Your child may approach you about becoming a vegetarian, especially during the adolescent or teen years. Kids may choose a vegetarian diet out of concern for animal rights, to fit in with friends or family members, for religious purposes or for a variety of other reasons.
If you have grown up eating meat, poultry and seafood, you may be unfamiliar with what a vegetarian diet entails. A change in diet takes planning and creativity to ensure that your child’s meals provide the essential nutrients typically delivered in meat options. As a vegetarian parent, you must understand the nutritional needs of your kids and make the appropriate dietary changes or additions.
Vegetarians and vegans avoid certain food groups. You should understand the reason for your child’s choice, ensuring that it is not a way to avoid food groups and limit food intake. Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an extreme or excessive pre-occupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. Some kids may eat only a few select foods. You need to make sure that avoiding certain foods will not be detrimental to your child’s health. To prevent nutritional deficiencies and to make sure that your child has a healthy relationship with food, you need to monitor the situation.
While there are many degrees of vegetarianism, the most common — which you can help explore with your child — follow.
A true vegetarian, also known as a vegan, eats no meat, chicken or fish, and no eggs or dairy products.
A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products but not eggs.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian eats dairy products and eggs but excludes meat, seafood and poultry.
The strictness of the diet will determine whether your child is at risk for nutritional shortcomings. Kids can be well nourished on all three types of vegetarian diets, but nutritional balance is more difficult to achieve when dairy products and eggs are eliminated. Talk to your healthcare provider before eliminating dairy and eggs, or committing to any type of vegetarian diet, especially with younger kids. The key to a healthy vegetarian diet is to include a variety of foods.
Becoming a vegetarian should be a gradual process. Kids need to be willing to substitute healthy vegetarian sources of protein for meat such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, soy and dairy products. The transition period depends on the availability of vegetarian options and commitment to this lifestyle. Your family need to explore new grocery or online stores, find new menu ideas and check out new cookbooks.
What to Eat
Your family must decide which foods are excluded and which are acceptable. Involve your kids in meal planning, and educate them on meat substitutions. You can serve spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatless meatballs, available in the frozen section of most grocery stores. Tofu can replace meat in dishes such as vegetable stir-fry, but include spinach, kale or Swiss chard for a boost of iron.
Vegetarian stuffed peppers with a blend of rice and vegetables are a good dinner choice. Use beans instead of ground beef. Serve eggplant — instead of chicken — Parmesan. If your child does not eat dairy, use soy cheese. Grill a meatless portobello mushroom burger and top with lettuce, tomato and cheese. Fire up the grill and make tofu kabobs, alternating with fresh vegetables. Instead of chips and dips, choose snacks such as carrots and peanut butter, whole-grain crackers with hummus and a handful of nuts and raisins. Substitute black beans for the meat in chili. Use extra-firm tofu instead of chicken in fajitas.
Create a sample menu each week so you are prepared in advance with alternative ingredients that provide the nutritional benefits formerly achieved by eating meat. Without a vegetarian background you may not be comfortable planning your child’s diet, so consider consulting a dietician. A variety of restaurants — especially Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern — have a wide selection of delicious vegetarian options.
Include the following essential dietary requirements in your vegetarian menus.
An essential for tissue building and repair, protein is made up of smaller components called amino acids. Some good plant sources of protein include:
* Legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils.
* Nuts and seeds, nut and seed butter.
* Soy products, including soy beverages, tempeh and tofu.
* Whole (cereal) grains.
Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin. Vegetarian and vegan diets are generally high in iron from plant foods. Good sources of iron include iron-fortified cereals, whole grains, legumes, tofu, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits such as apricots and raisins. Combining these foods with those high in vitamin C such as strawberries, citrus fruits and tomatoes will help the body absorb iron. Teenage girls need increased amounts of iron to replace their monthly loss through menstruation. A blood test may rule out anemia in a vegetarian child without sufficient iron sources. Symptoms of a deficiency may be increased fatigue, pale skin and shortness of breath.
Zinc performs essential functions in the body, including the development of immune system cells. Good sources include nuts, tofu, miso, legumes, wheat germ and whole-grain foods. Signs of a deficiency include hair loss or skin lesions, and the child or teen may be prone to infection and the flu.
Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth. Good sources include dairy products, fortified cereals and fruit juices, fortified soy milk, tahini and tofu. Leafy dark green vegetables (especially Asian greens), legumes, almonds and Brazil nuts also contain calcium. Signs of a deficiency include muscle cramping, difficulty sleeping, tooth decay and weak or brittle nails.
Iodine, which helps regulate metabolism, is needed for the thyroid gland and other associated hormones to function normally. Iodized salt is the most common source or iodine in the Western diet, and iodine is found in seafood, which is a rich source of this element. Signs of a deficiency are enlarged thyroid or hypothyroidism.
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for brain and nervous system functions, plus they are essential for heart health in decreasing the risk of arrhythmias, lower tryglyceride levels and blood pressure. The best sources are salmon, sardines, halibut and flaxseeds, nuts, nut butters, olive oil and spinach. Signs or a deficiency include dry, itching, flaky skin or signs or anxiety or depression.
Vitamin B12 — important for the production of red blood cells — helps prevent anemia. It can be found in dairy products and eggs. Kids following a strict vegan diet will need to take supplements and include vitamin-enriched cereals and fortified soy products. Signs of a deficiency include numbness or tingling, increased fatigue and bowel changes.
Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health. The main source of vitamin D is sunlight, but it is also found in fortified cow’s milk, soy and rice milk and cereals. Signs of a deficiency include musculoskeletal deformities.
If you have raised your children as vegetarians, you may see different eating patterns and meal preferences when they enter school and go to friends’ homes. Always be supportive, and help guide them toward making healthy choices and enjoying their food.
Sheryl Zang, EdD, FNP, CNS-BC, is an Associate Professor at Downstate Medical Center, College of Nursing. A nurse for 38 years, she is presently running groups for diabetic children and teens.