Raising Healthy Vegan Kids
With Free Recipe!
If you are in the midst of transitioning to a vegan diet, or are already vegan and expecting a baby, you naturally have some questions about how to raise a child vegan. Is it safe? What nutrients do I need to worry about? Is there vegan formula? How do I set boundaries with non-vegan family members? In this post I will talk about whether babies can be vegan, how to make sure your vegan kid is safely getting all the nutrition they need, and some tips for helping your child understand a vegan diet.
Being vegan for most of my adult life, it was naturally assumed I would raise my babies to be vegans too. And as my baby bump grew and family and friends asked me questions, I realized there were still some things I needed to learn in order to healthfully raise my little herbivore and pass my ethics of compassion on to them.
After reading compulsively everything I could for about nine months (nesting anyone?), and then a few more before starting solids, I’ve learned enough to confidently say that, YES, you can raise a child vegan! I’m sharing some of what I’ve learned here.
Note:I am not a registered dietitian so of course, do your own research and talk to your health care provider if you have concerns about your child’s nutrition. I provide trustworthy and scientific references here when necessary.
Is Raising Kids Vegan Safe and healthy?
The ADA official stance is that “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence”
A comprehensive list of science-based references and articles can be found here.
According the ADA, research shows that not only is it safe, but vegetarians and vegans have lower cholesterol & blood pressure, lower overall cancer rates, and lower rates of diabetes 2 and other chronic diseases. By raising kids vegan, you are giving them a healthy foundation and also teaching them to eat their vegetables, veggies and whole grains, habits that will serve them later in life.
The Key is well-planned and variety
As with raising any children, vegans need to pay attention to certain nutrients and make sure their kids are getting a variety of foods with these nutrients. Of special note are omega fatty acids, vitamins B-12 & D, iron, calcium, iodine and protein.
And when I say well-planned, I’m not saying you have to have a spreadsheet or anything (but if that’s your thing, go you!) A good rule of thumb is to offer the foods listed below at least weekly. Don’t stress if your kid doesn’t eat broccoli or greens every day, but a few times a week is good. Some people do find a chart or checklist helpful!
While a high-fiber, low fat diet may be optimal for adults in preventing chronic illness and obesity, it doesn’t necessarily promote growth in children. Kids have different nutritional needs which you need to account for in preparing their foods. A great resource that explains more technically vegan nutritional needs is the Vegan RD.
Avoid giving too much fiber, which will fill little tummies and may prevent absorption of certain minerals.
Proteins & Fat (DHA)
40-50% of calories should be from fat and 25g of protein a day for toddlers (1-3 yrs). This makes sense, since breastmilk/formula is comprised of about 50% fat. Incorporate higher fat plant foods, like avocado, nut butters and oils, flax and hemp seeds, fortified soy milk, yogurt and tofu. (navs.com)
As for protein, a common misconception is that meat is the best source of protein. Eating whole plant foods provides adequate protein as protein is present in all plants, especially in leafy greens and broccoli. Whole grains, legumes and nuts have even higher protein content. Actual protein deficiency is very rare and usually occurs with caloric deficiency (not eating enough).
Iron & Zinc
These two minerals are very important for growth and development, and are also the most commonly deficient in all children. Good sources include nuts, blackstrap molasses, seeds (especially sesame and pumpkin), legumes and greens. Many cereals are also fortified with iron. Try to provide iron foods with vitamin C to promote absorption.
B-12 is the one nutrient not naturally occurring in plants. The best way to get it is to either supplement or eat foods fortified with artificial B-12, such as nutritional yeast, but that may not be reliable. The Vegan RD goes into more detail on the specifics of supplementing. B-12 is included in most children’s multivitamin because of its importance in brain development.
Calcium & Vitamin D
These two are always included together because Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption. Dairy milk is not the only source for calcium and may actually be more bioavailable from plant sources. Plant sources include leafy greens (except for spinach, beet greens, and swiss chard), calcium-set tofu, fortified plant milks, almonds, legumes and figs.
Seaweed, iodized salt, and prunes all contain high levels of iodine. Iodine helps with bone and brain development and with thyroid function. Himalayan sea salt does not contain iodine, so I recommend using iodized salt in your cooking. It is also commonly added to multivitamins.
