Vegetarianism is a potentially healthful dietary choice at all stages of life, including childhood and adolescence, according to the American Dietetic Association. The ADA points to evidence showing that vegetarian children grow similarly to their meat-eating peers but develop healthier eating habits, fewer obesity problems and lower cholesterol. (See References 1, pages 1269-1270) Furthermore, with some creative cooking, getting kids to eat their veggies doesn't have to be a challenge.
Menus that include a variety of foods tend to meet the vegetarian child's nutritional needs, but parents and caregivers should pay closer attention to a few specific nutrients. Refined foods like pasta, bread and cereal and foods that contain unsaturated fats help to meet the child's energy needs (see References 1, page 1271). You should also make special efforts to provide vegetarian children with adequate sources of protein, calcium and iron (see References 2, pages 354-359).
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges of creating a menu for a vegetarian child is overcoming many children's natural aversions to new foods, particularly vegetables. Offer cooked or raw veggies as finger foods or with dips to make them more palatable and fun to eat. Brightly colored vegetables or those cut into familiar shapes also appeal to children. Iron-rich greens --- important for preventing anemia, the number-one childhood nutritional deficiency --- have a strong taste that many children dislike (see References 2, page 359). Incorporate these greens in small quantities into spaghetti sauce, veggie burgers or mix with avocado or ricotta cheese. Vegetables like carrots and zucchini also hide well in foods that children enjoy such as breads and muffins. (See References 2, page 366)
Similar tactics increase the appeal of protein-rich foods like tofu and beans. Use colorful or patterned beans to increase a child's interest. You can also mash beans and serve them with fat-free tortilla chips for dipping, turning a side dish into a fun snack. Tofu works well as a finger food or pureed, blends easily and tastelessly into other recipes, such as macaroni and cheese or spaghetti. (See References 2, page 366) Rice pudding made with soy milk or almond butter spread on bread or crackers offers appealing sources of protein for the reluctant eater. Textured vegetable protein can stand in for ground meat in kid-favorite recipes like tacos and pizza. (See References 2, page 355)
Fruits serve as a nutritious and tasty snack that most children are willing to eat. In addition to fresh fruits prepared as finger foods, try frozen fruits, fruit bars, fruits incorporated into breads and cookies, juices, spreads and yogurts blended with fruits. Older children may enjoy dried fruit on its own or as part of a trail mix. (See References 2, page 367)
- American Dietetic Association; Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; Winston J. Craig, et al.; 2009
- "The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issue and Applications," Third Edition; Reed Mangels, et al.; 2011
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.
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