What Parents Need to Know to Raise Healthy Vegetarian Kids
Many parents complain they can never get their kids to eat anything green, but for some American children, vegetable products are the main event at every meal. Becoming vegetarian is a decision that families and children make to varying degrees and for a wide range of reasons. Whatever the motivation, going meatless can bring valuable health benefits as well as challenges. Families and nutrition experts recommend ways to make the most of a vegetarian lifestyle.

By Sarah Tomlinson

Kids Gone Veggie!

As summer blooms, the season’s fruits and vegetables beckon at farm stands and supermarkets. The bounty of fuzzy peaches and glossy plums, vibrant vine-ripened tomatoes and lush, leafy lettuces all make healthful eating easier.

The more fresh produce the better, as every parent knows. But three-quarters of Americans don’t eat the daily minimum of fruit and vegetables recommended by the federal Department of Agriculture, according to Christine Filardo, M.S., R.D., of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to increase Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables.

But for some families, vegetables are the main event all year round. Vegetarian families or vegetarian children put vegetables front-and-center on every menu, and the health benefits are just one reason. Religious and philosophical beliefs, as well as concerns about the environmental impact of meat production are other reasons for opting for a vegetarian or vegan (no animal products, including eggs and dairy) lifestyle.

Jennie Glenn and her husband, Jeffrey, are raising their 1-year-old son, Dalton, on a diet based on their own flexible approach to vegetarianism. They have gone back and forth between vegan and vegetarian, and they do eat small amounts of fish, especially if they are dining out or entertaining. Glenn chooses vegetarianism largely because of “the possibility of antibiotics and hormones in meat,” she says. “And because of that, I guess I feel, for us, fish is the best choice out of everything.”

Whether vegetarianism is a family choice or a child’s own preference, it’s a decision that has led to an estimated one million school-age vegetarians – about 2 percent of the total age group.

Among these veggie kids are the 7- and 10-year-old daughters of nutrition advisor Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D. “My husband and I were both vegan, so we weren’t going to do anything different for the kids,” says Mangels, a frequent contributor to the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit group working to educate people about vegetarianism and related issues.

Mangels and her husband tend to be “a little loose in social situations,” she says, telling her daughters when something is likely to contain eggs and allowing them to decide whether to eat it. But, so far, the girls aren’t interested in eating meat.

What they do eat are beans – veggie baked beans, bean burritos, beans and rice – and hot dogs and hamburgers made with tofu or other meat substitutes, for protein. Fortified juices, soy milk and supplements provide calcium, plus one daughter also gets calcium from collards, kale and broccoli, which the other daughter doesn’t like.

“These are real-life kids,” Mangels says with a laugh.

Meeting Nutritional Needs
So what do parents need to know if they want to raise kids without meat, or if a child comes home one day and announces that he’s now a vegetarian?

Finding healthy foods that your children genuinely enjoy can go a long way toward ensuring that their nutritional needs are being met. Erin Pavlina, the founder of the VegFamily online magazine and author of Raising Vegan Children in a Non-Vegan World, says her daughter drinks enough enriched rice milk every day that Pavlina knows she gets plenty of the nutrients contained in that beverage. Once you “make sure they’re covered,” Pavlina says, “you can go about your business and you don’t have to let it keep you up at night.”

Nutrients aren’t the only dietary requirements that parents must plan for when meat is removed. Vegetarian and vegan children need adequate calories to grow.

“Kids can definitely fill up really quickly if you give them a big salad and whole-grain this and whole-grain that,” says Mangels. “So particularly when they’re really small, to give them more high-fat food is fine. That could mean cooking with a bit more oil than you usually use.”
Adding fat may seem counterintuitive considering the national epidemic of childhood obesity and an increasing incidence of type 2 diabetes in children. But any special diet has its own rules, especially for growing children.

While the need for nutritional vigilance has made vegetarianism a sometimes controversial parenting choice, many nutritionists and pediatricians herald the benefits of any diet that encourages kids to eat their vegetables. The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has stated that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

Veggie Viewpoints
The very fact of being mindful of what foods are healthy to consume can have important health benefits, experts say.

“It may be that people who want to be vegetarian choose a much more healthy diet than people who eat junk food,” says Gerald Hass, M.D., a pediatrician who has encountered many vegetarian children and teens in his 30 years of private practice. While Dr. Hass believes that children benefit from limited amounts of meat and eggs because of their protein and vitamin B-12, he acknowledges that they are not the only sources for these nutrients.

Teaching children to make careful choices about what they eat, particularly encouraging them to eat more produce, can lay the foundation for a lifetime of good health, whether they choose to remain vegetarian or not, Mangels says. “It sets them up for a way of eating that is more healthful.”

