Raising a Healthy, Happy Vegetarian

Raising a Healthy, Happy Vegetarian
By Sofia Segounis, Nutritionist

Can your child get all of the nutrients necessary to grow and develop if they are a vegetarian? Of course they can! Vegetarians today are just as healthy, if not healthier than their meat-eating counterparts. Your vegetarian child can get all the nutrients necessary to grow up healthy and strong by careful planning and attention to their meals.

There are three types of vegetarians:
Pesco: Consumes fish, dairy and eggs but avoids eating red meat and chicken.
Lacto-ovo: Consumes dairy and eggs but avoids eating red meat, chicken and fish.
Vegan: Strict vegetarian - does not eat anything that comes from an animal. No meat, chicken, fish, dairy or eggs.

The areas of concern for vegetarians, especially vegans, are deficient amounts of:
  • Energy/calories
  • Protein
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Calcium
  • Iron

    If your child is gaining weight, developing at a normal rate and has lots of energy, then you need not worry about their caloric intake.


    Proper protein intake is always a concern for vegetarian children. Luckily, soy-based foods such as tofu, textured soy, tempeh, imitation meats, soymilk and soy cheese are excellent alternatives to meat and dairy. Nuts, seeds and whole grains also offer some protein, but they are incomplete proteins. Incomplete proteins are missing at least one of the essential amino acids needed to form a complete protein.

    It was once thought that to achieve proper protein intake, vegetarians had to carefully combine incomplete proteins to form complete proteins. Such combinations include legumes and grains, beans and nuts or peanut butter and bread. Current research demonstrates that these foods don't necessarily have to be eaten at the same time, as long as they are eaten in the same day. For pesco or lacto-ovo vegetarians, fish, dairy products and eggs are considered complete proteins.


    Zinc is essential for normal growth and development. Vegetarian sources of zinc include:
  • Lima beans
  • Wheat germ
  • Nuts
  • Dried beans
  • Dried peas
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Whole grains


    Calcium is a mineral essential for building strong bones. If you are following a vegan diet there are many excellent nondairy sources of calcium including:
  • Soymilk and soy cheese
  • Soy beans
  • Tofu
  • Spinach
  • Dark leafy greens such as broccoli and bok choy
  • Almonds or almond butter
  • Figs
  • Sunflower seeds

    Vitamin D

    Exposing your child to 20 minutes of sunshine per day is an excellent way for them to absorb vitamin D. There is also concern about vegetarian children getting sufficient amounts of vitamin B12 from their diet. Lacto-ovo and pesco vegetarians need not worry as B12 is readily available from eggs and dairy products. Vegan children will have to rely on foods that have been fortified with vitamin B12.


    There is a misconception that vegetarian children are at risk for iron deficiency. While meat does contain the most absorbable iron, there are several other excellent sources such as:
  • Enriched grains
  • Dried fruit
  • Soy products
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Nuts

    Eating iron-rich foods with foods rich in vitamin C, such as orange juice, strawberries or cantaloupe, greatly improves absorption.

    When selecting a vegetarian diet for your child, remember that children do not like to be different from their peers. Health food stores and many grocery stores carry delicious vegetarian options that look and taste the same as the original items. Look for dairy-free puddings, cheese and macaroni and cheese and meat-free bologna, meat balls and pepperoni.

    Try packing meat-free bologna and dairy-free cheese sandwiches or peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Pepperoni pizza with dairy-free or regular cheese and vegetarian pepperoni on a mini pizza crust is also a tasty lunch box treat. Include healthy snacks such as fresh veggie sticks, fresh or dried fruit, trail mix and nuts.

    No matter what type of vegetarian your child is, there is a wide variety of food to select from to ensure your child grows up healthy, happy and strong.


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