Parents, if you struggle to find the right balance in your child’s diet, know that you’re not alone! A recent survey by Boots revealed that British mums and dads have no idea what their children should be eating, with eight in 10 admitting they need clearer guidance on their little ones’ nutritional needs*. While 66% claim to be clued-up about vitamins and minerals, 43% don’t know which vitamins their children should be taking. This lack of awareness, coupled with the fact that children are notoriously fussy eaters, makes for quite the conundrum when it comes to your child’s health – and it’s even trickier if your child follows a vegetarian or vegan diet. Many nutritionists and health experts agree that it is possible to raise healthy children on a plant-based diet, but the key is to arm yourself with the right knowledge and tools.
Nutritionist and nutrition consultant Sana Khan says it’s essential that children receive optimal nourishment to grow and develop: “Generally, there is a lot of scientific evidence that highlights the benefits of following a plant-dominant diet, including supporting immune function, cardiovascular health, and blood sugar control. A plant-based diet also helps limit some of the exposure to antibiotics, anti-fungal medication, and hormones found in meat and poultry.”
That’s the good news… but, with many parents today struggling to find time to cook from scratch or to gain the necessary knowledge about their child’s nutritional needs, our little ones may not truly be reaping the rewards of a veggie diet.
Lucinda Miller, child nutrition adviser to The Children’s e-Hospital, says, “The rise of shop-bought convenience foods is one of my biggest concerns for children’s nutrition, as there are lots of studies that associate ultra-processed foods with poor physical and mental health; this is an even bigger issue for vegetarian and vegan children. Preparing a nutritionally-balanced plant-based meal takes both knowledge and time.
“In many ways, it’s great that there are now so many easy and tasty veggie-friendly options on the supermarket shelves. But this means that children tend to grab less nutritious, ultra-processed food straight out of the fridge, heat up instant meals, or graze on snacks all day, rather than eating wholesome, nourishing meals. Plus, with the importance of balancing vegetarian and vegan nutrients, we need to keep track of what and when our kids eat. Furthermore, our families are starting to lose the important connections between food, nourishment, and wellbeing.”
So how, as a parent, do you navigate the complex world of vitamins and nutrients? One of the best steps you can take, Sana says, is to seek guidance from a professional, rather than relying on misleading information online or opinions posted on social media: “Parents must fully understand the importance and roles of macronutrients (healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates). I would recommend parents see a professional for guidance on how to obtain optimum nutrition primarily through diet, rather than relying on supplements to top-up nutrients.”
A wholesome approach
Nutritional deficiencies in children can lead to various symptoms and health concerns, so it’s important to ensure children are receiving everything they need for their development. One of the biggest deficiencies in veggie children is protein, says Sana: “For children, good-quality protein is vital for growth and repair. The difficulty is that non-animal sources do not contain all of the essential amino acids, unlike animal sources. Therefore, for parents who have limited nutritional knowledge, this can prove to be risky and difficult. Professional guidance becomes essential as they can discuss how to combine different sources of protein for the absorption of all essential amino acids. Other common deficiencies amongst plant-based diets include iron, B12, and omega-3.”
A well-balanced diet means ensuring your children have a variety of food sources. This should comprise of carbohydrates for energy: try including complex versions such as wholegrains, brown bread, and brown rice. Protein can come in the form of tofu, legumes, pulses, and wholegrains. Sugar-free nut butters and seeds are great sources of omega fatty chains, which are essential for cognitive health. Also try to reduce your child’s consumption of processed foods as much as possible, and ensure they consume healthy snacks to top-up on nutrients. It’s also worth including fortified foods, such as fortified milk alternatives, in a vegan diet, particularly ones enriched with calcium and B vitamins.
If you feel that your child is deficient in any vitamins – perhaps you notice that their skin is pale, they lack energy, suffer from muscle cramps, or are very irritable – be sure to seek professional advice on potential supplements, dosages, and risks. However, at the end of the day, obtaining nutrients through diet will always be the best option.
We know what you’re thinking: this is all easier said than done, because getting kids to eat their veggies is no mean feat. What’s more, children tend to stick to one type of food that they like, making it difficult to find variety in their diet. But, with a bit of effort, and leading by example, it can be done, says Lucinda: “Feeding your family doesn’t need to be complicated – cooking from scratch; sitting down for meals together; choosing wholegrains; eating a variety of fresh fruits, salads, and vegetables; keeping well-hydrated; and avoiding too many ultra-processed convenience foods: these are my core mantras.”
To improve their own understanding of nutrition and to help build a connection with what they eat, try to involve your children as much as possible. Allow them to decide what dishes they’d like by choosing pictures of recipes, and get them to join you in the preparation and cooking of family meals.
Of course, it’s impossible to keep an eye on your child’s eating habits 24/7. School lunches still pose a problem, as veggie-friendly options tend to be along the lines of baked potatoes, chips, pasta, or pizza. As Lucinda explains, this lack of variety at lunchtime makes it all the more important to stick to a varied, wholesome diet at home, and ensuring that they have a good breakfast in the morning to keep them satisfied for longer.
“I’ve seen good research on the physical and mental health benefits of increasing home-cooked, plant-based foods for children generally,” Lucinda says. “Providing that vegetarians and vegans replace vital nutrients with ethical alternatives, there’s every reason to suppose the same benefits will apply.”
*Statistic obtained from SWNS Digital.