Children also benefit from avoiding the harmful aspects of meat, “such as the saturated fat and cholesterol in animal protein,” 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. Stepaniak was herself brought up as a vegetarian in the early 1960s and has since set out to support parents and children in this lifestyle, offering an online question-and-answer service about vegetarianism and veganism (see Resources).

While no one disputes that the more vegetables in a child’s diet, the better, some nutritionists are less enthusiastic about the stricter vegan diet.

“I do think it’s risky for kids unless it’s done with a great deal of care and due regard for the special needs of children,” says Johanna Dwyer, director of the renowned Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston. “Particularly their nutrition needs for growth, specifically for vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, iron and zinc.”

Picky eaters can have particular difficulty on a vegan diet because “you don’t have as much insurance as you do with children who are eating a more caloric and protein-dense diet,” says Stephen Parker, M.D., a pediatrician who co-authored the final edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Parker doesn’t believe a vegan diet should be advocated for all children, an opinion that differed from Dr. Spock’s recommendation that children over age 2 be raised vegan, which was published only in the last edition of his famous child-rearing book. While Parker acknowledges that a vegan diet can be a healthy choice with proper planning, he says, “I don’t know that the benefits are all that great or worth it.”

Safe and Satisfied Veggie Kids
The risks of a vegetarian or vegan diet can be avoided by consulting a qualified dietitian or your child’s pediatrician. They can offer strategies for making sure your child gets adequate amounts of the protein, iron and nutrients that are typically found in meat and dairy – particularly vitamin B-12 and vitamin D – through alternative food sources or supplements. They can also suggest ways to monitor your child’s response to the diet.

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.”

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 Stepaniak.

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.

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 (see Resources).
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.

Vegetarian Teens
Teen-agers who decide to become vegetarian when their families aren’t often require special resources and support. It’s an increasingly popular choice, according to Graff, who estimates that young people are the fastest-growing group of vegetarians.

When parents worry about their teen-agers’ nutritional needs, Hass advises them to find out “what they like to eat, and if what they are eating is nutritionally sound,” he says. “And if it’s low in some areas, like vitamins and iron, add those to their diet in the form of supplements.” If worries persist, he recommends seeing a nutritionist.

One common mistake that can cause teen-age vegetarians to become malnourished is to “remove the protein or meat from the plate and eat whatever is left,” Stepaniak says. She stressed the importance for kids, “especially those in a growth spurt, to get a good consistent source of protein.”

Proper nutrition is not the only issue. Another danger is a lack of emotional support, either from parents or from peers who may not understand the decision, according to Stepaniak. “Even if a kid wants to be a vegetarian, it can still be very difficult,” she says.

Whatever the child’s age, and to whatever degree the family embraces a vegetarian lifestyle, parents should avoid the message that certain junk foods are rewards while the rest of the stuff is good for you, but no fun to eat, Filardo says.

Kids won’t see healthful eating as unusual – or as a form of punishment – if the family presents fruits and vegetables as delicious, Filardo adds. “We should eat them because they’re good for you, but also because they taste good.”


On the Web

rong>American Dietetic Association – – The ADA’s position paper on vegetarian diets for children includes nutrient sources, nutrition tips and a dietitian finder.

rong>North American Vegetarian Society – – Offers national resources and links to regional resources, plus Vegetarian Voice, an online magazine.

rong>The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – – The committee’s guidelines for a vegetarian diet for children include recommended food group servings and sample menus for children of different ages.

rong>Vegetarian Baby and Child Magazine – – The online edition of the print guide for parents of vegetarian children.

rong>The Vegetarian Resource Group – – Features abundant resources, including a guide to vegetarian and vegan nutrient sources, meal and snack planning and specific guidelines for young children through teens. – Features resources specifically for teens. – Erin Pavlina’s online resource for vegan parents. – Offers recipes, articles, health resources and discussion boards.


rong>Being Vegan: Living With Conscience, Conviction and Compassion, by Joanne Stepaniak, McGraw-Hill, 2000.

rong>Raising Vegan Children in a Non-Vegan World, by Erin Pavlina, VegFamily, 2003.

rong>Raising Vegetarian Children: A Guide to Good Health and Family Harmony, by Joanne Stepaniak, McGraw-Hill, 2002.

rong>The Vegan Sourcebook, by Joanne Stepaniak, McGraw-Hill, 2000.

The Vegetarian Child: A Complete Guide, by Lucy Moll, Perigee, 1997. Offers ideas for dealing with social situations.

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