CHAPTER 16 - Veggies for Kids - How to Raise a Happy, Healthy Vegetarian ChildPage 1
We all start out life as lacto vegetarians. Out first food is our mothers’ milk, made just for us and full of all the nutrients we need. Infant formula, the alternative to breast milk, is made as close as possible to that of mother’s milk, and it’s all we require or should eat for the first four to six months of life. The good news is, if you’re a vegetarian, your breast milk is superior to that of meat-eating mothers – you’re not passing on any of the antibiotics, pesticides or other contaminants that you would if you were eating meat. (And if you’re a vegan and you breast feed, your child is still a vegan, too – breast milk is a natural food for humans while cow’s milk is not).
Whether or not you breast feed is entirely your decision but, for most babies, breast milk is the optimal food. In addition to the sugars and other nutrients, scientists believe that there are other, as yet unidentified, substances in breast milk that make it superior to infant formula. Should you decide not to breast feed, choose a soy-based formula – soy is less likely to cause allergies than cow’s-milk-based formulas. But don’t give regular soy milk to a baby less than a year old, as it’s not designed to meet their nutritional needs.
Cow’s milk should never be fed to babies under one year old, as it can cause intestinal bleeding and lead to anemia. Also, studies have shown a link between infants drinking cow’s milk and their increased risk to become diabetic later in life.
At the four-to-six month mark, it’s time to introduce your baby to solid foods. The timing varies from baby to baby – when your child reaches 13 pounds or double his birth weight wants to breast-feed eight times or more during a 24-hour period, and when she takes a quart or more of a formula per day and still acts hungry, it’s time to transition to solid foods.
You’ll want to introduce solid foods slowly, so that their systems can get used to the change in diet. Start with cooked grains – rice cereal is best, as almost every baby can digest it easily and unlikely to cause an allergic reaction. Once your baby eats cooked cereal, begin to slowly introduce other foods. You can buy commercial baby foods or puree your own fruits and vegetables in a blender. If you buy prepared foods, buy ones that are free from added sugars, preservatives and any other additives that your baby doesn’t need. Start with raw, mashed fruits and move on to cooked vegetables like mashed sweet potatoes. It’s smart to introduce new foods one at a time, so if your baby has sensitivity to a food you can easily identify it.
When your child starts teething (somewhere between 12 and 24 months) they can move on to foods that need to be chewed. Raw vegetables can be introduced then, starting with veggies that are easy to chew and unlikely to present a choking hazard. When giving babies "finger foods," take care that the foods aren’t too hard, large, sharp, or round. Good choices are carrot sticks, lettuce and other leafy green vegetables, and lightly blanched and cooled broccoli. As long as it’s safe for the baby to chew, an vegetables that adults eat are fine for a child.
Follow the same feeding schedules and advice that you would for any other baby, except for not feeding them meat. Adapt the guidelines in the baby books to the vegetarian diet. Just make sure that you don’t let other people convince you that you should be allowing your baby to drinkl cow;s milk – once your child is old enough to transition off formula, you can give him water, regular soy milk or rice milk, juice, regular soy milk, or any other nutritious liquid.
At seven to ten months, start introducing high-protein legumes to the baby’s diet. Slowly add tofu into their meals and snacks, as well as soy cheese and soy yogurt – two servings per day, about a half-ounce per serving. Most babies are very fond of lentils, which can be cooked until fairly soft and have a pleasant, bland flavor. Nut butters should not be fed until after 12 months.
As you ease into the toddler/preschooler years (ages 1 to 4), you can start offering your child some vegetarian versions of classic kids’ favorites. Vegetarian and vegan children are just like any other kids – they’ll be a bit fussy sometimes, but there are a wide variety of nutritious foods that children universally enjoy:
Spaghetti with meatless sauce
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
Baked french fries with ketchup
Veggie burgers, hot dogs and sandwich slices
Whole wheat bread and rolls
Grilled soy cheese sandwiches
Veggie pizzas with soy cheese
Pancakes or waffles, with fruit or maple syrup
Baked potatoes with non-dairy sour cream
Rice and beans
Calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice
Cold cereal with vanilla soy or rice milk
Chicken-Free nuggets (soy protein nuggets that taste just like breaded chicken)
Fruit, cut up into bite sized pieces
Raisins and banana chips
Vegan cakes, cookies and other baked goods
Vegetarian diets feature a lot of bulky, filling plant foods, and since small children have equally small stomachs, they sometimes don;t get all the calories they require. Make sure to include a lot of calorie-dense foods in your child’s diet so that they get all the energy their growing bodies require – add avocado, which is calorie-dense and full of good fats, to sandwiches. Peanut and almond butters are excellent sources of calories for kids, too.
