How to Design a Safe and Satisfying Diet for Veggie Kids
Do children get the essential vitamins and nutrients their growing bodies need from a vegetarian or vegan diet? Many doctors and dietitians say yes – but there's much to consider before going meatless.

One way to tell if children are being properly nourished is to watch their growth, says Jo Ann Hattner, an ADA spokesperson who specializes in pediatric nutrition. “The growth of a child is really an indicator. If they’re growing well, you know they have good iron status, meaning they don’t have the beginning of an iron deficiency.”

The same is true for making sure children get enough calories, Mangels says. “You can tell by looking at your kid when she is growing, and you can tell if she tends toward the heavy side or the lean side, and you can do things to compensate for that, like putting a bit more peanut butter on her sandwich.”

Gaining Acceptance
Nutrition isn’t the only area where children are affected by their vegetarian diet. Many parents worry that their decision will be questioned or disrespected by friends or family members, or that children will be teased for being different.

To help support their children, parents should be clear with other adults in their lives that vegetarianism is something they take seriously.

“It’s really important for parents to make clear that you don’t mess with the family’s decision to be vegetarian, that it’s very important and needs to be respected,” says Joanne Stepaniak, co-author of Raising Vegetarian Children: A Guide to Good Health and Family Harmony and several other books on vegetarianism and veganism.

Taking time to explain the decision to others can go a long way toward ensuring a positive reception. As with many aspects of parenting, most people respect each individual family’s choices about how children should be raised.

"A lot easier than I expected"

After what she calls the “initial shock,” Diana Fischer Gomberg, who raises her two daughters as vegetarians, says everyone has been very supportive. “It’s really a lot easier than I expected,” she says.

Vegetarians may fare better in some communities than in others, but parents can help their children fit in by packing foods for school lunches or parties that are similar to those eaten by their non-vegetarian peers. Good choices include nut or soy butters and jelly, bean spreads or meat substitute sandwiches or hot dogs. “You don’t have to send them weird stuff, although you can if you want to and they like it,” says Pavlina.

Other parents point out that being vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean being perfectly healthy all the time, to the exclusion of fun.

“The kids get a fair amount of ice cream and candy when we go out,” says Craig Kelley, who along with his wife raises their 3- and 6-year-old sons as vegetarians. “They’re not martyrs to our need to be vegetarian.” But to ensure the kids get plenty of healthy snacks too, they travel with a food bag that’s packed with everything from fig bars and pretzel rods to pineapple slices and dried-fruit leathers.

Online communities such as – which has gone from 63 visitors in its first month in 1999 to 18,000 visitors per month today – allow parents to find resources, post questions and discuss issues with other parents. Some parents have taken the idea of community one step further and formed local support groups. (Click on Vegetarian-Friendly Books and Web Sites for more information.)

If there are no support groups in your town, other like-minded parents may be found through vegetarian organizations.

“There are a lot of people in the movement who, even if their children are grown up, have been through it,” says Brian Graff, co-director of the North American Vegetarian Society and himself a parent of two vegan children.

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Raising Healthy Vegetarians

–Sarah Tomlinson