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How to support a vegetarian child

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Man cooking with young son

So your child wants to become a vegetarian? Before you press the panic button, dietitian Joanna Baker reveals how to help your child stay healthy and happy on a meat-free diet.

Your child has announced that he or she is now a vegetarian. Now what? Preteens and teens often voice their independence through the foods they choose to eat, and giving up meat for ethical, environmental or health reasons, or because their friends are, is not uncommon. In fact, vegetarian eating in all age groups is on the rise, with many of us now eating meat-free meals in varying degrees — from once or twice a week to going completely vegetarian.

The benefits of going meat-free

Eating a varied, colourful and balanced vegetarian diet can meet our nutritional needs throughout life, and has long been associated with a reduced risk of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even some cancers. Vegetarians also tend to consume less kilojoules from fat and eat more fibre, potassium and vitamin C than meat-eaters.

Start the conversation

With teens, it’s important to keep those lines of communication open, so when your child announces their vegetarian intentions, be open to what they say. Sit down and listen, validate their opinions and ask about their motivations.

Vegetarianism isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to food as there are many ways to eat more plants and less meat. Instead of trying to fit into a preconceived box, aim for a flexible style of eating that works for your family.

Talk to your child about what foods they want to include and exclude as a vegetarian, and with what foods they plan to replace the foods they won’t eat.

This is also a good time to listen to your parental intuition. When a teen makes a dramatic dietary change, this could be a guise for something else, such as fitting in. Are they making this change because the cool kids are doing it? Or is being vegetarian something they genuinely believe in?

Offer a trial period

There’s certainly no harm in trialling a plant-based diet for your child for a week or two. This will make them feel heard, give them a sense of what they are signing up to and help them decide what style of plant-based eating might actually work for them in the long term. It also means that if they decide being fully vegetarian is not for them, they aren’t locked into it.

Do your research

Like all styles of eating, vegetarian diets can be healthy or unhealthy depending on what is on the menu. So make sure you do your research. Pick up some vegetarian cookbooks from your local library or bookshop and have a look through them.

Check their nutritional content (see below), then ask your child to choose a few meals that look tasty. Carve out some time in your schedule so you can cook them together.

You may also like to enrol in a cooking class for the two of you to learn new vegetarian recipes and cooking techniques.

6 nutrients to watch on a vegetarian diet

Whenever a complete food or food group is removed from the menu, it’s important to consider what nutritional value it provides and how it can be replaced. Plant-based diets have lots of benefits, but they do mean you have to be careful to cover all your nutritional bases. Here are some nutrients that may need special attention for tweens and teens eating a plant-based diet, as well as foods that can be included to help meet nutritional needs:

Vitamin B12

B12 is required for cell division, the formation of red blood cells and a healthy nervous system. Similar to iron, low levels of vitamin B12 can result in tiredness and lethargy. Eat dairy foods, eggs, fortified milks and Marmite to ensure adequate B12 levels. If your teen is following a vegan diet, their B12 levels may need to be tested by their GP to check whether a supplement is required.

Calcium

Calcium is important for bone growth and strength, as well as healthy teeth, muscle and nerve function. To ensure your vegetarian teen is getting their daily calcium requirements, encourage them to consume milk, yoghurt and cheese. Calcium-set tofu and calcium-fortified milk alternatives are also great options for vegetarians.

Protein

Protein is essential for healthy growth and development. Vegetarian sources of protein include nuts, seeds, legumes, soy products such as soy milk, tofu and tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP) like Quorn, eggs, dairy and whole grains.

Zinc

Zinc is necessary for growth and development, wound healing, healthy skin and healthy immune function. Nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, eggs, dairy and soy products are all great sources of zinc.

Iron

Iron transports oxygen around the body. Low iron levels result in tiredness and lethargy. Iron needs increase when girls start menstruating. Vegetarian sources of iron include nuts, seeds, legumes, iron-fortified breads and cereals, leafy green vegetables such as spinach, eggs, dried fruits and whole grains like oats and quinoa.

Omega-3s and healthy fats

These play a critical role in brain function and immunity. While coconut oil is experiencing some popularity at present, fats such as flaxseed oil, nuts and olive oil have mountains more evidence to support their health-giving benefits. Other sources of omega-3 fats include chia, hemp, soybeans, seaweed, eggs and fortified soy milk.

Stay supportive

If being vegetarian is something your child feels strongly about, be respectful and arm them with the tools they need to eat well. This includes supplying them with suitable ingredients and vegetarian recipes to prepare meals themselves, or offering appetising vegetarian options at family mealtimes.

Let your child know that if they want to opt out of being vegetarian at any time, that’s okay, too. The beauty of life is that we don’t have to lock ourselves into eating a certain way if it’s just not working anymore. And that’s not to say you can’t go back to it at another time, either.

Family-friendly plant-based meals

10 tips for making healthy vegetarian meals

A vegetarian diet can be very healthy, if you know how what to include.

Tip #1

Include a plant-based protein in all meals and snacks. Think nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, tempeh, Quorn (or another textured vegetable protein), seitan, milk, yoghurt and cheese. If some of these ingredients are new to you, invest in a good vegetarian cookbook or cooking classes to learn how to use them.

Tip #2

Make vegetables the star of your dish and serve meat on the side for non-vegetarian family members.

Tip #3

Meals like burgers, tacos and baked potatoes, where family members can mix and match ingredients from the table to assemble their own servings, are great options.

Tip #4

Add nuts, seeds or canned beans to salads and stir-fries.

Tip #5

Include plenty of colourful veggies in meals to make them more appetising.

Tip #6

Include eggs in meals to boost your child’s overall protein, vitamin B12 and zinc intake.

Tip #7

Snack on dairy foods and drink more milk. Milk, yoghurt and cheese are packed with protein, vitamin D and calcium, and support healthy bone growth and strength.

Tip #8

Add herbs and spices to meals for a flavour boost. Harissa added to yoghurt is a taste sensation!

Tip #9

Aid iron absorption by adding tomatoes, capsicum or lemon juice to leafy green vegetables.

Tip #10

Include plenty of whole grains for nutrition and satisfaction. Quinoa, barley, oats, bulgur, brown rice and millet all pack a punch in terms of fibre, and contain good levels of iron and protein, too.

For more ideas on vegetarian cooking, you might be interested in our vegan and vegetarian recipe collections.

For more on vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets you might be interested in: How to choose vegan cheese alternatives or Help my teen has just turned vegetarian 

Types of vegetarian diets

Lacto-ovo

Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but no meat, chicken, fish or eggs.

Ovo

Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but no meat, chicken, fish or dairy.

Vegan

Vegans exclude all animal products from their diet, eating no meat, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy and often no honey as well.

Pescatarian

Pescatarians eat fish, but no meat or chicken.

Flexitarian

Flexitarians eat a mostly plant-based diet, but also have the occasional meat-based meal.

HFG tip

Pair iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus, berries, kiwifruit, capsicum and tomato, as this helps your body absorb iron. Not drinking tea and coffee or taking calcium supplements with meals will also improve iron absorption.

First published: Aug 2021

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