Tips for Parents of Young Vegans
By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD
Some children have been vegan from birth. Others come from families that decided to make the change to a vegan diet. Still others have decided, independently of their family, to be vegan. No matter how long a child has been a vegan or what their motivation is, the key to a nutritionally sound vegan diet is a variety of nutritious foods. These foods include whole grains, dried beans, nuts and seeds, fortified soymilk, and fruits and vegetables. Vegan children should use reliable sources of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
What do vegan children eat?
Favorite foods of many vegan children include veggie burgers, tofu dogs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, breakfast cereals (with soymilk or fortified juice), pancakes, waffles, bagels, pasta, pizza without cheese or with vegan soy cheese, mashed potatoes, shakes made with fruit and/or soymilk, raw vegetables with dip, hummus, bean burritos, fresh fruit, and frozen desserts. Others like ethnic food such as broccoli with soy sauce, spicy Indian Chana Masala, or even Ethiopian dishes, which you eat with your hands.
What about peer pressure?
Each family and each vegan develops his or her own methods for dealing with peer pressure. Most families, vegan or not, have practices which are "different" from others in the community. Age-level appropriate explanations of family practices can help children cope with peer pressure. In many areas of the United States it's "cool" to be a vegan. Erik Blum, age 13 and vegan since birth suggested that you "get normal vegan things from the grocery store like soups and pre-made meals."
Carol Meerschaert, RD, said when the neighborhood children come over to visit her kids, she "...feeds them vegetarian foods such as veggie burgers and pasta with veggie sauce." Eight-year old Sari Stahler stated, "Most of the time I like being vegetarian. Sometimes when I go to people's houses and they eat meat, they ask, 'What do you want to eat?' I ask what they have. Usually my dad tells them I'm vegetarian. One friend's mom got me veggie burgers."
Where do vegan children get their nutrients?
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12-fortified foods include some brands of soymilk and rice milk, meat analogues, breakfast cereals, and Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast.
Vitamin D: Sunlight exposure is one source of vitamin D. Where regular sunlight exposure is not possible, some brands of soymilk or rice milk, orange juice, and some cold cereals are fortified with vitamin D.
Calcium: Good sources include calcium-fortified soymilk and orange juice and many brands of tofu (Read the label for calcium content since this varies). Dark green leafy vegetables including collard greens, kale, mustard greens, and turnip greens also provide calcium.
Protein: Beans, grains, soy products, meat analogues, nuts, and nut butters all provide protein.
Iron: Look for iron in whole or enriched grains and grain products, iron-fortified cereals, dried beans, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits.
Children are often hungry between meals. Offer choices of foods, but limit choices to nutritious snacks. "Do you want carrot sticks or some grapes?" instead of "Do you want carrot sticks or cookies?" Keep trying. Just because a child refuses a food today, doesn't mean it won't be her favorite food next week.
Get children involved in food preparation.
Even young children can select fruit for a fruit salad or put pre-measured ingredients into an over-sized bowl. Older children can make sandwiches and help to measure ingredients. In no time at all, they'll be making dinner for you!
Set a good example
If your child sees you lunching on a diet soda and potato chips, they'll wonder why they have to eat their hummus sandwich.
Make food fun!
Try sandwiches cut into shapes, vegetables and fruits with dips, or pancakes for lunch occasionally.
If your child is new to veganism, stick with familiar foods at first. Pasta, bean burritos, and peanut butter sandwiches may be "old friends." Gradually introduce less familiar foods.
Some children don't like being different. If that's true for your child, packing a veggie bologna sandwich or tofu salad (instead of egg salad) will help make their lunch box more like his or her friends'. Other children like being trendsetters and enjoy corn chips with refried bean dip, bagels and hummus, and pasta salad.
If your entire family is not vegetarian, think of foods that everyone can enjoy. Some vegetarian meals will work for all family members. Sometimes you'll be able to add the meat last (stir-fries and spaghetti sauce, for example). Keep some frozen convenience foods like veggie burgers around.
Share the food your family eats with others
Invite your child's friends for snacks or meals. Nine-year old Sam's non-vegetarian friends loved to be served salsa and chips, Amy's Toaster Pops, tomato soup, Tofutti Cuties, and soy hot dogs in a bun (if not pushed as soy). But he would never take these foods to school. Each child is different.
If your family is vegan, explain why and listen to your child's thoughts about veganism. If your child has chosen to be vegan, listen to his or her reasons for this choice.
To ask questions of other vegetarian parents, sign up for The Vegetarian Resource Group Parents' E-Mail list here. For information about vegetarian friendly books, go to http://www.vrg.org/family/Vegetarian-friendly_Kids_Booklist.pdf
Vegetarian do not eat meat, fish, or fowl. A vegan is a vegetarian who does not use other animal products, such as dairy and eggs.
Reed Mangels has a Ph.D. in nutrition, is co-author of the book Simply Vegan, and is raising her two children on a vegan diet.
Publications from The Vegetarian Resource Group are not intended to provide personal medical advice,
which should be obtained from a qualified health professional. For more information about vegetarianism, visit our web site at