In conclusion, you do need to make sure your child is eating enough because plant foods are lower in calories and higher in fiber but rich in nutrients. Offer a variety of foods foods frequently throughout the day. Pureeing or adding to smoothies is a great way to incorporate more nutrient dense foods like greens, avocado and nut butters
Can I just give a multivitamin?
Of course, if you are worried about meeting all of these needs, a liquid multivitamin is good insurance. Right now I use Child Life Essentials, which is not certified vegan but is cost effective and free from eggs, dairy, gelatin, shellfish, etc.. Most vitamins you will find in the US are not 100% vegan because of the Vitamin D, which is sourced from sheep’s wool. You can sometimes find one that is sourced from lichen, but that is a much more expensive process. When my daughter was only breastfeeding, I did give her the vegan vitamin D drops instead of the D3.
Can Babies Be Vegan? Is there Vegan Formula?
All babies start out vegan if they are breastfeeding. Mother’s milk is the perfect food for babies so it is considered ‘vegan’ to breastfeed your baby. (I never understood this question. I think people just think MILK = not vegan. It is vegan if it is going to the intended recipient without exploitation involved!).
If you are breastfeeding, take care of yourself and make sure you are getting all the vitamins discussed above, plus a vegan DHA supplement. Not everything will pass along to your child but breastfeeding and pregnancy will deplete your own stores of vitamins. Personally I just continued to take my prenatal and a DHA supplement. (The DHA also helps my mood. It’s just an omega fatty acid from algae.)
Of course there are many reasons to not breastfeed and it’s a very individual choice as to what formula you choose for your baby. There are soy-based formulas available, usually marketed towards parents of children with a dairy sensitivity, but you can still use them. There has been some research suggesting that feeding boys exclusively soy from birth may have some impact on reproductive health, so that is something you may want to research and consider.
Also, there are no truly vegan formulas available because of the Vitamin D issue discussed earlier. If you want to completely eliminate that factor, and can afford it, there is a vegan formula available from France called Premiriz. Most vegans find Earth’s Best, found in most grocery stores, to be a suitable organic soy formula.
DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT attempt to make your own formula or feed your kid only plant milks. They are not nutritionally complete for infants. They do not contain enough fat and vitamins for proper development. The few tragic cases of vegan infants being starved to death were because of the parents’ ignorance of proper nutrition.
If your child has allergies or other issues, consult with your physician to determine the best course. (Some people decide to use cow or goat milk at first and then when they start solids transition to plant foods.)
Around six months, most babies start to eat some solids. This is a fun and exciting time because you can start to introduce all your favorite veggies and vegan foods to your little human. It also helps their nutrition as iron stores tend to start to dip around 6 months if not supplemented with food or formula. Weather doing traditional puree weaning or ‘baby led weaning,’ be sure to introduce a variety of foods as discussed earlier.
DO make sure to get your baby’s iron levels checked by 12 months of age.
What do you feed a Vegan toddler?
You probably have an idea from the rest of the post about what kinds of food are good to feed a vegan toddler. Toddlers, however, can be notoriously picky. At this stage, it’s good to continue to offer a variety of healthy vegan foods, even if they don’t eat it. Aim for weekly inclusion of all the nutrients listed and use a mutlivitamin to cover the bases if you feel your toddler’s diet is too limited.
Texture and shape can be a big part factor in your kid wanting to eat something or not, so sometimes you have to experiment with cutting veggies differently, or serving them raw, steamed or frozen (yes even frozen) before your kid will try them. I know many kids who love frozen peas or blueberries!
If they like dips, that is a good way to give nutrient-dense foods like hummus, nut butters and vegan dressings.
For example, a snack I like to give my toddler is sliced banana with hemp seeds (fat & protein) sprinkled and some cut up prunes or apricots (for iron & iodine). She likes the veggie puree pouches as well and sometimes I use them to mix into pasta sauce. My daughter does not like tofu yet but she does drink fortified soymilk daily but is also still breastfeeding. If she were not breastfeeding I would aim for 12-20 oz of soymilk a day.
Also, I want to point out that soy foods are safe. There is a lot of research to back this up (including the comprehensive long-term China Study) and I made a post about tofu a few months ago. Here is another great list of articles I found on the topic if you’d like to read further.
