Core Concepts for Growing Plant-Based Children
Excerpted from Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families by Reshma Shah, MD MPH and Brenda Davis, RD
The shift toward a plant-based diet is widely embraced as a wise choice for disease risk reduction in adults. However, you might still expect to encounter a few raised eyebrows if you share your intention to raise children on a plant-based diet. Infancy, childhood, and adolescence are characterized by constant physical changes and unique physiological requirements. The notion that animal products are necessary during these more nutritionally vulnerable periods is deeply ingrained into our culture. However, this has more to do with culture than with science. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, takes the position that appropriately planned vegan, and other types of vegetarian diets, satisfy the nutrient needs and promote normal growth at all stages of the life cycle, including infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
The operative word is “well-planned”. The overall diet quality is what really matters. For families who are plant-predominant and include dairy products and eggs, studies suggest that there is little difference in growth and development compared to omnivorous children. For those who are plant-exclusive, though fewer studies exist, adequate growth and development has been demonstrated in these children as well. However it’s also important to remember that ALL diets for children, whether they be vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous, should be well-planned. As we consider the particulars of nutrition for growing infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents, let’s consider some of the core concepts that are paramount to raising healthy plant-based children of all ages.
Promote optimal growth, development, and well-being.
Many dietary patterns can effectively support the growth and development of children. Well-planned plant-based diets are no exception. All diets for children should provide sufficient calories and nutrients, including macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). It is important that plant-based diets for children do not contain excessive fiber, as this can fill little bellies before enough calories are consumed. A helpful way to approach this is to work to ensure that children are provided with an adequate quality, quantity, and variety of foods. Here are some practical pointers for pint-sized plant eaters:
- Meet recommended intakes for macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat). The specific percent of calories from each macronutrient matters less than the sources of those macronutrients, just so long as our requirements for each are met. Aim for about 10 to 15 percent of calories from protein; 30 to 40% of calories from fat for toddlers (1-3 years) and 25 to 35% of calories from fat for older children and adolescents, and beyond that don’t stress too much about the numbers.
- Offer a variety of foods from each food group. The greater the variety of foods included from each group, the greater the diversity of nutrients, fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Including healthy choices from each food group, establishes healthy eating patterns that offer a lifetime of protection.
- Prepare meals at home. Cooking your own food means that you control what goes into your meals. You will be reducing highly processed foods and saving money for healthier foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits. It’s perfectly alright to purchase some ready-to-eat greens, pre-cut or frozen vegetables, pasta sauces, salsa, pre-seasoned tofu, or ready-to-eat veggie burgers to reduce meal prep time.
- Make your foods appealing and enjoyable. This leads to a more positive eating experiences for your family. Be creative, adventurous, and open to experiencing new flavors. Weave in traditions from your family’s culture. Set an attractive table, light some candles, put on some soft music, and enjoy the company.
- Eat with others. When you eat with others—family, friends, colleagues, or neighbors, you will connect in a valuable way. Eating together allows you to share your cultural traditions, to explore new foods, and to have quality time with others. Enjoy your meal at a leisurely pace and put aside distractions such as TV and cell phones.
Prevent immediate childhood health concerns such as iron-deficiency anemia, vitamin D deficiency, dental caries, and over and under nutrition.
This means providing a variety of nutrient dense foods (in some instances, fortified) and supplements when indicated. For plant-based children, in addition to iron and vitamin D, it is critical to ensure good sources of vitamin B12, calcium, iodine, zinc, and healthy fats. While some fortified foods and supplements may be required to ensure adequate intake of key vitamins and minerals, the vast majority can be obtained from a variety of delicious, plant foods. The chart below identifies several nutrients of interest with common plant-based sources.
Establish eating habits that support health throughout life and that prevent against chronic diseases
(Chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, obesity, hypertension, some forms of cancer, and osteoporosis). Eating patterns developed in childhood and adolescence profoundly impact our food choices in adulthood. Plant-based dietary patterns can help to establish healthy habits. Research confirms that children who grow up eating well-planned plant-based diets enjoy several important advantages. For example, plant-based children:
- Are at lower risk for overweight or obesity (which reduces risk of chronic disease)
- Eat more vegetables and fruit
- Eat fewer sweets and salty snacks
- Have higher fiber intakes
- Eat less saturated fat
As a parent, you are at the top of the list of powerful role models in your child’s life—you are their first teacher.
