If you’re a parent, the next natural question after going plant-based yourself is if this eating style works for the whole fam. Toddlers, school-age kids, and high schoolers all have different dietary needs from each other as well as from adults. Stanford professor and pediatrician Lisa Patel, MD, says that she’s been asked so much if plant-based eating is safe for kids that she is now currently proposing a set of guidelines to the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents should be aware of when following this way of eating.
Unlike the vegan diet, which eschews animal products completely, plant-based eating is more nuanced. Meat can still be eaten if desired (it’s just not the focus of the meal) and other animal products like dairy and eggs are still on the table. However, plant foods (including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and fruit) are the main focus of most meals.
The eating plan’s flexibility is exactly why pediatric registered dietitian Jennifer Hyland, RD, is a fan. “As a pediatric dietitian, I prefer plant-based eating to vegan or vegetarianism because it does still leave room for meat,” she says. That said, she says kids need a lot less meat than some may think. While both Hyland and Dr. Patel say plant-based eating can be safe for kids—great, in fact—they do say there are some pitfalls and nutrient needs to be extra mindful of.
The pros of a plant-based diet for kids
Both Dr. Patel and Hyland say that there are some definite benefits of a plant-based diet for kids of all ages. One biggie: It typically means more veggies, which is particularly important for kids. “Most children aren’t getting the amount of vegetables that they should be eating,” Dr. Patel says. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 90 percent of people in the U.S. (including kids) don’t get enough vegetables in their diet and 80 percent of people don’t eat enough fruit. The current 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that children ages 2 to 18 eat between one to two-and-a-half cups of vegetables per day (depending on overall calorie intake) and between one and two cups of fruit a day (again, depending on overall caloric intake).
Hyland says many of the parents who ask her about plant-based eating for kids are primarily worried about protein. She says this isn’t something to worry too much about, not only because there are plenty of non-meat protein sources for kids, but they also don’t need as much protein as many might think. “For toddlers, if they’re drinking two cups of milk a day and having just a little bit of meat, their protein needs are being met,” she says. Hyland adds that school-age kids need four ounces of protein a day and teens need five or six ounces a day. “Besides meat, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and tofu are all great protein sources for kids,” she says.
Here are some other plant-based protein sources that an RD loves:
“The main thing to keep in mind—for both adults and kids—is that a diet should be balanced with fiber, protein, carbohydrates, and fats,” Dr. Patel says. She adds that the beauty of plant-based eating is that this well-roundedness often happens naturally when following the eating plan. Beans, for example, are a good source of both fiber and protein. Similarly, peanut butter is both high in protein and healthy fats.
Both experts emphasize that choosing nutrient-rich whole foods instead of nutrient-poor, heavily processed foods is what’s most important to keep in mind, regardless of what eating plan you follow. Since plant-based eating is crafted around these types of nutrient-rich foods, following the eating style could make this easier.
What to be extra mindful of when following plant-based eating as a family
While both experts say plant-based eating can certainly be healthy for kids, they do say there are some nutrient needs to be extra mindful of. One is vitamin B-12, which is primarily found in meat, and is important for energy production and mood. According to the National Institute of Health, kids need between .4 micrograms and 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B-12 a day, the latter of which can be found in four ounces of meat or fish (the size of a deck of cards). But Hyland says families that don’t eat meat or fish every day can also turn to some fortified cereals for the nutrient. “If your child really isn’t eating meat or fish at all, you may want to consider a vitamin B-12 supplement,” she adds.
Another nutrient Hyland says parents should be mindful of is iron, which is essential for transporting oxygen through the body. Kids need between 11 milligrams to 15 milligrams of iron a day. “Meat is often a primary source of iron, but it can also be found in beans, broccoli, and some fortified cereals,” she says.
Vitamin D—which supports bone and tooth growth, affects your mood, and more—is another tough nutrient to get without animal products. If dairy and eggs are still part of your family’s plant-based eating plan, Hyland says your child’s vitamin D needs should be covered, but if you don’t have any milk or eggs in the fridge, that’s another nutrient to be mindful of. “Most alternative milks are not good sources of vitamin D because they’re made primarily of water,” she says. Just like adults, kids need 600 microunits of vitamin D a day. Spending 10 to 30 minutes in the sun a day should get you there, but if you live in a place that isn’t particularly sunny, you may want to consider a vitamin D supplement for your child, if you plan on staying a milk- and egg-free home.
It bears repeating that a plant-based diet doesn’t call for cutting meat entirely out of the picture; it just means making it more of a side than the center of the plate. When choosing your meat, Hyland says some make healthier picks for kids (and adults for that matter) than others. “A little red meat is fine because it is a particularly good source of iron, so having that a couple of times a week is healthy, but otherwise, I recommend lean chicken and turkey which is lower in saturated fat,” she says. “It’s also beneficial for kids to have fish a couple of times a week because it’s a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.”
The last major piece of advice Hyland gives families who eat plant-based is to focus on whole foods, not just stock up on the trendiest plant-based labeled products at the grocery store. “Sometimes I’ll see parents just giving their kids a lot of protein bars and other snacks loaded with carbs and sugar that aren’t necessarily healthy to load up on even though they’re ‘plant-based,'” Hyland says. “You want to focus on nutrient-rich foods, no matter what eating plan your style.”
She also recommends explaining to kids why you’re eating plant-based—whether it’s for health reasons, the environment, religion, etc.—and be careful not to demonize any particular food. (Like calling certain foods “good” or “bad,” or referring to things as a “treat” or a “guilty pleasure,” all of which ascribe moral values to foods.) “If you do, it could lead to disordered eating or fear of certain foods,” she says.
The bottom line is that plant-based eating can be healthy for kids, with these guidelines in place. Hey, anytime you don’t have to cook something entirely different for your kids is great news to any parent. Now getting them to actually eat their veggies, that’s the next hurdle…
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