Some techniques to incorporate foods is to make green smoothies or smoothies with nut butter, avocado, or silken tofu for fat and protein. You will have to experiment to see what your kids will eat. You may have to provide more ‘snacky’ type foods to make sure they are getting the variety needed. For example, dried fruits (no sugar added) and adding different kinds of grains, veggies and chia, flax, or hemp to baked goods are good ways to sneak in more nutrients. Baking with soymilk can up the nutritional content too.
Breakfast is a great time to incorporate those extras. Oatmeal (rolled or steel cut oats) can be dressed up a variety of ways with lots of add ins such as coconut cream, pureed fruits or pumpkin, nut butters, hemp/flax/chia, flax or coconut oil, soymilk and more.
Oats are high in iron, protein and fat as plant foods go, and are the most nutrient dense grain. I even use them in pancakes! Here is my daughter’s favorite breakfast recipe.
Healthy Oat Pancake Recipe
- ½ cup rolled oats
- ½ cup whole wheat flour or almond flour
- 1 mashed banana
- 1-2 TBSP ground flax
- 1 TBSP sugar
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 3/4 cup soymilk or other plant milk, more for desired consistency
- Dash salt and cinnamon
- Coconut oil for pan
Mix everything together and cook on griddle on medium heat. Flip when small bubbles form. This makes about four pancakes.
Veganism, social situations, and dealing with concerned family
Figuring out a whole new way to eat has its own challenges. Throw in there fielding questions from concerned family and things can get overwhelming. Here are a few ways to help with the social transition to being vegan.
Take time to explain to your kids why you’ve decided to change your family’s diet. Use simple terms and talk about health and loving animals. Most children will understand because given the choice, they would not like to hurt animals.
It’s a little bit more difficult to explain to parents or grandparents your decision. If they ask questions, try to provide objective sources and refer them to the ADA stance on vegan diets. If they are still concerned, you may want to tell them that your kids’ pediatrician has signed off on the diet changes and is supportive of your plant-based diet (this is usually true especially if your kids’ blood work shows no deficiencies).
This one can be a bit tricker. You may have to put your foot down and ask others to respect your choices if they keep pushing or joking about feeding your child meat. It may sound harsh, but usually saying “If you are going to joke about that, you will not have alone time with my baby” once will be enough to show that you are serious. If it’s enough, you may have to follow through with that promise.
Everyone is going to approach conflicts differently. Sometimes some humor helps diffuse a situation, while other times you may need to be firmer. Finding a supportive group of parents like the Facebook group Vegan Pregnancy and Parenting can help you navigate difficult situations with different perspectives.
If sending your child to school, be sure to note to the teachers about your kids dietary needs. Sometimes framing it in terms of what they CAN eat rather than what they CANNOT is helpful. Also ask to be alerted to when snacks may be provided at the school so you can send an alternative (if needed) with your child.
Teaching kids to advocate and Cultivating Empathy
Vegan kids may notice (or may not) that what they are eating looks ‘different’ than other kids. Making sure they understand why your family does not use animal products so that they can advocate for themselves is important. A list of books on veganism for children can be found here. Once they are comfortable with the notion, again, this may not be an issues with kids raised vegan from birth, teach them to ask about ingredients when offered food.
Although I have not reached this milestone yet, I have heard countless stories from other vegan parents of their children sharing their beliefs with other kids and adults in the most thoughtful (and sometimes blunt) ways. They follow your lead, so avoid labelling people who aren’t vegan as wrong, cruel, or mean. Remember, veganism is about compassion!
One way to explain it is by saying it’s that person’s choice or that they don’t yet understand, or they don’t have access to vegan foods. All of these things can be true! We don’t have to judge other people for their choices. The choices we make are what is best for us as a family. At this point your kid may want to educate the other person on animal or health issues. A lot of people are more open to having that conversation with a kid
The great news is that by raising your kid vegan, they are naturally learning to have concern for others and actively cultivating empathy. You are also giving them a strong moral foundation based on non violence and caring for others and the planet.
https://nutritionfacts.org – The most thorough nutrition reference out there
Element Nutrition Kids on instagram (not vegan but vegan friendly) –
www.navs.com (North American Vegetarian Society)
Bite Size Vegan – simple fun videos geared towards kids