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Raising vegan children, and veganism in general, is on the rise! (source)
And, with the rise of veganism, and parents raising their children vegan, there comes some concerns. From vegan parents themselves, along with those who have no business in the matter.
In this interview with Mary Ellen Valverde MS, CNS, LDN you will learn the answers to some of the most common concerns for feeding vegan children, or any child for that matter!
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Raising Vegan Children: 6 Vital Questions Answered by a Nutritionist
My many thanks to Shawna for asking me to do a guest post and answer some reader questions. I love connecting with other vegans and enjoy helping people with nutrition on a plant-based diet.
What are the three most important things for parents to know when it comes to feeding their children?
I would say my top 3 suggestions would be:
- Expose children to a wide variety of foods at an early age and encourage them to try new things. This will widen their palate and not fill them with pre-judgements of any foods.
- Don’t make separate meals for parents and kids. It is fine to modify meals, such as leaving out spices (or something of that nature) but once a child is on solid foods, everyone should basically eat the same meal. This will help kids from being picky eaters and save the parents a whole lot of time and stress around meals.
- Lead by example! If they see their parents saying “I don’t like vegetables/beans/etc.” or refusing to eat the same thing as the rest of the family, children will think that’s acceptable and follow suit.
What should I do if my child outright refuses to eat what I made for breakfast/lunch/dinner? Should I make them a different meal so they at least eat something, or what would you suggest?
Children can refuse to eat for different reasons. Usually saying “no” is an act of independence; a way for them to have a voice and start their autonomy. For young children, refusing to eat is considered a normal part of their development and this phase will pass. They will eventually get over their food fears and unwillingness to try new foods (especially if the parents and older siblings are leading by example). I would suggest giving them space and allowing them to figure this out in their own time.
I wouldn’t suggest making a separate meal. By doing so you would be catering to the child in ways that might lead to problems down the line, like picky eating which can then lead to nutrient deficiencies. It also will put more demands/stress on the parent who has to prepare these separate meals. As I mentioned above, once the child is able to eat solid foods, she/he should be eating what the rest of the family eats.
As parents, it’s your job is to create opportunities to eat several times a day (based on your child’s age) so that the child can meet his/her appetite and nutritional needs. You should offer a well-balanced meal (see last question for more on this) and set a positive environment at mealtimes so that children enjoy coming to the table.
I also want to add that it is best not to interfere with a young child’s eating habits by way of using pressure, rewards, punishment or other ways to get your child to eat. By engaging in these things, you could prolong the picky eating and damage his/her developing relationship with food as well as erode the trust the child has in you as a supportive parent.
If your children are older and just doesn’t feel like eating what you’re making, they might want to have more of a say in what they’re eating. Having them offer input into meals can help. Even giving the option of “would you rather have brown rice or quinoa with dinner?” gives them a feeling of having a choice (even though both choices are healthy). I find the most successful meals especially for older kids are the “build your own” style. This can be done with tacos, bowls, salads, etc. Mealtimes can go over better with kids when they participate and have choices.
Having said all that, if you think your child still isn’t eating enough or is not currently in that “picky/independence” age, check a children’s growth chart which will indicate if they are growing at a normal pace. You can also refer to this food portion post. While it’s not vegan, it gives you a reference and shows the appropriate portions of food for a child’s age. If you find your child is not in the appropriate height or weight on the growth chart or is dropping foods from his/her diet without adding them back in at some point, see a nutrition professional or feeding therapist that specializes in childhood eating.
My child is starting school in the fall and their elementary school is nut free; do you have any nut-free school lunch ideas that are nutritious?
Many schools are now nut-free but creating a healthy lunch that is vegan and nut free can be done. Below are a few ideas of “main” parts of the meal. You could also add in some fruit, low sugar granola, homemade trail mix, protein balls (with seed butter instead of nut butter) or a dairy-free (low sugar) yogurt to snack on as their “dessert”.
- Veggie wrap, pita, or sandwich. Some options are:
- Vegan deli slices, spinach, avocado, tomato and carrot shreds
- Eggless salad (use tofu instead of eggs)
- Chickpea salad (mashed chickpeas, celery, carrots, lemon juice, spices, vegan mayo)
- Sunbutter (or other seed butter) and jelly
- Sunbutter & banana rolls (spread butter on a tortilla, top with thinly sliced bananas, roll it up & cut)
- Hummus & veggie sandwich (use different flavored hummus and their favorite sliced/shredded veggies)
- Mashed bean and avocado rolls (mash beans and avocado on a tortilla, add a few veggies, roll up & cut)
- Baked tofu sandwiches with veggies and their favorite sauce/dressing
- Hummus with dipping veggies
- Veggie burgers or nuggets
- Pasta salad (can sub in chickpea or lentil pasta to make it healthier) with beans and veggies
- Vegan grilled cheese sandwich or quesadilla (add in veggies like fresh spinach)
- Bean, brown rice, veggie & vegan cheese burrito
- Vegan quesadilla with beans & veggies
- Rice or quinoa salad using their favorite veggies
- Leftovers they enjoyed from the night before
- Bagel or rice cakes with tofu cream cheese or hummus and thinly sliced fruit or veggies
- Nutritious soups
- Pita or bagel pizza with vegan cheese
*If you’re using vegan cheese, be sure to get brands that do not use nuts.
Do kids need to eat on a strict schedule, or is it alright if they simply eat when they are hungry and graze throughout the day when our schedule allows it?
