Even the most confident vegan adults might feel a little nervous about a vegan diet for their newborn baby. Infants typically triple their weight in the first year of life and need enough nutritious food to see them through this early growth spurt. Can a vegan diet satisfy their needs?
During the first months of a baby’s life, this isn’t even an issue. All infants start out as vegetarians. Or, to be more correct, they begin their lives as “lactarians.” For the first four months or so, infants don’t need anything other than breast milk. It’s the perfect, complete food for a newborn. Unless they are given B12 supplements (needed only if
the mom’s diet is inadequate), the diets of vegan babies are exactly the same as infants in omnivore families until they are around seven months old.
The First Four Months
For the first four to six months of life, babies don’t need—and shouldn’t have—anything other than breast milk (or infant formula).
They don’t need any solid foods during this time, and certain vegetables can be dangerous to very young infants.
Between the ages of four and six months, babies start to show that they are ready for solid foods. One sign of readiness is the ability to sit up and maintain balance. Another is the ability to use the tongue to move food to the back of the mouth for swallowing. Your pediatrician will help you decide when your baby is ready for solid foods, but all babies should start having some solid foods no later than six months of age.
First Solid Food Adventure: Cereal
“Solid” is a bit of an overstatement for the first non-milk foods a baby eats. They are more like thick liquids—fed from a spoon, not a bottle.
The first food for an infant is usually an iron-fortified infant rice cereal mixed with breast milk or infant formula. There isn’t anything wrong with other choices, but rice cereal is easily digested and unlikely to cause allergies. Once a baby is used to cereal and eating around 1⁄³ cup per day, begin to introduce mashed fruits and vegetables like applesauce, banana, pureed peaches or pears, strained white and sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, and avocado.
During this period, breast milk or soy formula continues to play a major role in your baby’s diet and will be a part of the menu until at least the first birthday. Breast milk or infant formula is especially important for providing zinc, which can otherwise be low in a vegan infant’s diet. Even after your baby starts to consume solid foods, he or
she needs either breast milk or a commercial infant formula. Regular soymilk should never be offered to babies before the first birthday because, like cow’s milk, it is a poor fit for an infant’s nutritional needs.
First Protein Foods
At around seven months, your baby will be ready to drink apple juice from a cup and explore protein-rich foods. This is when the diet of a baby in a vegan household starts to look a little bit different from that of other infants. First protein-rich foods for vegan infants include legumes (cook them thoroughly and puree them), well-mashed tofu, and soy yogurt. This is a good time to start introducing vegetables with a stronger flavor like kale and collards. You can temper their flavors by pureeing them with bland or sweet foods like applesauce, tofu, or avocado.
Infants are usually ready for finger foods, like chunks of tofu or meat analogs, bread, and crackers, at ten months, and by the first birthday they can have nut butters or tahini spread thinly on crackers.
A few things to keep in mind for vegan babies:
• Talk to your pediatrician about supplements. Vitamin D is usually recommended for breast-fed infants in both vegan and omnivore families. Iron is sometimes recommended beginning at around four months, but that will depend on other foods in your baby’s diet. Breast-fed vegan infants need vitamin B12 supplements only if the mother’s diet isn’t adequate.
• When your baby is ready for solid foods, introduce them one at a time, offering one new food every three to four days. This makes it easy to identify any food allergies right away.
• Never give babies unpasteurized juice or cider, or any kind of corn syrup or honey, all of which can cause serious illness.
• Be careful not to overdo it with juices. Too much juice can displace other nutritious foods in a baby’s diet and can also cause diarrhea. Limit your infant to 6 ounces of juice per day and avoid juices with added sweeteners.
• Don’t give a baby any milk other than breast milk or infant formula before the first birthday. Regular soy, rice, hemp, and almond milks don’t have the right balance of nutrients for infants and shouldn’t be offered until your baby is a year old (these milks can, however, be used in small amounts in food preparation).
• Don’t offer foods that can cause choking like whole tofu hotdogs, popcorn, nuts, hard candies and grapes. Don’t offer infants nut and seed butters by the spoonful or spread too thickly on bread.
