A Unique Child

How to Serve Healthy Vegetarian Meals at Nursery

  • How to Serve Healthy Vegetarian Meals at Nursery

Ensuring your vegetarian children receive a nutritious diet while in your care doesn’t have to be a headache, says Grub4Life’s Nigel Denby…

It’s more than likely that your setting is catering for at least one vegetarian child. Around two per cent of the population follows some form of a vegetarian diet, though in some areas this figure will be significantly higher due to the diversity of the local community. There are some key issues to be aware of when planning a vegetarian menu for young children, but it doesn’t have to be a ‘headache’ for you or your cook.

The basics

Embracing vegetarian food is easy. Here are some key points to consider:

● Menus and recipes can easily be adapted to suit vegetarian diets; you don’t always have to create entirely new or separate dishes.

● A lot of settings include vegetarian meals for the whole setting as part of their menus – we actively encourage at least one vegetarian lunch in the weekly menu so children can experience and get used to vegetarian forms of protein like pulses, beans and lentils.

● Vegetarian children have exactly the same nutritional needs as non-vegetarian children.

● Meals need to be nutrient-dense and, of course, tasty and popular.

● With a little know-how you can design your vegetarian meals to be just as big a hit with the children as your non-veggie menu.

● You might even introduce some children to foods they’d never dream of eating at home.

Vegetarians choose not to eat meat for different reasons. Some are vegetarian because of religious or cultural reasons – e.g. some Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Rastafarian families are likely to follow some form of vegetarianism. Others don’t eat meat because of ethical/animal welfare reasons, and some people simply dislike the taste or texture of meat. Whatever the reason, if a parent is vegetarian, it’s likely they’ll choose to bring up their children to be the same.

Some vegetarian diets will include eggs; some may omit red meat, while others may completely rule out dairy, eggs and all meats, poultry and fish. It’s essential to find out what ‘type’ of vegetarian diet is being followed from the outset. This should be documented on enrolment forms and you need to communicate clearly with your cook about which foods can and cannot be eaten.

● Partial vegetarians usually avoid red meat but do eat fish and poultry as well as dairy foods and eggs.

● Piscatarians eat fish, dairy and eggs but no red meat or poultry.

● Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy foods and eggs but not any meat, fish or poultry.

● Lacto vegetarians eat dairy foods but not eggs, read meat, poultry or fish.

● Vegans do not eat any animal foods at all.

Healthy diets

Vegetarian diets for children should be based on the same healthy-eating guidelines as non-vegetarian diets. They must include all five food groups every day.

● Meals and snacks need to include starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, pasta, rice, bread and grains, and there should be a mix of refined and whole grains.

● Protein foods should be served at each meal; however, a variety of protein foods should be served to ensure that children are consuming foods that contain all of the essential amino acids. Meat is one of the main dietary sources of iron, so it’s important to make sure vegetarian diets include plenty of other iron sources.

● Vegetarian children need five different servings of fruit and vegetables every day.

● Dairy foods or alternatives remain important sources of calcium for healthy bones, and two to three servings of these foods should be included every day.

● Children need a little more dietary fat than adults to meet their energy needs. They should eat more healthy unsaturated fats than less-healthy saturated fats. Most vegetable sources of oils and fats are unsaturated.

● Children should have limited amounts of added salt and sugar.

Protein sources

Protein foods need the most attention when you’re planning your vegetarian menu. You need to ensure that a good variety of vegetarian proteins are included in your recipes. Just serving Quorn or pulses instead of meat and chicken will not be good enough nutritionally and the children will soon get tired of it.

Protein foods supply the body with amino acids: the building blocks that a child’s body uses to make muscle and cells. There are some amino acids that the body can only obtain from foods; these are the ‘essential amino acids’.

Animal protein like meat, fish and poultry tend to contain more essential amino acids than you find in vegetable proteins. It’s perfectly possibly to get all the essential amino acids you need from vegetable proteins, but you must eat a good mixture of different protein foods to do it. Use all of these vegetarian protein foods in your recipes:

Eggs (if eaten) are called ‘complete protein’ because they contain all of the essential amino acids; they are also a good source of iron.

Soya products such as soya beans, tofu and soya mince. Sometimes called TVP (textured vegetable protein), soya alternatives to dairy foods are the preferred choice for vegetarian children who don’t eat dairy foods. They contain good levels of protein and are usually calcium-enriched. Lentils, chickpeas, butter beans and other pulses. Kidney beans tend to have tough skins that are not always popular with children, but there is a huge variety of softer beans available, including aduki beans and butter beans. There is no need to use dried beans either: canned beans in unsalted water are perfectly fine and save a lot of time.

Baked beans – don’t forget this great source of vegetarian protein!

Yoghurts. When serving yoghurt, use strained Greek-style options (e.g. Danio yoghurt), which contain more protein and amino acids.

Quorn. Other meat substitutes such as Quorn are versatile and work well in a range of recipes.


● Use TVP or Quorn mince in lasagne, burgers, chilli or cottage pie.

● Use veggie sausages, burgers or fillets in place of meat or chicken varieties. Check salt levels, though, as these can be a high.

● Make kebabs from vegetables and marinated tofu.

● Make falafels and houmous with chickpeas and add lots of flavour with herbs and spices.

● Use a variety of beans in casseroles, stews, curries and soups – don’t just use the same beans all the time.

Don’t fall into the trap of adding lots of cheese to your vegetarian dishes. It’s fine to use it in some dishes, but it is high in saturated fat and salt, and can soon add up in vegetarian diets.

Iron intake

One mineral to be particularly aware of is iron. Animal foods are some of the richest sources of iron, and this type of iron – haem iron – is easier for the body to use than non-haem iron found in vegetables. Vegetarian children are at greater risk of not getting enough iron in their diet. A recent national Diet and Nutrition Survey found that over 80% of all preschool children had iron intakes below recommended levels and around one in eight children were deficient in iron and showing signs of anaemia.

Anaemia results in fatigue, poor development, reduced general health and increased risk of infection. Dietary guidelines recommend that for children in childcare around 80% of iron requirements should be provided by nursery meals. With the right nutritional knowledge and a little thought and planning, it’s perfectly possible to provide all the iron vegetarian children need.

Here are some non-meat sources of iron – make sure at least two of these foods are served to vegetarian children every day:

Wholemeal bread.
Eggs (if eaten).
Fortified breakfast cereals.
Beans, pulses and lentils.
Dried fruit (serve as part of a meal, not as a snack).
Dark leafy green vegetables.
Sweet potatoes.


● Include dried fruit and leafy green vegetables in casseroles, curries and sauces. Adding frozen spinach to sauces is quick, easy and convenient.

● Serve fortified breakfast cereals in preference to toast or porridge for breakfast – toast and porridge are healthy choices but are not fortified with extra vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12 and iron.

● To enhance iron absorption, serve foods containing vitamin C in the same meal as iron-rich foods. E.g. scrambled eggs with cherry tomatoes, breakfast cereal with fruit, wholemeal cheese and salad sandwiches.

Nigel Denby is a chef, a registered dietician and the founder of Grub4Life.