I would say it is better for them to eat when they are hungry, particularly when they are young/toddlers. It helps them to become attuned to the need to eat. When they are just starting out on solid foods, you could introduce a variety of finger foods in front of them that have a variety of tastes such as a few berries, piece of apple, and mashed beans which will encourage them to be more adventurous in their eating and to try different foods without pressure.
For older children, I would say it’s also okay to have them eating when they are hungry, especially if they’re active in sports and have to be on different schedules. This will give them the energy and nutrients they need for an active life even if their schedule doesn’t allow for strict mealtimes. That said, you don’t want kids overeating or grazing on foods because they are bored. If they’re not very active, I’d stick to mostly mealtimes (using your judgement) especially if you see them looking for snacks because there’s “nothing else to do”. This can lead to weight issues which are becoming more prevalent in our society. You want to instill good eating habits as early as possible.
How do I know what to feed my kids on a daily basis? With so much information available online, it’s hard to pick through and know what to trust.
I hear you about all the information online. It can get very confusing and frustrating. If you’re looking for nutrition advice, I’d look on the site’s “about me” page to see the person’s credentials. You want someone with at least a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nutrition. The word “certified” doesn’t mean much since people can get a certification after a 3 week course but “licensed” is a good word to look for because states have specific education and examination requirements. A CNS (Certified Nutrition Specialists) or RD (Registered Dietician) are both high nutrition credentials.
As for what to feed kids on a daily basis, well rounded meals with a focus on veggies is a great place to start. Try to have them eat a good mix of macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) at each meal along with a large portion of colorful vegetables for their phytonutrients.
For a breakfast option, they could have a smoothie with their favorite fruit, a plant-based protein powder, dairy-free milk and some nut/seed butter (depending on any allergies they might have). You could add some greens to the smoothie as well (spinach and baby kale are the ones that don’t really change the taste of the smoothie). Don’t forget breakfast doesn’t always need to look like a traditional American breakfast of eggs with bacon and toast. Heated healthy leftovers can be a great breakfast…and kids often think it’s fun to switch things up.
For lunch or dinner they could have a veggie burger or tofu nuggets, a side of their favorite veggies with a tasty sauce/dressing and maybe some chickpea pasta or brown rice. Having salad as a side or starter is a great way to get more veggies in and get kids used to eating it.
Bowls are a great way to ensure the whole family is getting their macronutrients. For a healthy bowl you would choose a whole grain or starchy vegetable (brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, winter squash), add a protein (beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, peas, seitan), add veggies (maybe even have them choose so they are already agreeing on what they’ll eat) and top it with a dressing or sauce of choice. The fat portion can be: a part of the dressing/sauce if it’s made with a fat, a bit of high-quality olive oil, some avocado, ground flax seeds, or a small handful of nuts/seeds. Bowls are an easy way to put a meal together and can be so versatile. You can make all sorts of combinations using different veggies, proteins and sauces. I’ve done Mexican bowls, Italian bowls, Asian-inspired bowls – whatever cuisine the family is in the mood for that night!
Shawna also has some great “Healthy Plate Templates” so take a look at those!
How can I tell if my child is getting enough protein and other nutrients they need? We eat mostly vegan, and lately I’ve only been able to get my kids to eat beans (chickpeas) when I bake them in cookies!
Those cookies sound good!
I would suggest looking at a growth chart to see how the child is doing physically. Going to get a checkup and do blood work each year can also be a good way to ensure the child is having adequate nutrients. You can check out my other post on some vitamins/minerals that vegans should keep an eye on. If your child is low on the growth chart, is feeling extra tired, or getting sick more often than those around him/her, look into seeing a nutritionist or physician that specializes in vegan child nutrition. Please note that most doctors do not get much nutrition education in school so unless they did extra education outside of school, a nutrition specialist working with your doctor is the way to go.
In general, if you can stick to the macronutrient info that I mentioned in the above question and having a good multivitamin can help with any other nutrients they’re not getting from food, your child should be getting the nutrients they need.
Protein is always the most concerning nutrient on a plant-based diet. Beans can be hard for some kids but it depends on what age group you’re dealing with. Once on solid foods, well-cooked beans (especially white beans) can make a great finger food that most babies will enjoy for their mild taste and soft texture. Just make sure to purchase BPA-free cans or tetra packs and rinse the beans to get rid of excessive sodium.
Once kids get older and have heard something like “beans are gross” it might be harder to get them to eat beans outright. A few ways to incorporate them would be to add them to soups (blended beans can make things “creamier”), veggie burgers or nuggets, dips/sauces, muffins, in vegan quesadillas, or roasted (like roasted chickpeas). Some beans are more appealing than others to certain people. Try offering kids all different kinds and see if they take to any (lentils, white beans, and chickpeas might be the easiest to “sell”. Tofu (always buy organic) and seitan can also be a good option for protein if the kids are not yet into beans. Even if they’re not loving beans right now, keep trying – they really are a very healthy food.
Another thing to mention is that there are a number of meat alternatives available in many supermarkets or can be ordered online. While whole foods are always best, kids are going to want “fun” foods no matter if they’re eating meat or not so don’t worry about giving them some of the meat alternatives every once in a while. I’ve listed some of my favorite alternatives to animal-based products in my Vegan Products and Resource post.
In wrapping up this post, I’d just like to say do your best but don’t overly stress unless you feel there is something really wrong (you know your kids better than anyone) and in that case, seek out a professional.
Stay positive and lead by example. You’ve got this!