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Plant power: Plant-based eating for the whole family

Posted 4/1/2018 by Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD
Clinical Dietitian, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital

Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD

Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD

There are many reasons to choose a plant-based diet: health, environmental concerns, cost savings. But whether you’re thinking about transitioning your family to plant-based cuisine exclusively or just a few days a week, you might be wondering whether you need to have special considerations for your youngest eaters.

Reaping the rewards

First of all, why would one consider a plant-based diet? Studies have found these benefits:

  • Lowered risk for heart disease
  • Reduction in need for certain medications
  • Possible reversal of Type 2 diabetes
  • Easier weight management

Avoiding meat can make sense. By doing so, you’ll eliminate your exposure to the chemical compounds that result from cooking animal meat at high temperatures (which, among other things, can cause inflammation and contribute to chronic disease) and reduce the amount of dietary cholesterol you consume, which is associated with heart disease.

What about kids?

Young girl holding basket of garden vegetables

“It’s perfectly healthy for infants, toddlers and older children to eat a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet,” says Janet Kramer, MPH, RDN, LD, a Clinical Dietitian at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. When it comes to milk-based drinks, babies should only drink breast milk or formula in their first year. There are vegan, soy formulas fortified with calcium and vitamins D and B-12 available – consult with your pediatrician about what is best for your baby. Cow’s milk and other milk substitutes (such as hemp, almond or rice milk) don’t have the nutrients little ones need early in their development like breast milk and formula do. If you’re interested in adding a vegan option to your child’s diet after the first year, ask your pediatrician at what age he or she recommends introducing a plant-based milk.

After 6 months, parents can begin adding supplementary foods, such as ground grains that are cooked very soft, mashed fruits and pureed vegetables. When introducing solid foods, consider things like tofu and mashed cooked beans.

Play nice with nutrients

Kramer advises, “There are a handful of nutrients you’ll want to pay special attention to when feeding kids primarily with plants.”

B-12: This is the only nutrient that you can’t get from plants. Not getting enough can lead to gastrointestinal issues and neurological disorders, so it’s important to make sure your kids have a source of B-12. “Eggs and dairy work for vegetarians,” says Kramer. “Vegans should look for B-12 vitamins or fortified foods like cereals and soy drinks.”

Iron: Nuts, beans, vegetables and fortified grain products all contain iron. Iron is an important nutrient for infants, children and teens. Kramer cautions, “Make sure your selection is age-appropriate, though – nuts and chunky nut butters are a choking hazard for young children.”

Zinc: Needed for growth and sexual maturation, zinc is another nutrient that’s important for adolescents. It also supports the immune system and wound healing. “Zinc is found in legumes, soy foods and oats,” says Kramer. “For older children, nuts and seeds are also good sources of zinc.”

If you’re interested in adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet for your children, get started by talking with a dietitian, nutritionist or pediatrician.

Kid-friendly, meat-free meals

Visit Rainbow.org/VegMeals for family-friendly vegetarian recipes, from Cheddar-Vegetable Surprise to Tortilla Pizzas to 3-Ingredient Pineapple Smoothies.

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