• Don’t salt or sweeten foods.
FOR BREAST-FED VEGAN BABIES
|Nutrient||Birth to 6 months||6 to 12 months|
|400 IU (10 micrograms)
1 milligram per kilogram
(0.45 milligrams per pound)
of body weight beginning at
0.4 micrograms only if the
mother doesn’t have a reliable
|400 IU (10 microgram)
1 milligram per kilogram
(0.45 milligrams per pound)
of body weight unless infant is
consuming sufficient iron from
0.25 milligrams if water
contains less than 0.3 parts
per million fluoride
0.5 micrograms only if the
mother doesn’t have a reliable
|Adapted from A. R. Mangels and V. Messina, “Considerations in Planning Vegan Diets: Infants,” Jour
nal of the American Dietetic Association.
THE FIRST BIRTHDAY AND BEYOND:
After the mad growth spurt and enthusiastic appetite of the first twelve months, things begin to slow down. Toddlers can have sluggish appetites, and children aren’t known for their adventurous eating habits at this stage. Picky and sometimes quirky eating behavior can make it difficult to get toddlers and preschoolers to eat anything at all, let alone to try new foods.
Full-fat fortified soymilk can be introduced to a baby on the first birthday. Avoid using other milks made from rice, almonds, hemp, coconut, or oats as the main beverage, since they are too low in protein (and calories) for young children. If your child is a slow grower or you aren’t certain that his or her diet is high enough in zinc, it might be wise to continue with either breast-feeding or soy infant formula for a while.
When Breast-Feeding Isn’t an Option
For a number of reasons, breast milk is the optimal food for babies, and most vegans choose it for their newest family members. Breast milk provides a nutrient balance that is close to ideal for growing infants. It also contains unique immune factors and reduces the risk for allergies. Infants don’t need any food other than breast milk for the first four to six months of life, and ideally they should continue to receive it until at least the first birthday or preferably the second.
But sometimes breast-feeding isn’t an option. If you are unable to breast-feed or you need to decrease or stop nursing, soy infant formula supports normal growth and development in babies.3 These formulas are not 100 percent vegan since they contain vitamin D derived from animals, but they are as close as we can get to a healthy vegan choice.
Infants should never be given homemade formulas and they should never be given regular soymilk. In the rare cases where vegan infants have suffered from malnutrition, it’s because they were being fed homemade formulas or did not receive adequate supplements of vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Because babies have very specific nutritional needs, it’s essential to use only commercial infant formulas which are manufactured to meet those needs.
your child doesn’t eat exactly this way every single day. Two or three days of nothing but peanut butter and banana sandwiches never hurt anyone—not even a three-year-old. And getting children to eat healthful foods like vegetables isn’t a vegan problem; it’s a universal problem for parents of young children.
If you feel like your little one isn’t eating enough, focus on highercalorie foods that he or she enjoys, such as avocado, nut butters, and tofu. Don’t overdo it with fiber, which can fill up small stomachs.
Avoid foods like bran cereal, which are very high in fiber. While it’s good to serve mostly whole grains, it’s also okay to include some refined grains, such as regular pasta, in a toddler’s diet. Low-fat diets can make it very difficult for young children to meet calorie needs, so don’t skimp on fat in your child’s diet. Toddlers and preschoolers will
benefit from several small meals throughout the day; nutritious snacks are especially important for this age group.
As you explore new foods with your child, it’s important to keep an open mind. You’ll hear over and over again: Oh, no three-year-old will eat asparagus! Well, guess what? Some three-year-olds do. He may indeed be the rare three-year-old, but he may also be yours! So don’t second-guess what your child will or won’t eat based on what most kids
prefer. After all, toddlers in Mexico eat pinto beans, and two-year-old Chinese kids dine happily on tofu.
