How to Raise Healthy Plant-Based Kids
This is a guest post from Sarah Whipkey, RD at The Plant Potential. She is raising her two and four-year-old children on a plant-based diet!
It seems that plant-based everything is gaining popularity today. And largely for good reason. Following a plant-based lifestyle can have numerous benefits for human, animal, and environmental health. While your particular reasons for being interested in following a plant-based diet may vary, my practice focuses on the health effects.
Parents often ask me if it’s safe and healthy to raise fully plant-based kids – and how. The short answer: yes, they can!
Read on to learn more about what exactly plant-based means, as well as some tips and tricks to incorporate this way of eating for your family.
What is plant-based eating?
First, plant-based is not a “diet” meant to restrict your children’s eating. Plant-based describes a healthy way of eating that largely or solely consists of vegetables, pulses, fruits, grains, or other foods derived from plants rather than animal products. Vegetarian diets, particularly vegan, incorporate an entire philosophy regarding the treatment of animals (& sometimes the environment).
Eating plant-based foods does not mean you can’t eat meat. It means your meals are mostly unprocessed plant foods. In other words, you can occasionally eat animal proteins and be plant-based. Or you can be plant-based and vegan. Or you could be vegan and not whole food based or nutritious.
Semantics aside, what’s important is understanding what plant-based diets can do for you & your family’s health.
Why eat plant-based?
Decades of research have shown that those following plant-based diets have lower rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. Plant foods are rich in vitamins and minerals, cholesterol-free, and low in calories and saturated fat. They are also full of one super important nutrient that no animal food contains: fibre.
Have you ever heard of someone eating too many fruits and vegetables in their diet? Unlikely. A message we have heard for as long as we can probably remember is to eat more fruits and vegetables. But it’s just not happening. Canadian adults and children are not consuming enough fibre. Not by a long shot!
What’s the deal with fibre?
Most people probably associate fibre with poop. And well, that’s not wrong. The two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble, play a role in how we go number two. Soluble fibre dissolves and creates a gel that helps with digestion, while insoluble fibre absorbs water to add bulk to our stools.
However, fibre plays a much larger role in our gut health and overall health. Our guts are full of bacteria, or microbes. The types of microbes we have affect so much in terms of our functional health. In short, research suggests our gut microbiomes may play major roles in optimizing our immune system, improving our cognition, improving blood sugar regulation, and even reducing the risk of developing cancer. A surefire way to get good microbes and a happy microbiome is to eat fibre (ie. through plant foods). To learn more about how fibre influences our gut health, check out my post my post on fibre here.
Is it safe to raise a plant-based kid?
While I generally advocate for anyone and everyone to follow the broad definition of a plant-based diet (eating mostly plant foods), there are plenty of people who would like to eat only plant foods. And many of those people are or become parents. Myself included.
I will start off by addressing a common concern. Protein. A child (and adult) can absolutely & easily meet their protein requirements on a plant-based diet! Even people following a strict vegan diet typically exceed the recommended protein amounts. Beans & legumes, tofu & tempeh, grains, peanut butter and nut butters, and many vegetables are rich in protein.
It is possible to raise children on a strictly plant-based diet, but it must be properly planned. Certain nutrients are not readily available in plant foods alone. Most notably vitamin B12. Other common nutrients to pay attention to are vitamin D, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Plants do not make B12. Microbes make it! B12 used to be available in water, but with modernization came sanitization. Vitamin B12 is available in animal foods because animals consume these microbes.
B12 is an essential vitamin. It is used to form red blood cells and DNA and is central to developing brain and nerve cells. Vitamin B12 is safe for kids and is imperative for their bones, blood, eyes, mood, hair, skin, and nails.
B12 can be found in certain fortified plant foods such as fortified milk alternatives, orange juice, nutritional yeast (affectionately referred to as “nooch”), plant-based yogurts, tofu, and breakfast cereals. It is also available in supplement form.
How much B12 do kiddos need?
