November 08, 2020 10 min read
Did you know that everything we sell at Cabooties is made from vegan materials? When I started Cabooties in 2014 I was looking for an alternative to shoes made with animal based products, and I realized how few resources exist for families who choose plant-based, cruelty-free products. Whenever I'm at markets, I'm always asked about what a plant-based lifestyle looks like with young children. With this in mind, I asked my amazing friend and dietitian Lauren from Easy as Pineapple what she thought about pursuing a plant based diet with little ones, and she generously shared her time and talents to create this informative blog post I know you're going to love it!
Article by: Lauren June
The Power of Plants
Have you ever stopped to think about how amazing plants are? Gnarly roots, wiggly vines, majestic trees, and colorful pops of petals that all sprouted from the tiniest seeds and shoots. And best of all, plants give us delicious, nutritious things to eat! Plant foods are super stars in the nutrition world, low in things we don’t want a lot of (added sugar, empty calories, excess fat and sodium) and loaded with things that keep us healthy (fiber, beneficial fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals). People who eat a plant heavy diet have improved bone health and less risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. And, people who have health problems often see improvement when they eat more plant foods. We may not perfectly understand all of these links between plants and our bodies, but it’s clear that fruits, veggies and grain foods are tickets to good health.
So Many Options
We all want these healthy promises for our children. Planning a plant based diet for them is a great goal, but what should this eating plan look like? I’m sure you’ve heard of the many options out there, such as vegan (zero animals or anything animals produce) or lacto-ovo vegetarian (allows milk, dairy, and eggs). There’s even such a thing as a flexitarian diet which is mostly plant-based but includes small portions of meat, fish and poultry. (And, let’s be honest, there are plenty of vegetarians out there living on potato chips, chocolate and bagels!) If you already follow one of these eating plans or something similar, that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. This article isn’t going to focus on these labels or promote one over another. Instead, it will show how to boost the amount and variety of plants on your kids’ plates while ensuring they are getting all the nutrition they need for proper growth and development.
Foods to Focus On
In the 2015-2020 version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, experts created a Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern they believed would meet the nutrition needs of people who choose not to eat meat (you will see some animal products in the Dairy and Protein groups. If you’d rather not include these, that’s ok. More on the nutrients and substitutions to aim for later). I would never expect someone to follow this pattern perfectly. The recommended servings are not only complicated (how many 2.5″ medium plums count as a cup equivalent of fruit??) but can be very discouraging. Nine servings of anything colorful sounds ludicrous if your child prefers beige potatoes, pasta and cheese! Instead, I like to focus on the food groups the pattern presents, each chosen because it has unique and important nutrients. These groups are a great starting point to remind yourself and your kids of the huge variety of plant foods out there (who knew there were 5 subcategories of vegetables?!). They also reveal where variety could improve and can give you new ideas.
Fruits: apples, applesauce, bananas, melons, grapes, oranges, peaches, pears, pineapples, berries, dried fruits, 100% fruit juice
Grains: rice, oatmeal, popcorn, breads, cereals, crackers, pasta, brown rice, quinoa
Dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified soy beverages
Proteins: eggs, legumes, soy products, nuts/seeds
Oils: fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils, or that are present in nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados
Possible questions to ask yourself:
Get the whole family involved and ask for ideas of new foods or groups they would like to try. Have the kids look through cook books, pick something from the grocery shelves, or let them try cooking something at home they saw on a cooking show. Create a family competition to see who can eat something from every rainbow color. And don’t forget to keep trying, even if something is refused the first time around. Maybe the first exposure is just looking at the new food. Next time touching with a fork, next time touching it to the lips, and the fourth time tasting a small bite. Try altering the shape of the food, the plate it’s on, the utensil they use to eat it (toothpicks are often a winner), or whether it’s cooked or raw. You can even get creative with the name in the style of Charlie and Lola, making tomatoes into moonsquirters. If you’re discouraged or exhausted, take a break and try again tomorrow!
Nutrients To Watch
Have your desires to increase plants or decrease animal foods in your children’s lives been met with caution that they could be missing out on key nutrients? According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics we don’t need to be worried. Plant based diets can provide everything a child needs for normal growth and proper development, especially if they eat a variety of colors from a variety of food groups mentioned in the last section. However, if your child follows a more restrictive vegan or near vegan eating plan with little or animal products there are some nutrients that “may require attention.” See the chart below for more information. When in doubt, talk to a physician, dietitian, or trusted health care provider to determine if a supplement is necessary as well as the proper dose and form of the vitamin or mineral in question.
Why Kids Need It
Why It Could Be Missing
Plant Sources and Boosting Tips
Growth and brain development
The form found in plants may not be absorbed into the body as well as the form in animal sources
fortified breakfast cereal, white beans, lentils, spinach, tofu, kidney beans, chickpeas, potatoes, almonds, peas and cashews.
Serve iron foods with foods that contain vitamin C to give plant iron a better chance of being absorbed: red and green peppers, oranges, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, and grapefruit
Red blood cell and brain function
only found in foods from animals
fortified breakfast cereals and fortified nutritional yeasts
Overall growth, bone and teeth health
oxalate, phytate and fiber in vegetables with calcium drastically lowers the amount the body can absorb
Absorption of calcium improves in lower oxalate vegetables such as kale, turnip greens, and bok choy.
