If you are a vegetarian, does it mean that your toddler should be a vegetarian too?

By: Cherie Lyden, Nutritionist & Mother

There are a number of reasons why you as a parent may choose to be a vegetarian; these include factors such as beliefs pertaining to health benefits, environmental issues and/or animal rights. Whether you have been a vegetarian all your life or for a short time only, it is clear that a good vegetarian diet requires a little bit of extra effort and dedication to make sure one is getting all the essential nutrients required for optimal health. If a vegetarian individual is able to ensure that this correct balance of nutrition occurs, then in my opinion there is no reason why their growing toddler could also not thrive on a vegetarian diet.

What is a vegetarian?
As many of you will know, a vegetarian is usually someone who doesn't eat meat of any kind. This includes red meat, offal, poultry such as chicken, fish as well as some or all animal derived products for example, eggs and dairy. Vegetarians may be classified into sub-groups:

  • The lacto-ovo vegetarian: who eats everything except any kind of animal meat, fish and offal.
  • The lacto-vegetarian: who eats everything except any kind of animal meat, fish, offal and eggs.
  • The vegan: who does not eat anything animal-derived e.g. meat, fish, offal, eggs and dairy products. All foods consumed are plant-based and some strict vegans may also omit honey. Please note that a vegan diet is not recommended for babies and young children because of the difficulty to achieve nutritional adequacy.

    What is a balanced vegetarian diet for a toddler?
    Vegetarian diets (particularly vegan diets) may be prone to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies if they are not planned well. As a parent, it is important that you understand which foods need to be substituted in place of meat and other animal-derived products to ensure the healthy growth and development of your toddler. The diet of a vegetarian toddler must be varied and include:

    Protein is required for healthy growth and development. Protein rich foods that may be substituted in place of meat include eggs, tofu and other soy products as well as legumes, grains, nut butters and seeds. The recommended daily intake of protein for toddlers is about 14g of protein per day or 1.08g per kilo of their body weight. This should be consumed in small amounts spread out at each main meal.

    Essential Fatty acids:
    Good fats provide energy for your toddler's busy little brain and body which are developing rapidly. Note that toddlers do not require low-fat products. Good sources of fats include full fat dairy such as milk, nut butters, tahini, oils such as flaxseed and avocado. Ideally you want to include about 3 servings of these good fats per day.

    Iron is required for transporting oxygen to all of the organs as well as the muscles and tissues in the body. Iron rich foods include egg yolks, fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, tofu, spinach, nut pastes and dried fruit, however, note that non-animal sources of iron are more difficult to absorb than animal sources. To combat this consume them with vitamin C rich foods (such as most fruit and vegetables) as this will help to aid iron absorption. The recommended daily intake of iron for a toddler is 6-9 mg per day.

    Zinc is one of the most important minerals for the body and is required for hundreds of chemical reactions in the body. Meat and fish are usually the best sources of zinc in the human diet therefore it's essential that a toddler includes zinc rich foods such as dairy products, eggs, legumes and zinc rich nuts and seeds such as pepitas. The recommended daily intake of zinc for a toddler is 3mg per day, which equates to 1 tub of yoghurt, ½ a cup baked beans and an egg.

    Calcium and vitamin D:
    These are both required for healthy teeth and bones and most importantly prevention of osteoporosis later on in life. Calcium and vitamin D rich foods include dairy and calcium & vitamin D enriched soy and rice milks. Other sources of these important nutrients include tofu, legumes and dried fruit and nuts. A toddler's recommended daily intake of calcium is 700mg per day, this equates to 1 cup of milk, a 40g slice of cheese and 1 tub of yoghurt.

    Vitamin B12:
    Vitamin B12 is required for a healthy nervous system, healthy blood, DNA production, as well as general well-being and development. The active form of vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods therefore for a vegetarian the best sources would be dairy products and eggs. A non-animal source of vitamin B12 is soy milk that has been fortified with vitamin B12. Vegetarian diets that exclude these foods such as a vegan diet will need supplementation and professional advice from a dietician, nutritionist or naturopath. The recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 for a toddler is 1 microgram which can be reached by consuming one cup of fortified soy milk.

    Other factors to consider when planning the vegetarian diet of a toddler:

    Vegetarian diets for toddlers can be tricky to get right. In addition to all the nutrients that a toddlers needs it is also important that your toddler doesn't have anything in excess, for example:

    This can interfere with absorption of important minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium. Fibre can also fill a little toddler's tummy quickly reducing the desire to eat. It is best to combine high fibre foods such as wholegrains, legumes, fruit and vegetables with lower fibre foods such as refined cereals, pasta, white rice and white flour.

    An excess of calcium in the diet can be problematic as it may affect iron absorption. Similarly to fibre above, consuming too much milk Fibre can also fill a little toddler's tummy quickly reducing the desire to eat.

    Other important considerations for all toddlers include:
  • A varied diet: this not only increases the variety of vitamins and minerals consumed by also provides a range of foods for your child to choose from, because as any mother will tell you, toddlers can be fussy eaters!
  • Regular eating of meals and snacks: Why? Toddlers are frequently burning large amounts of energy running around however they only have small tummies. Toddlers should be offered high-energy food regularly, for example peanut butter on toast or avocado on crackers. As busy little bees, toddlers may often forget to eat or ask for food; this ultimately results in low blood sugar and regrettably for parents… whinging and tantrums!

    Any parent wanting their toddler to consume a vegetarian only diet designed should be advised by a suitably qualified health professional to ensure the diet is balanced. This will provide you as the parent with the confidence that your toddler is on the right path towards good health.

    Cherie Lyden is a passionate nutritionist, foodie and mother. Her special interest is in children's health and she believes that children need to be inspired and encouraged to eat good food from a young age. One of her aims is to educate families in the importance of good nutrition, so that parents and their children have a balanced and sensible approach to healthy eating.


    Apr 28 2011 3:42PM
    I have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian for over 21 years and both my daughters were brought up as vegetarians. They are happy healthy 11 and 13 year olds now and have always had so much energy.
    We choose not to eat meat for moral reasons.
    I feel that we get get lots of goodness out of eating fruit, vege's, legumes, free range eggs (from a friends chickens) etc.
    Why not give it a try.
    Comment by: Tracey
    Apr 29 2011 11:50AM
    I am also a vegetarian, raising vegetarian children. My children are tall, bright, and very happy, and very rarely ill. I think that any "lifestyle" can be healthy and unhealthy, and it gets rather mundane that vegetarians get pointed out so frequently as the bad parents, neglecting their children.
    Comment by: Vanessa
    Aug 28 2011 9:40PM
    I myself am not a vegetarian, and doubt I ever will be, but I do encourage in my family a meal that has no meat, as I feel we don't eat enough mushrooms and coloured veggies. I'm a lover of veggies and fruits, and really am trying to eat more, signing up on this site I'm hoping to get inspiration!
    I think the main reason vegetarian families are labelled as neglectful is due to those who are so vocal about their decision and pushing it on others, as well as those who do not understand the health problems that can be involved with young children if they do not get the right vitamins. It's like with any group, it's the few who's actions label the majority.
    Comment by: Jemima
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