- 0-6 months: 0.4 mcg/day
- 7-12 months: 0.5 mcg/day
- 1-3 years: 0.9 mcg/day
- 4-8 years: 1.2 mcg/day
- 9-13 years: 1.8 mcg/day
- 14-18 years: 2.4 mcg/day
Humans evolved to make all the vitamin D we need from the sun. But most of us no longer live around equatorial Africa. We also wear clothing and use sunscreens. Vitamin D is also available in many animal foods such as fatty fish and egg yolks.
It is an essential fat-soluble vitamin that helps with bone formation by helping us absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus. Vitamin D has also been shown to reduce cancer cell growth, reduce inflammation, and help control infections.
Vitamin D can be found in fortified plant foods like milk alternatives and cereals. It is also available in supplement form via drops and chewables. There are two forms of vitamin D: ergocalciferol (D2) and cholecalciferol (D3). Both work, but D3 is utilized more effectively, so that’s what I typically recommend.
How much vitamin D do kiddos need?
- 0-12 months: 400 IU (10mcg) daily*
- 1-18 years: 600 IU (15mcg) daily
*Please note: if you exclusively breastfeed, it is recommended you supplement your infant with 400 IU vitamin D daily through the use of drops as D is not adequately transferred through breast milk. If you use formula, your infant will not need any other sources of vitamin D.
Iron is available in two forms: heme (from animal sources) and non-heme (from plant and animal sources). Our bodies can absorb both forms, but heme iron is absorbed much more efficiently. That being said, iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies – no matter the diet.
Iron is an essential nutrient. It makes up the majority of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen from our lungs to every part of our body. An iron deficiency can cause symptoms of fatigue and lightheadedness.
It is absolutely possible to meet your iron needs through a plant-based diet. Some great sources of non-heme iron include dark leafy green veggies, beans & legumes, dried fruit, and fortified cereals & grains. There are some ways to optimize absorption of non-heme iron as well:
- Combine iron-rich plant sources with foods rich in vitamin C (ex: fortified pasta with kale or spinach and tomato sauce) as it can enhance iron’s absorption
- Avoid coffee & tea with meals. Both contain polyphenols, which inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron.
- Regularly incorporate iron-fortified plant foods, such as infant cereals, grains, and pastas as a reliable source of iron”
How much iron do kiddos need?
- 0-6 months: 0.27mg/d (Breastfed infants tend to get all they need from mom for the first 6 months. Formula-fed infants should be using a fortified formula)
- Infants 7–12 months: 11 mg/d.
- 1–3 years: 7 mg/d.
- 4–8 years: 10 mg/d
- 9–13 years: 8 gm/d.
- 14-18 years (boys): 11 mg/d
- 14-18 years (girls): 15 mg/d (higher due to losses during menstruation)
Calcium is often most associated with dairy products. However, there are many calcium-rich plant foods. As we all know, calcium is fundamental to developing healthy bones and teeth. It’s a factor in many other important roles, as well, including muscle contraction, blood clotting, and heart rhythm regulation.
Though plants generally have less calcium than dairy foods, the bioavailability is sometimes higher. This means calcium in plants can be absorbed well from certain foods. In other plant-based sources of calcium, the calcium bioavailability is quite low (like 5% in spinach). This is due to other compounds like oxalates in plants that inhibit calcium absorption.
Some of the best plant sources of calcium include bok choy, broccoli, almonds, calcium-set tofu, soybeans (edamame), chickpeas, calcium-fortified plant milks and orange juice.
How much calcium do kiddos need?
- 0-6 months: 200 mg/d
- 6-11 months: 260 mg/d
- 1-3 years: 700 mg/d
- 4-8 years: 1,000 mg/d
- 9-19 years: 1,300 mg/day
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are available in both fish and plant foods. There are several important omega-3s: EPA, DHA, & ALA. EPA & DHA are typically found in fish, while ALA is available in nuts and seeds. But where do fish get EPA & DHA? Algae! Algae is at the bottom of the food chain- meaning no worries about pollutant contamination (which can be a concern from fish oil supplements).
EPA & DHA are key to the structure of every cell we have. They’re fundamental to the development of our brains and retinas. ALA is crucial for digestion, absorption, and the creation of energy. ALA can also be transformed into EPA & DHA once consumed. However, this process is not super-efficient.