Research shows that it takes as many as ten exposures to a new food before a young child will try it, so be persistent. If your child turns her nose up at baked beans, serve them again, in a different type
of meal, after a week or so. And again. And again. It can help to serve new foods in small amounts alongside foods that are already familiar, and it’s also important for children to observe you enjoying the food
Children are more likely to try foods that are easy to eat and that they can pick up with their fingers. If a toddler or preschooler is going through a picky phase and refuses to eat a variety of foods, it’s okay to sneak foods into the diet any way you can. Your child may turn up his nose at a glass of soymilk but might be perfectly content to consume it
when it’s used to make mashed potatoes, pancakes, or chocolate pudding. Getting vegetables into the diet of a young vegan can be more of a challenge. Here are ideas that parents have found helpful:
• Finely chop leafy green vegetables and add to spaghetti sauce.
• Mix chopped raw kale, collards, or broccoli with rice and roll up in a tortilla.
• Add raw kale to fruit smoothies.
• Mix finely chopped carrots, sweet red peppers, and broccoli into vegan cream cheese, roll it up in a soft tortilla, and slice into colorful pinwheels.
|FOOD GUIDE FOR VEGAN TODDLERS,
AGES ONE TO THREE
|Food group||Servings per day||Serving sizes|
Legumes, nuts, and
or breast milk
|Adapted from V. Messina and A. R. Mangels, “Considerations in Planning Vegan Diets: Children,”
Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
• Use raw vegetables to make salads in the shape of animals, or use cookie cutters to make fun-shaped sandwiches.
• Temper the strong flavor of kale and collards by blending them with bland foods such as avocado, tofu, or tofu cream cheese.
Valuable Foods for Vegan Children
Although there is no requirement for any type of milk in a child’s diet, fortified soymilk can make it easier for vegan children to satisfy their nutrient needs. Other fortified milks, such as almond, oat, rice, or hemp milk, can be used in moderation, but since they are low in protein, they can displace protein-rich foods from the diet.
Nuts and seeds and the butters made from them can also be important in the diets of young children since they are energy and nutrientrich. Red Star–brand Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast is a Sample Menu for Toddler
½ cup whole-grain ready-to-eat cereal
1 cup fortified soymilk
½ banana SNACK
½ cup stewed dried apricots
¼ cup hummus
1 small (4-inch) pita
½ cup shredded carrot salad with ½ tablespoon vegan mayonnaise
½ cup calcium-fortified apple juice SNACK
½ slice bread
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 cup fortified soymilk
3 pasta shells stuffed with ¼ cup pureed soft tofu
¼ cup steamed broccoli with 1 teaspoon margarine
¼ cup butternut squash topped with 1 teaspoon brown sugar SNACK
1 cup fortified soymilk
1 graham cracker
good source of B vitamins, including vitamin B12. Add nutritional yeast to bean dishes, veggie burgers, scrambled tofu, or mashed potatoes. Blackstrap molasses (but not regular molasses) is a great source of calcium and iron. It has a strong taste and is likely to be more acceptable to children when mixed into other foods like smoothies, baked beans, or baked treats. It can also be mixed into peanut or almond butter and spread on crackers or bread.
ON THEIR OWN:
VEGAN SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN
The school years bring a new set of challenges as children encounter school lunches, birthday parties at McDonald’s, and overnights with friends. Some kids may be savvy to the ways of the meat-eating world; others may have had less exposure to the idea that their diets are “different.”
Will your child’s vegan habits follow him as he heads out the door?Parents are likely to be faced with a series of decisions about this—personal decisions with no right or wrong answer. Some parents believe that a 100 percent vegan approach is most in line with their family’s values and least likely to be confusing to a child. Others might
allow some flexibility in certain social situations. Regardless, as children grow older, there will be times when parents no longer have control over what goes into their young ones’ stomachs.In public schools, cafeterias are unlikely to have regular vegan choices, and lunches brought from home are usually the best option.
Try a laptop lunch box, based on the Japanese bento box. With compartments for four or five different foods, it allows you to create lunches with variety and fun appeal.
