Whether you're raising a vegetarian child or just incorporating more meatless meals into the menu, plant-based protein is vital to your toddler's health -- but his nutritional needs must come before your personal dietary preferences. Michelle Davenport, nutrition researcher at New York University School of Medicine, says, "Kids, and babies especially, need a diet with enough calories, protein and micronutrients -- calcium and iron -- to support their physical growth and mental development." Ensuring adequate nutrients from a plants-only diet takes excruciating attention to detail, and Davenport doesn't recommend a vegan diet for young kids. She does, however, support the inclusion of more vegetarian proteins within a well-rounded diet, and some creativity in the kitchen may improve the chances of a favorable reception.
Talk to your pediatrician about your toddler's nutritional needs. A balanced diet is vital at this stage of life, with adequate calories and the right amount of protein for a rapidly growing child. You'll need to alternate a variety of plant-based protein to get all the essential amino acids and other nutrients.
Make finger food that small kids can feed themselves. Vandana Sheth, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends cubed tofu, stir-fried strips of tempeh, seitan or TVP with baby carrots, bell peppers and celery and a bean/lentil dip.
Cut solid protein sources like firm tofu and tempeh into fun shapes. Use small cookie cutters or specialty shaping tools used for elaborate bento box preparations. Kids are more likely to eat food that looks fun.
Make silken-tofu smoothies. Eco chef Bryan Au, author of the award-winning cookbook Raw Star Recipes, recommends using apples, bananas, kiwi and berries to flavor the smoothie while adding nutritional value to the drink.
Don't get discouraged, and keep leading by example. Vegan nutritionist Mike Tubbs says, "The biggest thing with kids is that they will eat what they have learned to eat... My daughter never had chicken nuggets or hot dogs until having them at a friend's house. Up to that point, one of her favorite foods was broccoli. If a toddler comes up in a vegetarian family, the child will most likely never have eaten another way, and it will be easier."
- Nut butters are calorically dense and are appropriate for older toddlers. Spread them thinly on other foods to avoid choking hazards and to ensure you're not giving your child too much in one sitting. Almond butter is a good alternative to peanut butter, but if you have any concerns about allergies, talk to your pediatrician before introducing any nut product.
- Don't fall into the junk food trap. Tubbs cautions against allowing foods like potato chips and cookies simply because they're vegetarian. Instead, he recommends, your toddler's calories should come from whole, plant-based foods.
- Avoid a completely vegan diet for your child. Davenport says, "In some rare cases, if the parent is extremely vigilant about ensuring their kids are consuming enough calories with adequate nutrients, then a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet may be okay. I would never advocate raising kids, especially toddlers, as vegans."
- Michelle Duong Davenport; Nutrition Researcher, New York University School of Medicine
- Vandana Sheth, RD, CDE; Registered Dietitian, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Bryan Au; Chef and Author of Raw Star Recipes
- Mike Tubbs, Vegan Nutritionist
Angela Brady has been writing since 1997. She works as a certified personal trainer, weight-loss consultant and sports nutritionist. A lifelong dancer and yoga devotee, she has competed in gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, softball and soccer. She is also an authority on sustainable design, having studied, practiced and written extensively on the subject.
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