Meat, fish, eggs and dairy are nutritious elements in a little one’s diet, providing high quality protein, fats, iron, zinc, iodine, B12, B2 and calcium. Oily fish are also the main contributor to our long chain omega 3 fatty acid intake, essential for brain development in the early years as well as life-long brain function. However, that’s not to say it isn’t possible to eat well and meet nutritional needs on vegetarian and vegan diets.
In fact, vegetarians and vegans often eat more fruit and vegetables and have lower intakes of saturated fats compared to meat eaters, but it’s important a plant-based diet is well planned to ensure adequate food sources for each of the nutrients. Eggs and dairy products can help make a vegetarian diet balanced but, where they aren’t included, there are still plenty of ways to meet your little one’s needs.
Plant-based sources of protein
Protein is actually found in many plant foods but has varying quality (meaning not all plant proteins have all of the essential amino acids you need), so it is best to mix them up. Soya is a very high quality protein and is also rich in calcium, making soya beans and tofu an excellent addition.
Other plant proteins are found in beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and quorn. Try to include a good protein source at each meal and where possible mix two types together. For example: mix a bean chilli with a 50:50 mix of white and wholegrain rice. The great news is that many of the plant protein sources mentioned above are also rich in the other nutrients at risk in vegan and vegetarian diets.
Plant-based sources of calcium
Plant-based calcium sources include red kidney beans, chickpeas, green leafy vegetables like spinach and spring greens, sesame seeds and tahini as well as almonds and dried figs. Almond butter is just as nutritious as whole almonds and can make an ideal topper to toast or crackers or even paired with an apple to boost protein, healthy fats and calcium.
Plant-based sources of iron & zinc
Iron and zinc are again found in many beans, pulses, nuts and seeds as well as tofu, with iron also present in fortified breakfast cereals and ready-to-eat porridge oats, dark green leafy veg and dried fruits like apricots and raisins. Remember to pair plant-based iron sources with something high in vitamin C like oranges, sweet peppers or tomatoes as this helps absorption.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for brain development in the early years as well as life-long brain function, and we need two types – long chain and shorter chain. Shorter chain omega 3s are found in walnuts, flaxseed, linseed, chia seeds and rapeseed / canola oil, but long chain omega 3s can be difficult to obtain in a completely plant-based diet. It can therefore be a good idea to supplement long chain omega 3 DHA through algal based supplements.
Making sure your little one is getting enough B12 and iodine
Dairy products contain B12 and iodine, so these nutrients are not usually an issue for vegetarians, but are more of a concern for vegans. There are some fortified foods that can help such as fortified breakfast cereals and yeast extracts for B12 and there are a few fortified plant milks with iodine added. Generally, you would need to aim for 2-3 fortified foods each day to meet daily needs, so it is best to plan a supplement. B12 and iodine supplements are therefore recommended in vegan diets in addition to the usual A, C and D recommended for everyone up to the age of 5.
More top tips for a healthy, balanced vegan diet
- When buying plant milk alternatives, don’t go for organic. These aren’t fortified with essential nutrients. Look for ones fortified with calcium, B2, B12 and vitamin D and ideally iodine, although these are harder to find. Oat milks are higher in calories so great for meeting energy needs whilst soya milks provide the highest protein.
- Don’t forget that little ones have high energy needs so make sure you add plenty of healthy fats from nut and seed butters, hummus (tahini), avocado and vegetable oils like olive and rapeseed.
- A great plant-based breakfast choice is a fortified wholegrain cereal (for iron), topped with chia and linseeds (for protein, iron and zinc), chopped kiwi and berries (for vitamin C) and a fortified plant milk. If your little one is a bit fussy, you can swap the fruits for a small glass of orange juice and serve alongside nut butter on wholemeal seeded toast.
- Yoghurt alternatives based on soya, oat or coconut are a great source of energy and are a helpful addition to breakfasts, snacks and desserts. Top them with crushed nuts, toasted oats and fruit. Many are also fortified with key nutrients too.