No matter if you’re already on a plant-based diet or want to transition your whole family away from animal products, raising vegan kids can bring along a particular set of challenges.
Many people believe that it’s forceful or downright unhealthy to feed your child “nothing but plants” and you might get discouraged from trying to raise vegan kids altogether.
Are vegan kids stunted in growth? Can their bones and nervous system develop properly? And what if your children don’t eat vegetables at all?
Let’s look at these concerns and go over essential nutrients, benefits of plant-based eating, and real-life tips.
For more information on this subject, read our guide to being vegan when your family is not, living with a non-vegan family, being vegan in college, and transitioning to a vegan diet.
- Is a plant-based diet safe for kids?
- What does vegan mean?
- Vegan kids nutrition tips
- Tips for raising vegan kids
Is a plant-based diet safe for kids?
As stated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest organization of nutrition professionals in the world, “well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns can be healthful and appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including infants and toddlers.”
Medical doctors from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), agree:
”Eating a plant-based diet can be a beneficial choice for your family.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that any vegan diet will be healthy! By well-planned, nutrition experts mean that all nutrient requirements need to be met by offering the right foods and not shying away from important supplements.
If your family isn’t already used to a plant-based diet, you can think about going vegetarian first and then look into going dairy-free to make this process easier.
What does vegan mean?
A vegan is a person who does not eat any food derived from animals and does not use any other animal products. It is more than just a diet, more like a philosophy of trying to cause the least harm possible to other sentient beings.
Because veganism is a lifestyle and has to be understood in its underlying principles to be embraced, it is not possible for very young children to truly “be vegan”.
Rather, you could say that kids can follow a plant-based diet until they understand the vegan philosophy and stand behind its principles themselves.
However, we use the terms vegan and plant-based interchangeably on this website and encourage every person and family to get as close to veganism as possible.
Benefits of plant-based eating
- Showing kindness towards animals
- Having a lower environmental footprint
- Reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure
- Maintaining a healthy weight more easily
- Potentially saving money
Keep these positive things in mind when you think about transitioning your family over to a plant-based lifestyle — even though you might be faced with social situations that can be tough, it’s still so worth it.
Vegan kids nutrition tips
As stated at the beginning of this article, a fully plant-based or vegan diet can be healthy during all stages of life.
However, a plant-based diet needs to be well-planned and just like people eating animal products need to make sure they consume enough fiber and not too much saturated fat, vegans have their own set of potentially critical nutrients.
Let’s go over them and see how you can make sure your kid gets enough of them!
Calories & fiber
Some vegan foods or meals can be lower in calories compared to their animal-based counterparts. Since kids may have smaller appetites and bellies, be sure to include enough high-calorie vegan foods like nuts, beans, avocado, or peanut butter sandwiches in their diet.
Suggested read: Soy protein: Nutrients, benefits, drawbacks, and more
Use some refined grains, peel the skin from fruits and serve cooked instead of raw veggies to decrease the fiber in their meal so they can consume more food.
Babies and older kids need plenty of protein for all of the growth they are going through! That doesn’t mean that meat, dairy, and eggs are must-haves on your children’s plates.
Plant-based protein may not be as easily absorbed but it can be found in many delicious vegan foods!
Once your child is no longer breastfeeding or consuming infant formula, you can introduce solid forms of protein such as well-cooked mashed beans, tofu, or fortified soy milk. Older kids can enjoy a larger range of protein-rich vegan foods!
From bean burgers or falafel wraps to seitan, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, offering a variety of plant-based foods helps to meet the daily needs for all essential amino acids.
Everyone following a plant-based diet needs to supplement with vitamin B12! The same goes for vegan kids.
This nutrient is important for a healthy nervous system and blood cells, and quite a few vegan products are fortified with B12 nowadays. However, don’t rely on soy drinks or cereals alone and choose a supplement.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all breastfed infants receive 400 IU per day of supplemental vitamin D starting shortly after birth.
This should continue until your child consumes the same amount of vitamin D from fortified milk at the age of 12 months and older!
Many vegans take additional vitamin D supplements to be safe, especially during the colder months when they cannot obtain this nutrient via sunshine.
Meat isn’t the only source of iron! Plant-based iron can be found in leafy green vegetables, beans, and fortified cereals.
Pair these foods with a food that’s high in vitamin C (such as citrus fruit or bell pepper) for better absorption!
Suggested read: Vegan pregnancy: Safety, foods, supplements, and meal plan
Unfortunately, mom’s breastmilk is low in iron which is why babies need an outside source of this nutrient after around 4-6 months of age. Choose mashed tofu or pureed beans as well as iron-fortified cereals in the beginning!
One of the nutrients many parents worry about is calcium. How do you get enough without dairy products?
Luckily, many plant-based milk alternatives like soy or oat milk are calcium-fortified so they offer around the same amount per serving as cow’s milk.