Tofu, fortified plant milks, white beans, almonds, tahini, figs, and oranges are well absorbed sources.
Bone health, cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function
appears naturally in very few foods, most of which are from animals (salmon, tuna, mackerel, fish liver oils and small amounts in beef liver, cheese)
Some mushrooms, fortified breakfast cereal, fortified plant milks
Some children may fill vitamin D gaps in their diet by being outside since skin exposed to sun can create vitamin D. However, even this is an imperfect source since we tend to seek shade, use sunscreen, and live in an area with cold, indoor winters
(Note: “fortified” means a nutrient has been added to a food that was not there in the food’s original form. Check amounts and forms since not all added nutrients are perfectly absorbed by our bodies.)
The Other P Word
Were you surprised that protein is not a nutrient of concern in plant based eating? I was. It’s actually pretty easy for kids to get enough protein, whether they are eating a mixed diet of animal and plant foods or following a vegetarian or vegan eating plan.
I’m borrowing this fabulous graphic from Sally at Real Mom Nutrition to show what 19 grams of protein, the recommended daily amount for most 4-8 year olds, can look like. (Note: what is pictured is just a representation of where the protein could come from and does not include all the food needed to meet daily calorie and nutrient needs).
You probably noticed lots of plants and reasonably small portions that can be spread throughout the day. Aim for variety and try to include legumes and/or soy products to make sure kids are getting a good mix of amino acids (the building blocks of protein, some of which we must eat because we can’t make them ourselves).
Here are some other protein amounts in plant foods:
lentils = 9 grams protein in 1/2 cup
peanut butter = 7 grams protein in 2 tablespoons
hummus = 7 grams protein in 1/3 cup
bread = 3 grams of protein in 1 slice
quinoa = 6 grams protein in 1/3 cup
In comparison, 3 ounces of beef, pork, poultry or fish, which is the size of a deck of cards, has about 21 grams of protein.
Lastly, because I know you’re probably wondering, here are the recommended amounts of protein for each age level (RDA = Recommended Dietary Allowances). Don’t stress if your child isn’t meeting his or her goal amount every single day. Instead, consider an average over three or four days and realize there is wiggle room since all of our bodies, food variety, and activity levels are different.
1-3 years old = 13 grams/day
4-8 years old = 19 g/d
9-13 years old = 34 g/d
14+ year old females = 46 g/d
14-18 year old males = 52 g/d
Easy Plate Planning Tips for Busy Families
Kids can be difficult to feed, no matter what kind of eating plan you strive for. Lists of loved and hated foods change just when you think you have it figured out and the amounts they will eat seem completely unpredictable. Or maybe your child is at the other extreme and his or her plate looks the same every. single. meal. Add these issues to our adult challenges of finding time and motivation to shop, meal plan, and prepare food and our desire to provide beautiful, varied plant based plates may be out the window. My advice is to keep it simple, consider small steps victories, and only do what works for your family. For example, go back to those questions about the food groups and just focus on one each week or even each month. Another option is to try one of my favorite plate planning strategies. It’s a meal mantra I call A Filler Upper + Some Color. No food pyramids, food group counting, or measuring cups needed. Just look down at the plate of food you plan to eat or serve and try to include the following 2 things:
A filler upper. This is a food that contains protein, fiber, and/or fat. The plant options include legumes, nuts, nut butters, seeds, olives, avocados, tofu and other soy products (plant milks are tricky…read the labels as not all contain much protein), and whole grains. If you’re adding some animal products, they include milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, meat, and seafood. These foods help kids feel full and satisfied (so they aren’t begging for a snack in 10 minutes…at least not because they’re hungry!). Filler uppers also do great things in the body like promote proper growth and development, digestive health, heart health, muscle function, and healthy bones growth.
Some color. This can be anything colorful from the fruit and veggie world. Banana wheels. Veggies on pizza. A small side salad. Berries in cereal or yogurt. Spinach ribbons in scrambled eggs. An applesauce pouch. The possibilities are endless. If you have to start small, don’t worry! I said “some” color so we don’t have to be stressed about amounts. Two baby carrots or a few nibblets of corn are better than nothing (yes, corn counts! It’s in veggie category #4, “starchy”).
You’re probably wondering where the rest fits. What about the Pirate’s Booty? The chocolate chip cookie? The white pasta with zero fiber that is a family favorite? All of that is ok too. I’m not saying the plate should ONLY contain the filler upper and the color. I’m just suggesting they be present with whatever else you plan to serve. For example, leftover pasta for lunch? Add mozzarella cheese balls (a filler upper) and bell pepper strips (some color). Pancakes? Have them with plain yogurt (a filler upper) and berries (some color) beside the maple syrup. Toast? Spread with nut butter (a filler upper) and some blueberries or pomegranate arils (some color). Getting the hang of it?
Don’t get discouraged if a filler upper + some color doesn’t happen at every meal or if your child won’t eat the combo you offered (or the combo they chose themselves and maddeningly decided they don’t want to eat anymore!) Remember there is always a next meal and tomorrow to try again.
All Forms Count
One more thing before I send you off to plan your plant-y plates: remember that all forms of fruits and veggies count. We tend to focus on fresh produce, but fresh can be expensive, it’s quick to spoil, and little ones may find it difficult to chew and swallow in raw form. Consider any of the following when choosing your colorful foods:
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