Is a vegan diet safe for my toddler?

The life-style choices we make for ourselves as adults often need a re-think when children come along. What suits a grown-up may not always be appropriate for a young child.

Being vegan is now easier than ever. Many more food products are clearly labelled and available in mainstream supermarkets than ever before, and people are much more knowledgeable about food and nutrition generally.

Happy, healthy children

Ellie Bedford, author of How to Eat A Rainbow: Magical Raw Vegan Recipes for Kids, says there is no reason why vegan parents should not offer the same diet to their young children.

“Many families are raising happy, healthy vegan children.  A big part of being vegan is being health-conscious and knowledgeable about where our food comes from, so parents will be instilling messages about healthy eating and nutrition from an early age,” she says.

Talk it over

Discussing your vegan diet with a young child can be difficult when your little ones are still making sense of the world around them, and so might explaining to their non-vegan friends. If your child or their friends ask, be as honest and gentle as you can, but mindful of their age. You could explain, for example, that you prefer a diet of plant food because, as a family, you love and respect animals.

According to The Vegan Society, children raised on a vegan diet can thrive and grow just as well as a meat-eating or vegetarian child, and research from the British Dietetic Association supports that view. But you will need to give additional thought about how your growing child will obtain essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients from sources other than from meat, milk, eggs and other animal by-products.

Find suitable substitutes

Calcium, for example, is essential for strong bones and teeth in growing children, and normally youngsters get this from dairy products such as cow’s milk, cheese and yogurts. A vegan child will substitute these with tofu and non-dairy milks such as soya or almond.

“Most of these foods are now fortified with calcium and vitamins, and they are completely suitable for vegans,” says Ellie. “Along with iron, calcium is also present in green vegetables, which are a must for all children regardless of diet.”

Protein, which is essential for growth and development, is present in tofu and pulses such as lentils, mung beans and chick peas.  In addition, these foods provide energy for lively toddlers.

Vegan diets tend to lack vitamin D – present in fish, eggs and liver – so children will need to use supplements. The Vegan Society recommends children spend a few minutes a day in the sunshine when the weather is fine to build up their vitamin D reserves.

Parents who are unsure about the best way of feeding their children a vegan diet should consult a nutritionist who will be able to advise them. “If you are going to eat vegan, then you should try to do it properly,” Ellie adds. “That means minimal use of processed foods, even if they don’t contain animal by-products.”

Real world scenario: What to do when your child is invited to a birthday party?

Children love being invited to parties so you shouldn’t feel you have to decline a kind offer, and have your child miss out on the fun, because of worries about food.

If your child is invited to a party, don’t feel awkward about raising the issue with the party organiser. They may not be aware that you’re vegan, and will welcome the fact you mentioned it so they can plan ahead. In any event, many party invitations now come with a question about special dietary requirements, especially if the event is being held in a place where catering is provided.

If the hosts weren’t planning to cater for a vegan diet, offer to bring some food for your child, including cakes. You could even offer to take some for all the party-goers to try. Similarly, if sweets or other treats are offered in a party bag, offer to take some substitutes that you can pop into the bag.  Most hosts will be accommodating and happy that your child wants to come to the party.

Written for the Pre-school Learning Alliance by Dorothy Lepkowska.