Other calcium sources include tofu, collard greens, broccoli, pulses, and sesame seeds.
Breastmilk and infant formula usually contain enough calcium for small children!
Many kids don’t like eating fish or seafood, so taking care of their omega-3 needs is important no matter if your family is plant-based or not.
It’s a good idea to supplement DHA during pregnancy for your child’s brain development and continuing to provide your children with this supplement once they are born is a good safety net.
The human body can create DHA from the plant-based omega 3 fatty acid ALA, which is found in foods like flax seeds or chia seeds — however, the conversion rate may not be efficient.
You can easily add some DHA drops made from microalgae to your kid’s smoothies, soy milk or stir it into some vegan yogurt!
Zinc & iodine
You might want to consider looking for good plant-based sources for these two minerals in addition to the other nutrients that have been listed.
Zinc can be found in fortified cereal, oatmeal, tofu, pumpkin seeds, lentils, and green peas. To ensure proper levels of iodine in the diet, use iodized salt and add some sea veggies to your kid’s (and your own) diet if you can!
However, the latter may not be very reliable in terms of the iodine content, and choosing a supplement that contains an adequate amount of iodine is preferable.
Tips for raising vegan kids
Here are our top tips for raising vegan kids when it comes to making plant-based food more appealing, dealing with tricky social situations, and more.
Please keep in mind that we know that every child and every family is different, so take from these tips what works for you!
Involve health professionals
Before changing your child’s diet, it’s a good idea to discuss concerns and possible risks with your pediatrician or a pediatric dietitian.
Show that you’re educated about supplementation and critical nutrients, and ask for any symptoms to watch out for that may indicate your child’s nutritional needs are not being met.
Talk to your children
Explain why you want to swap out some foods at home. Depending on the age of your child, you can go more or less into detail and appeal to their inherent love for animals!
While it can be hard to find the right words for what is happening in animal agriculture, helping them make the connection between their food and living animals can already help.
Kids don’t want to be forced into anything, so take their concerns seriously and make this transition easy and fun!
Make their favorite food vegan
Nobody wants to have all of their favorite food taken away from them all of a sudden! So, instead of coming up with new and unfamiliar family dinners, think about how you can create vegan pizza or tacos.
Buy some shredded vegan cheese for pasta or casseroles, try vegan sausages or mock chicken that you can use instead of the animal-based versions! Embracing these vegan alternatives can help.
However, be sure to add veggies to most meals (chopping them finely or pureeing them helps!) and try some new dishes from time to time.
Let them help in the kitchen
Getting your kids more involved in all things food can start in the grocery store! Go search the aisles for new vegan foods you want to try.
Next, start a vegan meal planning session with your children and have them request their favorite meals or look for new vegan recipes together and decide what you want to make!
When the time comes to prepare the actual food, ask them to chop veggies (with assistance if needed) or stir the sauce, let them help in any way you can think of. Your kids will be super proud of the meals they’ve helped create!
Suggested read: The beginner’s guide to becoming a vegetarian
Ease into a plant-based diet
Add some vegetables to your tomato sauce, put frozen spinach into smoothies, use olive oil instead of butter for cooking, and offer fruit for dessert!
Invite your kids to create colorful bean burgers together or decorate fun smoothie bowls with them. You can also let them choose meat and dairy alternatives at the store they want to try.
All of these tiny steps can help your kids and your whole family to enjoy more whole plant-based foods!
Offer lots of vegan snacks
There are so many kid-friendly vegan snacks on the market, many of which your little one may already enjoy.
From fresh fruit to veggies with hummus, rice crackers, pretzel thins, trail mix, apple sauce, energy bars, or chips, kids need these calories and nutrients all day long!
School & birthday parties
Social situations like getting together with friends or school lunches can always entail a few challenges. There is no right or wrong answer for how to deal with these moments and what to allow your child.
If your kid is serious about wanting to be vegan and doesn’t want to eat animal products even outside of home, talk to someone responsible at school for all things food and see if they can offer a vegan option.
Should that not be possible, you can send your child to school with a lunchbox every day!
When it comes to play dates, talk to the other parents about your special dietary needs or send your kid over with some delicious food they can share with their friends! Birthday parties can work pretty much the same way.
Encourage your children to be confident and proud of their eating patterns and since more and more people eat diets that are higher in plant-based foods, the stigma around veganism won’t be around forever.
If you notice signs that your children get nervous around eating time, you’ll want to talk with them about it!
Having a healthy relationship with food is fundamental for well-being throughout life, and if they feel unhappy and pressured to not consume any animal products, allow them to do so.
Suggested read: How to lose weight on a vegan diet
They might also see the world and their friends with different eyes once they understand what happens to animals to end up as food.
If they see people around them consuming animal products, they might become upset or angry and you need to explain that it’s not easy for anyone to change their diet and just go vegan. Teach compassion as best as you can.