Fruits, leafy, cruciferous and root vegetables, squashes, legumes and whole grains are good for both health and the environment.
If you want to give your child completely vegetarian food, good knowledge of food and nutrients and a little extra planning is required.
However, if the vegetarian diet is well composed, contains fortified products or certain supplements and provides enough energy, even children can eat completely vegetarian food—vegan food.
What is Vegan Food?
Vegan food consists entirely of vegetables without any element from the animal kingdom, i.e., no meat, fish, shellfish, dairy products, eggs or honey.
Replace Meat And Fish
Children on a vegan diet must replace the foods that are removed from the animal kingdom with nutritious foods from the plant kingdom. In general, the more foods that are removed, the more difficult it is to get a diet that provides all the energy and nutrition that a child needs.
If you are giving your child vegan food, it is essential to ensure that your child receives vitamin B12 and vitamin D as supplements or through fortified products. Other nutrients that you may need to pay attention to are riboflavin, calcium, iron, selenium, zinc, iodine, omega 3 fatty acids and protein.
That’s How You Get It Into Practice
For a child to receive the nutrition they need, they should consume, among other things:
- Legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils, tofu or other soy products, such as soy sausage and soy mince.
- Wholemeal products, such as oatmeal, graham flour or rye wholemeal flour.
- Vegetables and root vegetables.
- Fruit and berries.
- Fortified porridge or gruel, at least until two years of age.
- Fortified vegetable beverages, for example, oats or soybeans (excluding rice drinks for children under six years *).
- Rapeseed oil and rapeseed oil-based shortening.
Enough Energy and Nutrition
Protein and Energy
It is not usually difficult for children to get enough protein, but children who eat a vegan diet must get protein-rich foods at several daily meals.
Such foods are, for example, beans, lentils, peas, tofu and other soy products, vegetable drinks, cooked quinoa and cereal products, such as bread, pasta, bulgur and rice. Nuts and seeds also contain protein.
Protein is needed, among other things, to build muscle in the body. To be able to do that, the child must get enough energy to facilitate this. Otherwise, the protein is used as an energy source, and their development will suffer.
It can be difficult for children who eat only food from the plant kingdom to get enough energy. This is because many vegetables contain little energy but a lot of fiber. Fiber saturates well, and the risk is that the child will not be able to eat large enough portions needed to cover their energy requirements. If the child gets too few calories, the protein is then used as energy and not for the child’s growth.
Many Meals Make it Easier to Eat Enough
Spread the child’s meals and snacks evenly throughout the day— then they can eat more, which in turn makes it easier for them to get enough energy. It can also be good to have an extra teaspoon of rapeseed oil in a baby’s portion.
Feel free to choose food with whole grains; they’re good and nourishing. But small children, especially children under the age of two, can become loose or hard in the stomach from too many whole grains.
Start by replacing gruel and porridge with varieties with less fiber, and see if it improves. Pay attention to the fact that the child is growing as they should—this is a good sign that the energy and protein intake is sufficient.
Many children, even those who eat a mixed diet, get too little polyunsaturated fat, especially omega-3 fat. A special type of omega-3 fat is called DHA and is needed to develop the brain and vision. DHA is mainly found in fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring.
In addition to DHA, fish contains several other nutrients that are not abundant in plant foods, which are essential for children. Therefore, it is good if a child can get fish from time to time, even if the adults in the family opt-out.
If the child does not eat fish, it is extra important to cook their food with rapeseed oil and rapeseed oil-based shortening. These contain another type of omega-3 fat that, to some extent, can be converted to DHA in the body.
Walnuts and flaxseed oil also contain omega-3 fats. Flaxseed oil has a fairly sharp taste and is better suited as a dressing rather than in cooking. On the other hand, Flaxseed grain is not a good source of omega-3, as it contains substances that form the toxic substance cyanide when broken down.
There is no danger for children who eat flax seeds in, for example, bread, porridge or muesli. But they should not eat whole flax seeds by the “spoonful,” and they should not eat crushed flax seeds at all. Coconut fat does not contain omega-3.