Nurture children’s natural ability to eat intuitively and with joy to provide a foundation for a healthy relationship with food
Babies are born with an innate ability to eat intuitively. They generally want to eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. As parents, we can encourage intuitive eating by honoring our child’s appetite. We can help shape a healthy relationship with food by keeping experiences around food positive and pleasant. Ellyn Satter is a renowned feeding expert and devised a division of responsibility (DOR) to help support the feeding relationship between parent and child. The DOR is balance of leadership and autonomy. Parents provide the leadership (or support) by providing structured meals and snacks; they determine what’s being served as well as when and where it will be served (soup, salad, and bread and 6 pm at the kitchen table). Children in turn are given autonomy by deciding how much of the foods being served they will consume. A good feeding relationship is like fertile soil that allows healthy eating habits to flourish. By exploring food together and avoiding food rewards and punishments, we can help our children become joyful, confident, healthy eaters.
Building trust and a loving connection with your child is critical factor in developing a healthy feeding relationship. You can work towards this by exploring the following guiding principles:
- Create structure for regular meals and snacks. Having a consistent routine creates the foundation for successful feeding.
- Be flexible with food. Sometimes our best laid plans can go awry. If the situation calls for an extra snack, an earlier dinner, or a missed meal because of a birthday party, having a regular routine means that a little flexibility can (and should!) be allowed.
- Cook one meal for the whole family. Avoid being a short-order cook. It’s exhausting for parents, undermines the DOR, lowers expectations of children, and can take away from the traditions and joy of shared family meals.
- Have at least one item at each meal that your child readily accepts and enjoys. This is important for the DOR to really work and can be especially helpful when you are serving something new. For instance, if you are trying a new stew, make sure to serve some favorites alongside it, such as rolls and a favorite veggie.
- Be patient and calm when introducing new foods. It can take upward of fifteen attempts (in a calm and pleasant setting!) for a child to accept a new food.
- Involve kids in food selection and preparation. Grow some vegetables or herbs; let your child select fruits and vegetables at the market; encourage your child to help count, measure, sift, stir, pour, or brush.
- Be a role model. Children learn by what they see. When children see parents slurp a juicy mango or enjoy crisp snap peas, they are more likely to want to try these foods themselves.
- Make it fun and be creative. Use fun shapes, an assortment of colors, and a sense of playfulness to make food appealing to little ones.
- Set yourself and your child up for success by menu planning, grocery shopping, and cooking in a way that supports routine, structure, and pleasure around eating.
- Provide structure, warmth, and support. Avoid pushing, bribing, sneaking, restricting, and bargaining. Center the focus of mealtimes around enjoyment.
- Focus on the journey. As important as it is to fuel our families with nutritious foods, we have an even greater responsibility as parents to teach our kids how to feed themselves when they are away from our dinner tables. Pushing one more bite of greens or two more bites of anything is not the end goal. Don’t forget that food and family meals connect us. Yes, food should be nutritious. But it should also be delicious and most definitely shared. It’s not always easy to do, but when we focus more on the conversation than the number of bites of broccoli, everyone feels more relaxed.
Eating a diet that is predominantly or exclusively whole plant foods can open up a world of culinary adventure. Be bold in your explorations and take your children on the journey with you. Remember that variety and color are key to maximizing the advantages of plant-based diets.
Excerpted from Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families, by Reshma Shah, MD MPH and Brenda Davis, RD.
Dr. Reshma Shah is a board certified pediatrician, mother, plant based home-cook, teacher and student with nearly two decades of experience caring for children and families. She is a faculty member of the 2021 VIRTUAL PBNHC. Brenda Davis RD is a registered dietitian and internationally acclaimed speaker and author and has been a faculty member at several past International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conferences.
If you have not done so already, register now to for your opportunity to learn more from Dr. Shah and the other outstanding PBNHC faculty, about the transformative power of whole food, plant-based nutrition at this year's conference.