How to Make a Vegan Diet Nourishing for Kids
Guest post by Louise Palmer-Masterton on navigating a vegan diet for babies and infants.
Many people question if a vegan diet is ‘safe’ for children and voice their concerns that they will lack the right nutrition if they follow a vegan diet.
The world is actually full of healthy vegan children, we just don’t hear about them. All we hear is one extreme horror story of an Australian family depriving their baby by feeding them only vegan food. In fact, it turned out that they are depriving their child of food, period, and of course that will lead to ill health.
The first thing you need to do if you are considering raising vegan children is educate yourself. A diet of vegan burgers might have been ok for you pre baby, but your children will need more. So, if you don’t already love to cook, it is time to get cooking. And it’s time to fall in love with lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and a wild array of vegetables.
You need to become an expert in plant-based nutrition and understand what constitutes a balanced diet. With children as well as balanced protein and healthy fats, you will need to pay particular attention to vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and iron.
The best possible start in life for your baby is breastfeeding, and for you to eat a healthy and balanced diet whilst feeding. It’s wise for this reason that you continue to take a pregnancy safe vitamin supplement. There are no vegan baby formula milk products currently in the UK market, although they will no doubt emerge in the future. Don’t be tempted to give your infant plant-based milk substitutes, as they will not have the nutrition your child needs (same goes for feeding an infant plain cow’s milk).
Every child is different when it comes to weaning, my eldest breastfed until more than two years old, and the Vegan Society advice is to continue breastfeeding until your child is two years old if possible. My youngest however stopped the minute they discovered proper food at 10 months! If you do stop breastfeeding before two years, you’ll need to pay special attention to a good balance of nutrition, minerals and vitamins.
Both my children were weaned first on blended banana and avocado, which is a legend in our house (try it!), and graduated to blended lentils and vegetables, thick soups and baby versions of what we were eating. It’s sensible to pay attention to a vegetable protein component at each meal, for example lentils, beans or quinoa along with vegetables and healthy fats. Babies can eat nuts and seeds, but only if ground or completely blended.
With regard to vitamin B12 which all vegans should be mindful of, there are a number of fortified foods to consider as your child starts to eat more and breastfeed less.
The best possible thing you can do with regard to young children and B12 is get them to fall in love with Marmite or yeast extract. A go-to snack of toast and marmite will contain plenty of B12. We also use marmite in many savoury dishes – soups, stews and gravy. My children are Marmite lovers to this day. We also use Engevita flakes as a cheese substitute, sprinkled on pasta and in many sauces. Engevita is super charged with B12.
I’d also recommend getting your children to love hummus as young as possible. Hummus is one of those super-nutritious, super-available superfoods, and served with pitta and carrot and cucumber sticks is a winner with most children. Served together in this way, hummus and pitta is what’s called a complete protein – between them, pitta and hummus contain the full spectrum of amino acids that you need.
There’s a lot of talk about getting the full spectrum of these essential amino acids that is generally misunderstood. Animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, which makes them complete proteins, but it is not actually necessary to eat one food that contains everything. Combining plant foods results in complete protein and gives exactly the same result nutritionally.
There are a few plant-based foods that are ‘complete’ proteins on their own, including tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and chia seeds. Some of these are a bit of an acquired taste for an infant, quinoa for example needs a bit of hiding in a tasty-flavoured sauce. But mine always did well with edamame beans, scrambled tofu and fresh fruit chia pudding.
It’s worth noting that 100g of wholemeal bread contains 13g of protein, which is more than in 100g of egg, and all vegetables do have a protein component. A diet rich in vegetables can make a significant contribution to your daily nutritional needs, including protein.
Some food combining ideas:
Rice and lentils or beans. Both brown and white rice when combined with beans or lentils give a complete protein. And there are literally millions of recipes out there containing beans or lentils, rice (or other grains) and vegetables. Just about every continent on the planet has a version of this cuisine.
Classic beans on toast is a complete protein. Very helpful in those moments when time is of the essence and you have hungry children.
Peanut butter sandwich. This will come as a welcome surprise maybe! And yes, a peanut butter sandwich is a very high complete protein.
Once your child is weaned and able to feed themselves (more or less) it’s all about making their favourite dishes as balanced and tasty as possible. Continue with attention to a protein and vegetable component with every meal, where they are getting their B12 from, and get their other nutrients from as wide variety of vegetables of all colours and types as possible.
So, it really is safe to wean your baby and bring up your children on a wholefood plant-based diet. You will often read about concerns of deficiency in the vegan diet, especially with regard to protein. But the truth is that protein deficiency is rarely seen in affluent populations, and generally only seen in populations where ALL food is scarce. Following the steps as outlined above, will ensure your child will thrive on a wholefood plant-based diet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning restaurants Stem & Glory; hip and trendy but accessible plant-based restaurants, serving delicious gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredients. Stem & Glory also offers click-and-collect and local delivery in London and Cambridge. In addition, Stem & Glory offers a range of ready meals, finish at home pizzas, and recipe kits available for delivery across the UK. Visit their website for more details.
Twitter: @stemandglory Instagram: @stemandglory