Your child has therefore just announced that he has become a vegetarian, in addition to being already picky eaters. And now?
Generally, a well-balanced vegetarian diet is low in saturated fat and high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.
Here are some evidence-based tips to make sure your growing child gets the nutrients they need and how to help them expand their tastes.
What kind of vegetarians are they?
A vegetarian diet generally excludes all animal products, with the exception of dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and eggs. However, there may be variations.
You can start by asking your child what’s in it and what’s not in their new diet. Will they still eat eggs, dairy, seafood or chicken? Don’t assume – your child’s interpretation of “vegetarian” may be slightly different from yours.
Careful planning required
Meat provides essential nutrients, so careful planning will be required. Children are still growing and need more nutrients (relative to their body weight) than adults, even though they consume less food overall.
Let’s start with proteins. In children 4 to 8 years old, estimated average need (sometimes abbreviated as EAR) is 0.73 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
Boys aged 9 to 13 need about 0.78 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, while boys aged 14 to 18 need about 0.76 g of protein per kilogram of body weight body per day.
Girls need about 0.61 g of protein per kilogram of body weight between the ages of 9 and 13 and 0.62 g of protein per kilogram of body weight between the ages of 14 and 18.
In contrast, men need about 0.68 g of protein per kilogram of body weight and women about 0.60 g of protein per kilogram of body weight.
There are still many good sources of protein for vegetarians. Each of them contains about 10 g of protein:
Meat is a good source of iron and zinc, so careful planning is needed to make sure vegetarians don’t miss them. Iron is of particular concern for menstruating girls, while zinc is of particular concern for boys because sexual maturation.
To maximize iron and zinc intake, try to make sure your child eats whole-grain foods rather than refined grains. For example, 100 g of a multigrain bun contains 4.7 mg of iron and 1.7 mg of zinc. In contrast, 100 g of a white bread roll contains 1.26 mg of iron and 0.82 mg of zinc.
Lentils, beans, nuts, and fortified cereals like Weet-Bix are good sources of iron and zinc.
Ask your child why he became a vegetarian
It is important to explore why your child is becoming a vegetarian; this may allow some trade-offs.
For example, if animal welfare is the primary concern, see if your child could accept a compromise that only one (large) animal is slaughtered and frozen, to be eaten as needed. The reason here is that only one animal was killed rather than many if you buy meat from smaller animals every week at the butcher or supermarket.
If your child is concerned about environmental impact and emissions, see if the whole family could reduce their meat consumption to save more emissions and have your child still eat meat from time to time.
Beef and lamb in particular are large contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, so switching to fish and chicken may be another strategy. You can replace the meat with beans, lentils and nuts. In addition to containing protein, they are also rich in fiber and antioxidants.
Or, you could consider getting backyard chickens to use up food scraps rather than going to the landfill, which will further reduce emissions and provide the family with eggs (a good source of protein ).
Reducing the consumption of certain processed and ultra-processed foods is another way to reduce environmental impact; producing, processing and transporting these foods requires a lot of energy. Cutting down on processed foods is also a healthier choice for the whole family.
If the reason is taste preferences, keep experimenting with different meats and cuts. Your child’s tastes will fluctuate over time. You might try new cooking techniques, different flavors, or new herbs and spices.
Get the kids involved
Involving your child in grocery shopping, recipe selection and cooking can help expand their tastes and ensure they are hitting the right food groups.
Depending on their age, you can also encourage your child to search reliable, evidence-based websites to find ideal replacement foods.
The Australian guide to healthy eating contains good information on food groups and non-meat protein sources such as beans, lentils, nuts and tofu.
For more detailed information, try the Australian Food Composition Database (formerly known as NUTTAB), an Australian government site that describes nutrient levels in foods. The National Health and Medical Research Council website can also be useful.
Any other foodie tips?
There is good, research-based strategies to help picky eaters.
You may need to offer your child new and unfamiliar foods several times before they try them. Don’t force them to eat it, but make sure it reappears on the plate in the future.
Set an example by eating new or unfamiliar foods yourself and make sure your family’s diet is balanced.
However, a vegetarian diet with too many processed and ultra-processed foods will always be unhealthy.
If you’re still concerned about your child’s diet, consult a registered dietitian for personalized advice.