If you are thinking about raising your child on a vegetarian or vegan diet, or just want to introduce more plant-based meals into your family’s diet, you might be worried about your child getting all the nutrients they need.
In practice, we are seeing more and more babies being weaned on a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet, and children adopting these dietary practices due to family or personal choice. Reasons for this include increased interest in factors such as the environment, sustainability or ethical reasons.
Babies and children can achieve all the energy and nutrients they need for growth and development following a vegetarian or vegan diet. For parents, knowledge and practical understanding will give you confidence in understanding your child’s nutritional needs. Below I’ve outlined key aspects to consider!
Variety of foods
As recommended for all children’s diets, variety is key! Dietary diversity is a hot topic in nutrition, and from a child’s perspective, offering plenty of exposure to tastes and textures can support the acceptance of a wide range of foods. Dietary diversity is also important for feeding that all-important gut garden! A vegetarian or vegan diet offers plenty of scope when it comes to dietary diversity, across key food groups below:
- Fruits and vegetables – eat the rainbow and offer lots of different colours. Frozen, tinned (in spring water or juice) and dried options count too.
- Grains and starchy foods – e.g. oats, buckwheat, teff, quinoa, bulgur wheat, potato, rice, pasta, noodles, cereals. You can now also find higher protein versions of options such as pasta, made with pea, lentil or chickpea flours too.
- Vegetarian or vegan protein & iron sources – e.g. beans, lentils, pulses, soya, quinoa, nuts and seeds (ground or in butter form for babies). Dairy and eggs are additional protein sources in a vegetarian diet
- Dairy (or fortified alternatives) – whilst children following a vegetarian diet are likely to include dairy sources such as cow’s milk, yoghurt and cheese, fortified vegan alternatives are becoming increasingly available. Higher protein options that are good to include for children include: unsweetened soy or pea milk, yoghurt alternatives and cheese. There are also oat and coconut options available. Choosing those which are fortified with Calcium, Iodine, B12 and ideally B2 helps support the intake of these key nutrients
- Healthy fats e.g. avocado, vegetable oils like rapeseed, olive, avocado oil, ground nuts/seeds or butter version and vegetable-based spreads are all examples of plant-based fats that can be incorporated into meals. In the absence of meat, fish (especially oily fish) and dairy, including fats in meals is important (especially for younger children)
Iron is a key nutrient for babies when weaning. Requirements for iron are increased from 6-12 months of age and as baby’s stores are waning.
In the absence of meat, there are plenty of iron-rich vegetarian or vegan options a baby can include within their diet such as; beans, pulses, lentils, eggs (if eaten), quinoa, fortified cereals, soya produce e.g. tofu, dried fruit e.g. apricots or figs, green leafy vegetables, nuts & seeds (ground or in butter forms form).
- Aim to include a good plant-based iron-rich food at each mealtime for baby
Iron from plant-based sources can be more difficult to absorb. Combining these foods with Vitamin C rich options such as fruits, vegetables and even options like new potato can help optimise absorption.
- Onion and garlic have also been found to support iron absorption from some foods.
- Avoid combining with foods that may reduce iron absorption such as tea (which shouldn’t be given to babies or young children anyway)
Whilst many parents worry about vegetarian or vegan babies getting enough protein, meeting a baby’s protein requirements on a plant-based diet is completely achievable with regular inclusion of some of those iron-rich foods above like beans, lentils, legumes alongside nuts and seeds (ground or butter), soya-based produce, high protein grains e.g. quinoa or products using pea/soya/legume flours. For babies or children following a vegetarian diet, dairy and eggs will contribute to protein intake too.
- If using dairy/milk alternatives (often used on a vegan diet, or for babies with milk allergy) that are much lower in protein e.g. oat or coconut-based options, aim to include a protein-rich food at each mealtime as you progress through weaning.
Babies have high energy requirements for rapid growth and development but small stomachs! As a baby progresses onto more solids through weaning and beyond it can be particularly important to ensure meals offered remain energy and nutrient-dense. This can be more important to consider on a vegetarian and especially vegan diet, where meals may be naturally higher in fibre (which fills up small stomachs more quickly) and lower in energy.
To help achieve this, it can be helpful to think about combining:
Iron-rich food + Vitamin C rich food + Energy-rich food.
Energy-rich foods can include starchy or carbohydrates and/or fat and/or dairy options– examples of all are included above. Combining starchy foods with some fat e.g. spread or nut butter on toast, ground seeds on cereal, pesto with pasta, cooking potatoes in oil, cheese on toast, blended avocado into a smoothie bowl are examples of easy ways to boost energy intake.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential nutrients in babies and children, with important roles in brain development and vision. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) particularly is the main fatty acid in the brain, so has an essential role in a baby’s cognitive development.
The main dietary source of DHA is oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines and shellfish.
Other sources of DHA can include Omega 3 enriched eggs, which may be used on a vegetarian diet and certain brands of milk, yoghurt, bread and spreads. In general, however, plant-based babies and children may need to consider other sources.
Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA) is a plant-based Omega 3 fatty acid, found in foods such as vegetable oils, rapeseed oil, nuts and seeds e.g. walnut, pecans, hazelnuts, chia, hemp and flaxseed (offer these well ground for babies or young children). ALA can be changed in the body to DHA, but this can take a long time and often is only in small amounts.
For this reason, an Omega 3 supplement containing plant-based DHA (from microalgae) would be recommended for most children following a predominately plant-based or vegan diet (the same goes for breastfeeding mothers if they follow a largely plant-based or vegan diet too).
Other key nutrients to consider, if your baby/child is following a vegan diet include:
In the absence of dairy, for babies and children following a vegan diet or requiring milk exclusion due to allergy, other sources of calcium within the diet need consideration. For most, choosing fortified milk alternatives such as soya, oat, pea or coconut-based produce is a helpful alternative.
Milk alternatives are typically fortified with between 120-180mg calcium/100mls. Fortified yoghurt, crème Fraiche, hard and soft cheese alternatives are also becoming more widely available, which are helpful and versatile options to include in a child’s diet.
Aside from fortified milk or dairy alternatives, other plant-based sources of calcium include: calcium set tofu, green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, bokchoi, watercress, sprouts), certain legumes e.g. red beans, white beans, and tahini (sesame seed paste).
You can also increasingly find fortified cereals and grains e.g. oats, and bread that is fortified with calcium too.
- Steer away from organic plant-based milk alternatives, these will not have added calcium (or any vitamins/minerals). Fortified options are a must!
- By around 12 months of age, aim for your little one to be having 2-3 portions of fortified dairy alternatives per day as part of their balanced diet. If your baby is breastfeeding or on formula, these will still be providing a source of calcium too, alongside other nutrients
Vitamin B12 is predominately found in animal-based produce, and for this reason, it often needs extra attention for babies and children following a vegan diet. Supplementation for this group is recommended to ensure a reliable intake unless they have a regular and consistent source of foods fortified with B12 (which can be a challenge). A deficiency of B12 can lead to some serious health effects.
Foods fortified with B12 including plant-based milk alternatives (as described above), – not all brands fortify with B12 so check the label carefully. Nutritional yeast (‘Nooch’) enriched with B12 can also be a helpful vegan source of B12, and is super easy to include within your child’ meals or sprinkled on foods.
- Discuss with your child’s health care professional about appropriate Vitamin B12 supplementation (including dose) based on their age and dietary intake. (note that babies <1year may be getting sufficient amounts from breast or formula milk)
With the rise in plant-based eating and vegan diets, Iodine has received a lot more attention and for good reason. This nutrient has an important role to play in a child’s cognitive development and metabolism. This can be another nutrient that is tricky to get consistent and reliable amounts of for babies and children following a vegan diet, with main dietary sources including dairy, white fish, seafood and iodised salt (we don’t recommend adding salt to little one’s meals though!)
Iodine can be found in some plant-based milk alternatives, which can be a helpful source when following a vegan diet. Other sources of iodine can include some fruits and vegetables, although the quantity of iodine is hugely dependent on the iodine content of soil – so these are not a particularly reliable source. Seaweed and kelp can also be very concentrated sources of iodine, and because it’s also important babies and children don’t have too much iodine they are not often recommended regularly. Like, Vitamin B12, supplementation with iodine for vegan children is recommended to ensure a reliable intake of this nutrient (note that babies <1year may be getting sufficient amounts from breast or formula milk)
- Try to choose a plant-based milk alternative that is fortified with iodine, alongside calcium and ideally B12 too
- Discuss with your child’s health care professional about appropriate iodine supplementation (including dose) based on their age and dietary intake
The sunshine Vitamin, aka Vitamin D, is an important consideration for all babies and young children. It has an important role in bone health and immunity. This Vitamin (actually a hormone) is not easily obtained from food or diet, but the act of sunlight on the skin. In the UK and northern hemisphere, it can be more difficult to get enough, especially during the winter months. Regular supplementation is therefore recommended
In the UK, regular supplementation of Vitamin D for breastfeeding mothers, babies and children are recommended in the amounts as below:
- 10 micrograms/day for breastfeeding mothers
- 8.5-10 micrograms per day for breastfed babies from birth until 5 years of age
- 10 micrograms per day for babies taking <500mls formula milk per day, ongoing until the age of 5
Vegan Vitamin D formulations will use Vitamin D2 or D3 (from lichen, rather than sheep’s wool). Be sure to check the label.
A carefully planned and conscious vegetarian, vegan or predominately plant-based diet for babies and children can provide the nutrients required for healthy growth and development, alongside targeted supplementation as needed. At weaning age, it’s important to remember that breast or formula milk will still be providing a predominant source of nutrients for your baby. The advice above is aimed to support you with the details of what to consider when establishing healthy balanced meals for babies and children, including intake of key foods and food groups as you transition your baby from those first weaning tastes towards plant-based family meals.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan mother who is breastfeeding, please also consider whether you would benefit from dietary support and appropriate supplementation too, particularly of key nutrients as above such as Omega 3, Calcium, Iodine, B12 and Vitamin D
For babies following a vegan diet, and those who have multiple dietary restrictions individualised advice from a Paediatric Dietitian is often recommended to ensure their intake meets their unique nutritional needs.