Vegetarian meals have become popular choices for many families. Some of the reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet may be due to dietary preferences and as a way to eat more sustainably. In fact, it’s estimated that around 5% of adults and children are vegetarian.
But are vegetarian meals and snacks suitable for infants and toddlers? According to the NHS, they are suitable for all children as long as they are planned to include a wide variety of foods to meet their nutritional needs.
For vegetarian children, who eat dairy products and eggs, a healthy diet is the same as anyone else, but without meat or fish. A vegetarian diet does not include:
Some children may need a dairy-free diet or a diet that avoids eggs, because of an allergy to a specific animal protein, or because they are lactose intolerant. Families should be advised to seek allergy support and management from their GP.
In early years settings, it’s important to be aware of children’s individual dietary requirements. Whether they are based on cultural, religious or medical needs, children’s choices, beliefs and safety must be protected.
There may be variations in the type of foods excluded, so here are some considerations:
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Excludes meat and fish. Allows for both dairy products and eggs.
Lacto vegetarian: Excludes meat, fish and eggs. Allows dairy products.
Pescatarian: Excludes meat. Allows fish, dairy products and eggs.
Vegan: Excludes all animal products, including meat, fish, eggs and dairy food.
Infants and young children, in particular, need enough energy (calories) to grow and be active, and enough nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals) to ensure they remain healthy.
The Eat Better, Start Better food and drink guidelines provide guidance for early years settings to support children, including vegetarians, to achieve a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet.
Here at Early Start Nutrition when reviewing menus, we often find they lack vegetarian sources of iron and so we are putting it in the spotlight to ensure your menus provide sufficient sources.
Iron is important for children as it supports the function of several bodily systems, particularly making haemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body.
A deficiency in iron can cause anaemia. This results in less oxygenated blood, meaning the body receives less oxygen than it needs, which limits children’s ability to be physically active.
Children with iron deficiency will often appear pale, tired and their general health, resistance to infection, appetite and energy will be reduced. It’s important for families to speak to a healthcare professional if they are concerned about their child’s iron levels.
The latest results from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey highlight that around 11% of children aged 18 months to three years have iron deficiency (low iron stores). To support children to achieve their iron intakes, it’s important to include a variety of iron rich foods two to three times a day across meals and snacks.
The absorption of iron may be enhanced if foods or drinks rich in vitamin C are consumed at the same meal, such as pepper, broccoli, cabbage, kiwi or pineapple. Vitamin C can increase iron absorption by up to four times.
If any children at your setting are vegetarian, here are some ways to help meet their iron requirements:
As outlined in Eat Better, Start Better, menus should limit bought and homemade products made from meat alternatives to no more than once a week. These include vegetarian sausages, burgers, nuggets and pies, and Quorn.
Quorn is made from mycoprotein which is a mushroom. It’s low in iron, energy and fat, and high in fibre. If serving once per week, we recommend serving it with beans/lentils.
Meat alternative products are often high in salt and were developed for the adult market. Their salt content is not suitable for young children. Instead of regularly using meat alternative products, choose high quality plant-based proteins, such as beans, pulses, lentils and tofu.
There are no recommendations to offer an iron supplement to infants and children. The best way to ensure children get all the nutrients they need, including iron, is to offer a balanced and varied diet.
The Department of Health and Social Care does, however, recommend that babies from birth to one year of age should have a daily supplement containing 8.5 to 10 micrograms of vitamin D if they are breastfed or formula-fed and having less than 500ml of infant formula.
Children aged one to four years should be given a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D.
For advice on planning a vegan menu, check out Early Start Nutrition’s blog, ‘Is a vegan diet suitable for young children?’ (tinyurl.com/veganchildren).
See Early Start Nutrition’s example vegetarian menu for inspiration when planning meals (tinyurl.com/ES-menus).
You can learn about the Vitamin D recommendations for young children in Early Start Nutrition’s blog.