Vegetarian diet: What do do if your child doesn’t want to eat meat

Got a little vegetable lover? Nutritionist Susie Burrell tells us what to do if our child decides they don’t want to eat meat anymore. 

With the growing popularity of plant-based eating, it is not surprising that there are increased reports of the number of children and adolescents wanting to become vegetarian or even vegan, and consume no animal based foods whatsoever.

It is debatable about the developmental stage in which a child is able to make an informed decision to choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, likely at least 10 years and older, but regardless, should younger children flatly refuse meat or animal foods, parents and carers have little other choice but to respect these food preferences.

From a nutritional perspective, what is crucial to know is that if you suddenly find yourself catering for a vegetarian child, it is not a matter of replacing the meat on the plate with extra beans or veggies. Rather both vegetarian and vegan diets for children and adolescents will require individualised attention to ensure that nutrient intake remains adequate, even when a number of food groups have been eliminated.

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Image: iStock.

Most kids love their veggie sticks but what happens when they love them a little too much? Image: iStock 

Nutritionally it is a lot easier to balance a vegetarian diet than it is a vegan one. This is largely because key nutrients found in dairy and eggs including protein and Vitamin B12 are largely taken care of when these foods remain in the diet. In the diets of vegetarians, the nutrients iron and zinc take the greatest hit when all meat, chicken, and fish are excluded. Vegan diets on the other hand require a lot more manipulation, especially for children and teens who have especially high energy and nutrient demands, to ensure they are getting adequate amounts of good quality protein as well as Vitamin B12, zinc, iron, calcium, and Vitamin D.

So if your child is a vegetarian …

1) Aim for an iron-rich plant food at each meal

The iron found in plant foods is not as well absorbed as the iron found in animal-based foods and as such particular care needs to be take in vegetarian diets to ensure iron-rich foods are offered at each meal. Good options include eggs, legumes such as baked beans, and wholegrain breads and cereals.

It is also handy to know that the absorption of plant-based sources of iron is enhanced when Vitamin C rich foods are consumed at the same time – think eggs and tomatoes, orange juice with wholegrain bread, and red capsicum with Mexican bean dishes.

2) Add in nuts and seeds

Zinc is another nutrient that can be routinely low in vegetarian diets and one of the richest natural sources of zinc is via nuts and seeds. For this reason, aiming to include one nut / seed-based snack via 100 percent nut spreads, nut bars or trail mixes will give your child a daily dose of zinc, which is crucial for hormone production, new cell development, and immune function.

3) Utilise the growing range of plant-based foods

The good news for vegetarians, in general, is that there is a growing range of plant-based protein meal bases in supermarkets, which not only make meal time a whole lot easier but which are fortified with key nutrients including protein and Vitamin B12, which helps to make nutritionally-balanced vegetarian eating a whole lot easier. Here you can find an easy substitute for mince, sausages, patties and pasta dishes so the vegetarian in the family can enjoy regular family meals that have similar nutritional properties to the meat-based meal alternatives.

RELATED: ‘My mum fed my vegetarian toddler bacon and I’ve lost all trust in her’

Three happy children eating sandwiches and drinking lemonade in hammock in a park or back yard in summer

Older kids are making their own decisions when it comes to their lifestyle choices. Image: iStock 

RELATED: How to tell if your child is iron deficient

So if your child is vegan

1) Add a protein-rich food to every meal and snack

Protein intake can be low in the diet of vegans, and as such ensuring every meal and snack contains one plant protein-rich food is crucial. Just as important is combining these proteins, for example eating wholegrains and legumes together to ensure the protein in the diet is complete, or similar nutritionally to animal-based protein to be optimally utilised in the body.

A good meal and snack mix includes baked beans or nut spread on wholegrain toast, fortified soy milk, brown rice, and bean mixes, edamame and brown rice sushi rolls, and hummus with wholemeal flatbread.

2) Choose the right milk

There is a growing range of plant-based milks available, but some are much higher in protein than others and not all are fortified with essential nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and calcium.

Specifically, soy milk is nutritionally superior as it not only offers complete protein, but most brands contain added calcium and Vitamin B12 and you will get close to 10g of protein per glass, similar to that of dairy milk. If you must opt for rice or oat or almond milk, it is imperative you choose varieties with added calcium, Vitamin B12 as well as protein where possible.

3) See a paediatric dietitian

It can be challenging at the best of times to ensure a vegetarian diet has adequate nutrients for growing children and teens, let alone a vegan diet. For this reason, if your child or family chooses to follow a vegan diet, the easiest way to ensure nutritional adequacy as your child grows is to consult with a paediatric dietitian on occasion.

Here you can monitor growth and nutrient intake and be keep up-to-date with new food products and ideas to ensure the vegan diet you serve at home is as nutritionally rich as possible.

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