Algae Oil Is a Vegetable Source of DHA
In the plant kingdom, only algae contain the longest omega-3 fatty acids, DHA. Algae oil should not be confused with other algae products, such as dietary supplements with dried algae. Such products may contain harmful levels of iodine. Although iodine is a vital substance, too high an intake can be detrimental to children and adults.
In the US nutritional recommendations, there is no specific recommendation for individual fatty acids. Still, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA considers 100 mg of DHA sufficient for children under two years of age. It is possible to cut a small hole in the capsule to give the oil on a spoon.
Young children grow fast and therefore have a great need for iron. Iron is needed not only for the blood and oxygenation but also for the development of the brain. The recommended daily intake of iron for children is almost as high as for adult men, but children cannot eat as much. That is why all children need to get iron-rich food.
Factors That Increase and Decrease the Uptake of Iron
For children who do not eat meat, iron is extra-important, as it is more difficult for the body to absorb the iron found in plant foods than in animal foods. Legumes, nuts and whole grains are the best vegetable sources of iron, but unfortunately, they also contain so-called phytic acid, which reduces the uptake of iron. Phytic acid is broken down in beans and legumes through soaking before eating.
Germination of legumes and seeds also reduces the amount of phytic acid. Vitamin C increases the uptake of iron and is found in, for example, vegetables, fruits, berries and root vegetables.
Iron-Rich Foods for Children Who Eat Vegan Food Only
- Whole grain products, beans, peas, lentils, tofu and other soy products, such as soy sausage and minced meat for both lunch and dinner
- Iron-fortified porridge or gruel, at least up to two years of age. They contain iron and other vital nutrients such as vitamin b12, vitamin D and calcium.
- Nuts, peanut butter, seeds and dried apricots added, for example, to muesli and porridge can also contribute iron.
Most fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, which increases the absorption of iron. Therefore, it is good to serve vegetables and fruits with every meal.
For those who exclude food from the animal kingdom, it can also be more difficult to absorb enough zinc.
Zinc is needed, among other things, for wounds to heal normally. Those who eat food exclusively from the plant kingdom need to ingest 25-30 percent more zinc than those who eat a mixed diet.
Zinc in vegetarian food is more difficult for the body to absorb. Zinc is found in about the same foods as iron, i.e., in whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils, tofu and other soy products.
Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products but is completely absent in foods from the plant kingdom. Vitamin B12 is needed for the formation of blood cells and is necessary for the function of the nervous system.
Deficiency can lead to irreparable nerve damage, and therefore you must ensure that the child actually ingests vitamin B12. At the same time, it is essential not to give too large doses.
To avoid B12 deficiency, children who receive vegan food must eat fortified products or receive B12 supplements.
For children under two years of age, there is currently no B12 supplement that is suitable. Therefore, it is necessary to get it with fortified foods unless the child is breastfed.
For a baby who gets a large part of their energy needs covered by breast milk, this can provide enough vitamin B12, provided the mother gets enough B12.
- The content of vitamin B12 in breast milk depends on the mother’s B12 levels. Therefore, a breastfeeding mother must have an adequate intake of vitamin B12, either through supplements or fortified products. The mother’s recommended daily intake of vitamin B12 during breastfeeding is 2.6 micrograms.
- A portion of fortified baby porridge or baby gruel can contribute a significant amount of vitamin B12. The amount of vitamin B12 the product contains is stated on the packaging.
Recommended Daily Intake of Vitamin B12
|Infants 6-11 months||0.5 micrograms|
|Children 12-23 months||0.6 micrograms|
|Children 2-5 years||0.8 micrograms|
|Children 6-9 years||1.3 micrograms|
|Children 10-13 years||2.0 micrograms|
|Teenagers and adults||2.0 micrograms|
The best source of vitamin D is the sun, but the sun is too low in the sky throughout the winter for most of us to produce enough vitamin D naturally.
In the plant kingdom, vitamin D is found naturally in certain mushrooms, such as chanterelles and porcini mushrooms. Still, since it is not in everyday food, enriched products play an important role.
