Can children be vegan?

By Amanda Tesser

Of course children can be vegan. In countries with vast food options, it’s perfectly possible for them to obtain all the nutrients they need if their parents decide to raise them on a plant-based diet.

Recently, an Italian politician proposed a bill to make it legal to arrest parents who serve vegan meals to their own kids. This week I’ll explain why this measure is extreme.

The idea that we must consume animal products to be healthy is a myth. It came from the fact that these foods contain all the essential amino acids that our bodies need, which doesn’t happen with plant-based foods.

But don’t think that’s a problem. Vegans who have a balanced diet and mix different sources of protein won’t have any deficit of nutrients. I explained this process when I wrote a post on why we need proteins.

My example was based on rice and beans, which you can find anywhere. Rice has a small amount of some essential amino acids — the same that can be found in high quantities in beans. If you eat both in the same meal, you’ll have the right amount. What matters, then, is the combination.

To raise kids on a vegan diet, parents must make sure that their meals are balanced and offer all the nutrients (proteins, carbs, fat and minerals) and energy (calories) that their kids need for a healthy growth and development.

Children can go vegan after 6 months old (when parents start complementing their meals). In the beginning, they should eat veggies and sources of starch and protein — only one veggie at a time and, gradually, combinations. Cooked or mashed fruits are fine after 8 months.

Here are the most important nutrients on this phase:

  • Calcium: supports ossification (bone formation) and dental health. The last deposit of calcium on our bones happens during our adolescence. Main sources: fortified vegetal milk and dark-green veggies.
  • Fat: assists the correct absorption of some vitamins, supports brain development and prevents weight loss. Main sources: vegetal oil and seeds.
  • Iron: prevents anemia. Children younger than 5 years old and girls during puberty are more inclined to have anemia. Main sources: tofu, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dried fruits and dark-green veggies.
  • Proteins: supports growth. Main sources: all types of beans.
  • Vitamin B complex: supports the formation of red blood cells and defence cells, among others. Main sources: seeds. Remember that B12 is found only in fortified vegetal milk and supplements.
  • Zinc: supports brain development and ensures our immunologic system is working properly. Main sources: all types of beans, seeds and dark-green veggies.

Ideas for a vegan menu until 5 years old:

  • Breakfast: oatmeal with any fortified vegetal milk + mashed banana with chia seeds or flaxseeds.
  • Mid-morning snack: cereal with any fortified vegetal milk OR a sandwich made of whole-grain bread and unsweetened peanut butter (parents should avoid sugar for kids and put the least amount of salt on foods. As young kids are still developing their taste, they should learn the natural taste first).
  • Lunch: whole-grain rice + beans + stir-fry of tofu with pumpkin.
  • Dinner: pasta with com ground beef made of non-GMO soy or mushrooms (shiitake or shimeji) + cooked green beans and broccoli.

Remember that the measurements for children younger than 5 years old are different compared to adults: 1 tablespoon per age (for example, 2 tbsp if children are 2 years old) or 1/2 adult portion (1 cup — not 1 glass or 1 mug). From 6 years on, children and adults eat, on average, the same amount.

I recommend that you avoid giving rice milk to kids younger than 5. Arsenic has been detected in many rice-based products. Studies show that long-term ingestion of arsenic may cause health problems in adults and children.

Photo credit: © Sharyn Morrow under Creative Commons via Flickr

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