First, consider what it means to be vegetarian. Typically, vegetarians are people who do not eat any meat, fish, or dishes that contain these foods--although many self-named vegetarians will still eat seafood, but no meat. People who call themselves 'lacto-ovo vegetarians' include eggs and dairy products (i.e. milk and cheese) in their diets, while 'lacto-vegetarians' include only milk, no eggs. Then there are vegans, who do not eat anything with meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, or other products with those foods. If you want to raise your child vegetarian, you first must consider what foods you would like to include in his/her diet.
One of the biggest criticisms I typically hear about raising your child vegetarian is choosing a path for your child before she has had a chance to voice her opinion. However, depending on your individual beliefs, you may feel following a vegetarian diet has more benefits than risks. With a well-planned diet, children should be able to meet all of their needs, including protein and vitamins/minerals. In order to meet your growing child's energy needs, consider several small but frequent meals or snacks throughout the day.
Many people are turning to vegetarianism because of its numerous health benefits. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians tend to have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and a lower risk of developing diabetes or hypertension. Vegetarians also tend to be at a healthier weight and have a lower cancer risk. In addition to reducing risk of chronic health problems, following a vegetarian diet also allows you to lead a healthier lifestyle including lowering your saturated fat and cholesterol intake, increasing fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamins C and E, and folate. Yet, those who follow a vegan diet tend to be lacking in other nutrients: calcium, Vitamin B-12, vitamin D, zinc, and omega-3 fats (typically found in fish oils). In addition, some research has found that children who follow a vegetarian diet might experience slower growth (height and weight) throughout childhood compared to non-vegetarians, but a child will eventually "catch up" in growth by adolescence.
Perhaps the main concern for most families is whether or not their child will get enough protein from a vegetarian diet. While some have said that the protein from beans and soy are not the same quality as those from meat, the American Dietetic Association says that research has shown that soy protein provides the same quality as protein from meat. Some examples of non-meat protein sources are beans, soy products (such as tofu), quinoa (a grain that looks like rice), and nuts.
Another nutrient of concern, especially during early childhood, is omega-3 fatty acids. While it is widely known to be beneficial for reducing heart problems, it is also essential for brain and eye development. Fish is the main source of omega-3 fatty acids, so vegetarians who do not incorporate seafood would be low in this nutrient. To accommodate this need, many companies now incorporate omega 3 fatty acids (on labels it is known as EPA and DHA) into cereal bars and soy milk. Vegetarians tend to have a good amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the body which can convert a small amount into omega-3 fatty acids. As a result, it is important to consume good sources of omega-6 fatty acids, such as flaxseeds (throw into anything you cook or bake), walnuts, pecans, and canola oil.
If you raise your child vegan, it is essentially important to make sure your child's calcium needs are met. Consider foods fortified with calcium: 100% fruit juice, soy milk, tofu, and breakfast cereals. Collard greens and kale are good sources of calcium. Spinach and Swiss chard tend to decrease the availability of calcium in the body, so it may be best to avoid these vegetables if the calcium level is low in your child.
Starting your child on a vegetarian diet early in life will help her have a well-planned diet that will meet all of her needs. In addition, it will help your child become accustomed to different tastes, hopefully preventing future food aversions. Be aware that as children grow older and into adolescence, they may want to change their eating habits; work with them to meet their individual needs and interests.
Rhea Li is a Registered Dietitian who received her Bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Master's degree in Public Health from the University of Texas. She has a special interest in working with children and has received her certification in pediatric weight management. Currently, she is working on a research study to determine the importance of nutrition in pediatric cancer patients. In the past, she has worked with pregnant women and their children. In her spare time, she enjoys being with family, exercising, traveling and of course, eating. To contact Rhea, please visit dazzlingdietitian.blogspot.com or her Twitter account, Rhea_Li.