5 Tips to Raise a Healthy Vegetarian Child

by: Lindsay Hutton
"Mom, I've decided to become a vegetarian!" Whether your child or teen has recently uttered these words to you, or your whole family has gone meatless, you're probably wondering how to supplement your child's diet with the nutrients she needs. Follow these tips from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make sure your child is getting the proper nutrition from her meat-free diet, and find some easy and delicious vegetarian meal ideas that your whole family will love.
Pile of vegetables with woman cutting vegetables in background
Focus on Nutrients
The USDA recommends paying special attention to the following nutrients if your family is eating a vegetarian diet: protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12. You can make sure your child is getting her daily requirements of these nutrients by including a variety of plant-based foods in her diet.

Protein: Protein helps to build, maintain, and replace tissues in the body, build cardiac muscle, and produce hemoglobin. It is essential for growth and body maintenance. Your child's protein needs can easily be met by eating many plant-based foods, such as beans, nuts, nut butters, peas, and soy products, such as tofu and tempeh. Milk and eggs are also excellent sources of protein.

Iron: Iron functions mainly as a carrier of oxygen in the body's blood. Iron can be found in many plant sources, such as kidney beans, chickpeas, whole and enriched grains like wheat and oats, broccoli, kale, and dried fruits, such as raisins.

Calcium: Calcium plays a role in building strong bones and teeth and maintaining bone strength. Collard greens, bok choy, mustard greens, and other dark-green leafy vegetables all contain calcium, but the amount the body absorbs from these sources can vary, and getting enough calcium from these foods can be unrealistic. Milk and dairy products, or calcium-fortified milk alternatives are the best way to make sure your child is meeting her daily needs.

Zinc: Zinc plays a large role in cell growth and helping the immune system function properly. White beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin seeds, and wheat germ are all good sources of zinc, but your body can more easily absorb it if it comes from milk products.

Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 plays a role in nerve function, and helps build DNA and red blood cells. It is only found in animal products, including eggs and dairy. It can also be found in fortified cereals and nutritional yeast.

Pizza topped with colorful vegetables
Make Simple Changes
Many meat-based meals can be made vegetarian by making a few simple substitutions. Top pizza with vegetables instead of pepperoni, make vegetable lasagna instead of using ground beef, and try replacing chicken or steak with beans in your burritos. Try to use plant-based or fortified foods that contain nutrients mainly found in animal products to help your child meet his daily requirements.
Cut oranges and glass of orange juice
Include Vitamin C
While vegetarian diets usually contain plenty of iron, plant-based iron (called non-heme iron) is not as easily absorbed by the body as animal sources of iron (heme iron). Vitamin C, found in many fruits and vegetables, helps to enhance the absorption of iron. Citrus, such as oranges and grapefruits, as well as cantaloupe, kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, and cauliflower are all good sources of vitamin C.
Stack of chocolate crème cookies on plate
Watch the Junk Food
Going meat-free doesn't automatically mean a healthier diet. Make sure meats (and dairy products, if applicable) are replaced by healthy snacks and meals, not processed and packaged foods. Cut up vegetables, fruit, whole wheat crackers, nuts, and nut butters are all nutritious snack options for vegetarians.

At meal time, build your meals around healthy protein sources, such as beans and lentils, and swap out high fat cheeses and dairy for low-fat options. Try vegetarian versions of your favorite meat-based foods, such as bean burgers, soy-based sausage, and falafel (chickpea patties). These counterparts are often lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than the meat-based versions. Even if your whole family isn't vegetarian, meat-free alternatives are a good options for a healthier diet, but make sure to read the labels on these products to avoid any added chemicals, preservatives, or sugar.

Vegetarian lasagna
Mix Up Your Recipes
If you're in a meal rut, check out these vegetarian recipes that are sure to please even the pickiest of eaters.