Very young children also need to eat more than three meals each day. So be generous with the snacks featuring grains, fruits and vegetables to add lots of necessary nutrients to their diet. Don’t worry about a vegetarian diet affecting your child’s growth – a 1989 study of children living in a vegan community in Tennessee found that while they were slightly shorter than average at age 1 to 3, they caught up by age 10, when they were actually taller than average, and weighed slightly less than children raised on an omnivorous diet.Page 2
While most vegetarian children have traditionally been raised as such since birth, more and more kids as young as 8 or 9 are choosing the lifestyle for themselves. This is great! And despite concerns, they usually don’t find themselves suffering socially because of it. A lot of children have to avoid various foods due to allergies – like dairy, nuts and chocolate – and vegetarian/vegan kids are no different.
You’ll probably have to provide them with school snacks and lunches from home, though, as school menus usually offer few vegetarian choices – although they may offer juice, vegetables and fruits, dairy free breads, baked potatoes and even bean burritos. If your child’s school offers a weekly menu, you can plan ahead of time, discussing with your child what they will or won’t eat, and what you can supplement from home, This is also a great opportunity to get your child involved with making responsible food choices! choices.
During the teen years, a lot of kids choose vegetarian diets themselves for moral and ethical reasons. This is terrific – but teenagers are still teenagers whether they eat meat or not, and you’ll find your teen gravitating toward cookies, chips, french fries and candy, and away fro salads and raw vegetables. Work with your child, and patiently try to get them to eat less empty calories and more nutrient-dense foods.
Teens with eating disorders often latch onto a vegan diet as a socially acceptable way to control their food and undereat, so if your child is losing a great deal of weight and shows other signs of anorexia or bulemia, deal immediately with the problem. Vegan diets do not lead to eating disorders – it’s a serious mental health problem that may need professional intervention. If your teen appears to be seriously underweight, first talk to her about their diet and work with her to make changes so that she’s getting the nutrition she needs. But if the problem persists and you suspect your child has an eating disorder, seek professional help.
Nutrition for all ages
Because children are growing – and growing rapidly – they need a lot of nutrients to fuel their growth. Calcium is especially important, as bones are growing during this period. So make sure they eat plenty of leafy green vegetables, legumes and drink calcium-fortified orange juice. Calcium-rich foods are usually full of iron, too, which is great because children need a lot of iron – make sure they also get plenty of Vitamin C to help absorb the iron.
The vitamin family should be represented, too - if they’re eating a variety of foods, they should be getting enough B12 and D, but if you’re concerned about their nutrient consumption there are vegan multivitamins for children available at your natural foods store.
Kids are notoriously fussy, but when presented with a variety of tasty, appealing and convenient foods, they’ll have no trouble enjoying a vegetarian diet. By keeping your cupboards free of empty-calorie foods and providing an array of healthful snacks – baby carrots, fresh fruit, hummus and whole wheat crackers, and whole grain breads – you’ll encourage your kids to eat healthy foods, setting the stage for their healthy adult diets.
And, of course, you can do your part to make them feel good about their vegetarian lifestyle by setting a good example with your own eating habits. That means making delicious meals for the entire family, and turning meal time into a pleasant, bonding experience. Try not to nag them about their food choices – they’re kids, and they’re still learning about what they like to eat. If your shelves are full of healthy, tasty foods, that’s the first thing they’ll grab when they get hungry. And if you raise them to enjoy fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains as toddlers, they’re less likely to go overboard on junk foods when they hit their teens.
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