Plant-strong diets and children: a healthy diet for life
The benefits of vegan diets can be enjoyed at any age. Whether you’re planning to have a baby (future dads, we're talking to you too!), are pregnant, breastfeeding, or feeding growing infants and older children - there is a healthy plant based diet for you. Try Cooking Vegan by Dietitian Vesanto Melina and Chef Joseph Forest for fully nutritionally analysed recipes for all ages as well as our guide to a vegan pregnancy (p 4-9).
It's never too early to think about good nutrition
Your diet during pregnancy and your infant's diet during the first year of life can help protect your child's health into adulthood. It is therefore of utmost importance that during pregnancy you and your baby are provided with good nutrition. But of course you know that already. Perhaps what you don't know is that research strongly supports vegan nutrition for babies and children.
Research gives veganism the thumbs up
Time for some scientific stuff. Please bear with us.
Healthy infants can thrive on well-planned vegan diets. If you cannot breastfeed your baby, use properly formulated commercial soya infant formula (by law, infant formula is fortified with vitamin D3. Formula is the only safe alternative to breast milk, even though the vitamin D3 is from lanolin, a derivative from sheep). If necessary, your family doctor can refer you to a trained expert called a Registered Dietitian. See also this dietary guide prepared by a Registered Dietician for The Vegan Society.
At the age of one year, most babies are ready to enjoy family meals (without salty seasonings) and drinks such as fortified plant milks. Carry on offering breast milk or commercial infant formula to your child up to two years old.
What about calcium?
We need calcium as one of the nutrients for healthy bones. Give your older child foods such as calcium-fortified plant milks, breakfast cereals and some tofu to meet the calcium recommendations for their age group.
Dispelling the myths
All of the evidence supports well-planned, properly balanced vegan diets for growing children. If you have any concerns, ensure your family doctor refers you to a trained expert called a Registered Dietitian.
Handy hints for feeding vegan children
- Breast milk or infant formula should be a major part of your child's nutrition until at least age one, but start introducing solid foods around six months. Ensure your family doctor refers you to a Registered Dietitian if you have any concerns about healthy breast milk or infant formula feeding.
- Home-prepared cereals should be made as a thick porridge rather a thin gruel. Add a little vegetable oil to the cooked grains to increase their calorie content, and improve palatability by making them less glutinous as they cool.
- Use more soya bean oil or rapeseed (canola) oil, and less sunflower, safflower or corn oils. The former help encourage the production of fatty acids that are important for the development of the brain and vision.
- Do not allow infants to fill up with liquids before meal-times.
- Spread breads with avocado, or seed/nut butters to increase calories.
- Low salt yeast extract is a good source of B vitamins for older children - check your brand is fortified with vitamin B12.
- Well-cooked and mashed pulses (e.g. lentils, mung beans and chick peas) provide energy and protein. It is important to strain them through a sieve to get rid of the skins, so that children can digest the legumes better. Use black molasses to boost iron and calcium intakes.
- Choose calcium-fortified tofu (also rich in protein), which can be served mashed or as finger food.
- Make sure children have access to healthy Sun exposure regularly; provide vitamin D supplements otherwise. Vitamin D2 is suitable for vegans. Vitamin D3 such as Vitashine is Vegan Trademark registered and suitable for vegans.
- Use non-dairy milks e.g. soya milk that are fortified with calcium, vitamin D2 and vitamin B12.
- Green vegetables are an excellent source of iron, calcium and antioxidants. Try blending them into a tomato-based pasta sauce if your child isn't keen on them. Or try adding them to juices with sweeter vegtables such as carrot.
- More tips on caring for vegan children.
Without a shadow of a doubt, a plant-based diet can be affordable, nutritious and tasty: everything you need for raising happy, healthy children.