Vegetable drinks, fats and certain other vegetable products are enriched. Read the packaging to make sure that the drink and shortening are enriched. There are two different forms of vitamin D: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vegetable products are usually fortified with vitamin D2. Research suggests that this form is not quite as effective as vitamin D3.
Vitamin D3 for enrichment is extracted from animal sources such as sheep’s wool, but there is also a variant of vitamin D3 extracted from lichen, which can be used for vegetable products.
Recommended Daily Intake of Vitamin D.
|Infants, children and teenagers||10 micrograms (equivalent to 400 IU)|
Vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, a disease in children, which produces a soft and deformed skeleton. For children under the age of two, the vitamin D provided by the food is not enough; they need extra vitamin D in the form of D-drops. Children who do not eat fish and children who do not receive vitamin D-enriched foods, such as vegetable drinks and fats, need to continue with vitamin D supplements even after the age of two.
Calcium is needed to strengthen a child’s skeleton and is mainly sourced from dairy products. Calcium is found in the plant kingdom in foods such as sesame seeds, almonds, kale, broccoli, cabbage and legumes, especially in soybeans.
Enriched vegetable drinks make it easier to ensure that the child gets enough calcium. You should not give rice drinks to children under six years *. Read the packaging to be sure that the drink is enriched.
Iodine plays a central role in the body’s metabolism. An excellent way to ensure iodine intake is to choose iodized salt. Iodine is also found in some algae. Algae oils and algae tablets/capsules are marketed as good sources of iodine, but the iodine content varies between different products and sometimes the levels can be harmful to children.
All children, regardless of diet, need to get iodized salt, but for those who avoid milk, eggs and seafood, which are our most significant sources of iodine, it is extra important. Two grams of iodized salt corresponds to the recommended daily intake of iodine for children 2-5 years. So only small amounts of salt are needed. Salt used for semi-finished products, bread and the like is rarely iodine-enriched.
Children should not be given algal preparations or other dietary supplements that contain iodine levels that exceed the recommended daily intake of iodine. If the iodine content is not stated on the label, you must contact the manufacturer to find out.
Riboflavin is found mainly in dairy products and is needed for the body’s energy production and as part of antioxidant protection. The best sources in a vegetable diet are fortified vegetable drinks (but not rice drinks *), legumes, green leafy vegetables and whole grains. Read the packaging to be sure that the drink is enriched.
Selenium is found in meat, fish, eggs and milk. It is part of the body’s antioxidant defenses and is needed for metabolism. Vary a child’s intake with an assortment of cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds, that are often rich in selenium.
Tips to Make it Work
There is a wide choice of legumes, whole grains, nuts and other nutritious foods. An advantage for young children is that the consistency of the food can be easier to chew than meat.
- Legumes can be used in many different ways: cook lentil or chickpea curry, bean steaks, falafel, pea soup, lentil soup, lentil sauce, hummus or bean dip. It is also possible to mix cooked red lentils into a pancake batter or serve chickpeas, black beans or other legumes on their own or as an accompaniment to the food.
- Tofu can be diced and served as is, or marinated, breaded, fried or stir-fried.
- Vegetarian whole products such as soy sausages, veggie balls and steaks made from legumes can also be a good source of nutrition.
- Nuts and seeds can be finely chopped and mixed with dried fruit in muesli and flake mixtures. They can also be combined with onions, spices, potato flour, or any other binder and fried into balls or steaks.
- On a sandwich: whole vegetable cooking fat, hummus, peanut butter, bean pattie and pea pattie.
- You can include whole grains in many different forms: replace half of the wheat flour in pancakes with oat or rye flour, choose wholemeal pasta and wholemeal bulgur, choose flakes or muesli with wholemeal and bake or buy bread with hints of wholemeal. Crispbread often consists of 100 percent whole grains. Choose bread, cereals and muesli that contain more whole grains than other comparable products.
- Examples of vitamin C-rich accompaniments that you can give along with the meal to facilitate the absorption of iron and zinc are peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, orange, mandarin and other citrus fruits.
* Rice drinks contain arsenic and should therefore not be given to children under six years of age.