My husband and I have both been vegetarians since 2009. It started out as a gradual journey toward bettering our health and reducing our grocery budget, and evolved into a total lifestyle change. Long before Cullen arrived, we knew we wanted to raise our kids as vegetarians as well – at least until they are at an age where they can choose differently.
The beginning was easy – nothing but breastmilk for six months, and no real stress or worry about his nutrition. When it came time to introduce solid foods, I found myself pouring over articles and research to find as much information as I could. Even though I firmly believe in our vegetarianism, infant and adult nutrition are somewhat different, and I felt worried about making sure Cullen would get everything he needed as a growing baby.
Eventually, I got the hang of it. And now at 18-months, Cullen is weaned of breastmilk and is thriving entirely off of his balanced, plant-based diet. he Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recently released a statement called Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right From the Start. While I think it is important that every individual and family make the choice that are most comfortable for them, I was also excited to see such strong support for vegetarianism at such an early age.
Here are some of the things that stood out to me the most in the article:
Given a chance, toddlers and young children usually enjoy a wide variety fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes—even more so if they are involved in the preparation. School-aged children are often curious about where their food comes from and delight in learning how to cook, visiting farmers’ markets, and gardening.
I think the key here is that kids are given a chance to enjoy a wide variety of foods. Before we became vegetarians, we tended to base our meals around meat or fish, with vegetables and grains fading into the background as an afterthought. People often think of a plant-based diet as more limiting, but I’ve found that it has opened up my eyes (and mouth!) to a huge variety of foods I hadn’t tried before. Quinoa, millet, tofu, tempeh, nutritional yeast, lentils – these are all things I eat regularly now that I had never even tried as a meat eater.
Perhaps the most important consideration for feeding children is this: Lifelong dietary habits are established at a young age. Children who acquire a taste for chicken nuggets, roast beef, and French fries today are the cancer patients, heart patients, and diabetes patients of tomorrow. Children who are raised on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes will have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and many obesity-related illnesses compared to their counterparts raised on the average American diet.
It is so important to recognize that toddlers are in a critical period of modeling and mimicking. They are establishing life long habits now, and they are watching us to set an example. If we aren’t eating a healthy, balanced diet, we can’t expect our toddlers to gobble down their greens either. Raising young children is a great opportunity to reexamine the health of the whole family.
Naturally, children need protein to grow, but they do not need high-protein, animal-based foods. Many people are unaware that a varied menu of grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits supplies plenty of protein. The “protein deficiencies” that our parents worried about in impoverished countries were the result of starvation or diets restricted to very few food items. Protein deficiency is extremely unlikely on a diet drawn from a variety of plant foods.
As a vegetarian, the question I get most is, “Where do you get your protein?” I’m not sure how as a country we became so obsessed with protein targets and protein deficiency, but it is extremely rare here. Protein is hiding in so many unsuspecting places, particularly beyond animal products. I make sure to meet my toddler’s protein needs through beans, lentils, tofu, whole grains, non-dairy milk, nut butters, and a wide variety of vegetables.
Very young children may need a slightly higher fat intake than adults do. Healthier fat sources include soybean products, avocados, and nut butters. Soy “hot dogs,” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, seasoned veggie burgers, and avocado chunks in salads, for example, are very well accepted. However, the need for fat in the diet should not be taken too far.
The only piece of the article that I disagreed with was their over-reliance on suggesting soy products. Soy consumption is quite controversial, and while I don’t believe that unprocessed soy is dangerous, like everything else we strive to eat it in moderation. We avoid any processed soy products like the “soy hot dogs” mentioned above, as we’d like to avoid as much processed food in general. We do pay close attention to Cullen’s fat intake, as we know his little brain needs healthy fats to grow and develop. Some of our favorite fat sources are olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, hummus, and nut butters.
Overall, it is not difficult to raise a vegetarian toddler, but it does take a bit of extra mindfulness and meal planning. Our meals are not as simple as “chicken, potato, vegetable” but I like to think they are a lot more exciting.