Growth during the teen years is faster than at any other time except for infancy. Needs increase dramatically for calories, protein, calcium and—for girls—iron. Meeting these needs can be a challenge since teens eat many meals on the go or on their own, and nutrition isn’t .
|BROWN BAG OR LAPTOP LUNCHES
FOR VEGAN SCHOOLCHILDREN
|Ideas for sandwiches or wraps
Hummus with chopped apples
Almond butter with shredded carrots
Tofu salad with vegan mayonnaise and chopped celery
Vegan cheese, avocado, and veggies
Chopped chickpea salad with vegan mayonnaise
Peanut butter and apple slices
White beans pureed with cooked carrots and mixed with
chopped apples and walnuts
Avocado blended with shredded vegetables
Potato salad made with cooked potatoes, chopped carrots, and tahini dressing
Crumbled tofu, shredded raw cabbage, and peanut butter dressing
Lentils with corn and sunflower seeds
Vegan turkey and cheese
Pinwheels: chopped vegetables and vegan cream cheese
rolled in a whole-wheat flour tortilla and sliced into rounds
In the thermos
Canned or homemade vegetarian chili
Beans and franks: vegetarian baked beans with tofu hotdogs
On the side:
Raw vegetables with tahini or tofu dip
Baked tortilla chips
Pasta or rice salad
Peanut butter or oatmeal cookies
Soy or coconut yogurt
Dried fruit or trail mix
Pitted dates rolled in shredded coconut or finely chopped nuts
Nutty fruit bites: dried fruit, nuts, and peanut butter blended in a food
processor and rolled into bite-sized balls
always a high priority. Many adolescents, vegan or not, fail to get enough calcium and iron. Diets often are too high in fat and sugar and low in fiber.
Teens raised in vegan households might have an edge over omnivore teens since they are likely to be familiar with a wide range of healthy plant foods. On the other hand, vegan teens may have to pay even more attention to calcium and iron than their omnivore peers.
The biggest challenge faces teenagers in omnivore families who have chosen to adopt a vegan diet on their own. In that case, it’s important for parents to offer support by learning about vegan diets and making
sure the kitchen is well-stocked with lots of vegan foods.
Since teens will choose many of their own meals and snacks, it’s a good idea to have plenty of healthful foods available that can be quickly prepared or carried in a backpack. Some ideas that are likely to have teenager-appeal:
Frozen vegan pizza slices
Hummus on pita bread
Calcium-fortified juice or soymilk in individual serving cartons
English muffins with almond butter
Instant hot cereals
Smoothies with frozen fruit, soft tofu, and fortified soymilk
It’s critical that teenagers regularly consume high-calcium foods like fortified soymilk and orange juice or calcium-set tofu. You should also include beans, a good source of iron, in foods that teenagers
tend to enjoy, such as baked beans, salads with chickpeas, hummus, and burritos.
The widely varying nutrient and calorie needs of the teen years make it difficult to come up with a sample menu for this age group.
The menu provides approximately 3,000 calories and offers ideas for teen-friendly meals that are packed with good nutrition.
While some research suggests that eating disorders are more common among vegetarian teens, this is because girls sometimes adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet as a way to manage and disguise their unhealthy food behavior.5 That is, the eating disorder comes first and a vegan diet is merely one of many tools aimed at controlling calorie intake.
But healthy girls who become vegan or are raised in vegan households are no more likely than anyone else to develop an eating disorder. A vegan diet is not a sign of an eating disorder. The causes of eating disorders are complex and poorly understood.
Parents who are concerned that their child might be adopting unhealthy attitudes toward food should look for these classic signs of eating disorders:
• Unnecessary weight loss that continues beyond three months.
• Meal skipping.
• Avoidance of all foods that appear to be high in calories or that contain fat, such as tofu, meat substitutes, peanut butter, breads, and pastas.
• Compulsive counting of fat grams and calories.
• Offering repeated excuses for not eating.
• Frequent weight checks.
• Complaints about feeling bloated after eating normal portions.
• Ritualistic behavior around food, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or eating only one food at a time.
• Avoiding social situations that involve food.
• Excessive exercise.
• Distorted body image.
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