You will need to rely on both pant sources and supplements to meet omega-3 needs for a fully plant-based kid. While many supplements are made from fish oil, some are kid-friendly and plant-based omega-3 supplements. I recommend looking for ones made out of algae oil to supply DHA and EPA. Nordic Naturals and Garden of Life are brands that I’ve happily used. (Note-I am not an affiliate. And of course, talk with your child’s pediatrician before starting new supplements.) Plant sources of omega-3s (ALA) include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans.
How much omega-3 do kiddos need?
- 0-12 months: 0.5 grams/day
- 1-3 years: 0.7 grams/day
- 4-8 years: 0.9 grams/day
- 9-13 years (boys): 1.2 grams/day
- 9-13 years (girls): 1.0 grams/day
- 14-8 years (boys): 1.6 grams/day
- 14-18 years (girls): 1.1 grams/day
So, how do I get my little one to eat more plants?
It’s one thing to learn about and understand the importance of eating plant foods, but quite another putting that into practice. Especially if it’s new or you’re dealing with a picky eater. The biggest advice I have for parents who want their kiddos to eat more fruits and veggies is to please, please be patient.
Children are born with a predisposition towards sweeter foods and a dislike of bitter-tasting foods (like leafy green veggies). But not all hope is lost, as taste preferences can be nurtured and developed with age. But more likely than not, it will take time.
Consider the following tips to help transition to plant-based kid-friendly meals or to just get your littles to eat more plants!
- Lead by example. Kids observe much more than they’re often given credit for. If they see their parents/grandparents/older siblings/caregivers eating and enjoying a variety of plant foods, chances are, they will be open to more options. But remember, the opposite is true too.
- Involve your kids in the kitchen. And the grocery store. Make a game of choosing new foods from the produce section by having your kids look for specific colours or shapes. Look through recipes together and find age-appropriate tasks they can help you with while cooking. They’re much more apt to try something they have worked on themselves. (Here’s a great cookbook for elementary+ aged children.)
- Add more plants to your current meal rotations. If you’re just wanting your family to increase the amount of plant foods they eat, see if you can alter a current favourite recipe. For example, if your family is big on spaghetti with meat sauce, add some chopped veggies or lentils to the sauce. Gradually increase the amount of plants to the recipe each time you make it.
- Start with just one meal per week. If plant-based is new, allow yourself to ease into it. Not only will this take pressure off, but it will allow your & your child’s GI systems to adjust to a heavier fibre intake. Try your hand at just one whole food plant-based meal. (Here’s an easy plant-based dinner Burrito Bowl recipe my family loves).
- Or try one meal per day. Breakfast is an easy way to start your day with whole plant foods. Hot whole grain cereals- like oatmeal- topped with fresh fruit, sweet potato & tempeh hash, whole grain bread toasted with nut butter & fresh fruit…YUM!
- Learn something new about the foods you eat. This can be as simple as incorporating books such as this book about the vegetable alphabet or this book about colours and produce into story time. Sharing an interest in learning about [plant] foods and what they can do for our bodies is a powerful motivator.
- Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. In other words, don’t demonize certain foods and don’t beat yourself up if your kid (or you) eats something that doesn’t strictly comply with plant-based living. My kids have gone to birthdays and I let them eat cheese pizza and birthday cake. We also have sweets/ processed foods in the pantry.
These foods exist in the real world and will be available in many social situations our kids partake in. By not making them off-limits we are teaching kids to regulate cravings. If we consistently prevent them from eating specific foods, they may overindulge as they don’t know when that particular food will be next available.
8. Try, try, and try again. Consistent exposure to foods is recommended to expand children’s palates. Research has shown that children need to be exposed to foods 12 to 30 times before they truly determine whether or not they like them. My kids both enjoy salads, kale, and Brussels sprouts now, but I had to offer them multiple times before they willingly ate it.
Plant foods are colourful, tasty, and chock-full of incredible nutrients. The more you and your children eat, the more benefit you will see. Please contact a plant-based registered dietitian if you’re interested in transitioning to a fully plant-based diet for your family.