My husband and I are vegetarians. Is it okay to raise a child as a vegetarian?
Absolutely, though you may have to do a little more planning to ensure that all his or her nutritional bases are covered. Despite years of controversy and confusion, we now know that vegetarian diets can be as healthy as omnivorous diets, perhaps even more so.
In its position paper on vegetarianism, the American Dietetic Association says, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The ADA believes this applies to children as well as adults.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians — those who eat eggs and dairy — need to be sure they are getting enough protein, calcium, vitamin D and zinc. Children can get protein from eggs, dairy, soy products, nuts, legumes, grains and cereals. You should make sure your child gets enough iron, too, but the ADA says this is true for all children, not just vegetarians.
Two other things to look out for are adequate amounts of fat and calories. Fat is crucial to normal growth and development. Children who eat dairy should have whole milk dairy products until age 2, when you can start switching them to the low-fat versions. (Babies less than a year old shouldn’t drink cow’s milk at all.)
Don’t feed your child too many fruits and vegetables. They are high-fiber foods and may provide more bulk than calories. Find out the daily calorie requirements for your child’s age and size and make sure he or she is consuming enough to sustain rapid growth.
If you are a family of vegans — vegetarians who don’t eat eggs or dairy products — you should all take vitamin B12 supplements or eat fortified foods. The only food sources of B12 are animal products. It may also be difficult to consume enough calcium, so supplements or calcium-enriched foods may be in order.
From a parenting perspective, you may want to start thinking ahead about how strictly you’ll enforce the vegetarian lifestyle as your child gets older. At some point, he or she will be faced with the choice of eating meat, probably in a situation where he or she wants to do what friends are doing.
In my opinion, you would be wise to allow your child the flexibility to make his or her own decisions in such cases. Otherwise, you may instill guilt or create a taboo that might backfire later and become a source of conflict. These early years are critical to developing healthful lifelong eating habits. And healthy attitudes about food are as much a part of that as are specific food choices.