get 13 grams of protein a day; a 4- to 8-year-old, 19 grams; a 9- to 13-year-old, 34 grams; and a teenager, between 46 and 52 grams. To give you an idea, a cup of black beans has about 14 grams of protein, a packet of cooked oatmeal has about 6 grams, and a serving of peanut butter has about seven.
How do I make sure my child is getting enough vitamins and nutrients on a vegetarian diet?
Nutrient deficiencies can be seen in children on all kinds of diets, Dr. Shah says, but vegans and vegetarians need to pay particular attention to vitamin B12, which can easily be supplemented or found in B12-fortified foods, like most cereals.
Hever suggests consulting the Dietary Reference Intakes guidelines, which can be found online, to make sure your child is getting adequate vitamins and nutrients. "One supersimple way to manage this is to provide a suitable child's multivitamin," she says. But remember, it's important to consult your child's pediatrician when considering any supplements or significant dietary changes.
How do I switch my child to a vegetarian diet?
Hever suggests emphasizing healthful whole foods — vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices — in various, tasty, kid-friendly combinations. "There are many easy ways to whip up nutritious, whole-plant versions of pizza, pasta, burgers, burritos, and more so kids can enjoy a spectrum of options," Hever says.