As a vegan parent, the gazillion questions about your child’s health you are made to answer can make you question if you’re doing the right thing. Rest assured, a vegan diet is suitable and more than adequate for people of all ages, including infants and small children. So what do you need to know about each stage of your child’s life?
Before six months
Your baby needs only breastmilk, or formula milk if breastfeeding isn’t possible. If you’re breastfeeding, you may want to consider giving your baby vitamin D drops (such as vegan ViridiKid) to ensure your baby gets enough of this important vitamin – recommended dose is 10 mcg (or 400 IU) a day. Also make sure your daily vitamin B12 intake is sufficient (at least 2mcg) so enough of it passes into your breastmilk.
If you cannot give breastmilk to your baby, there are non-dairy infant formulas available and suitable to give to babies from birth. The only fully vegan formula at the moment is Prémiriz, made in France and available to order online. Another one, SMA Wysoy, is widely available in the UK and the only thing making it not vegan is the vitamin D it contains. Speaking of which – if you give your baby formula milk, check how much vitamin D it contains because you may but may not need to give your baby vitamin D drops.
Babies shouldn’t be given food before four months and many people argue that you should wait until six months but babies are curious so introducing first foods after four months is fine so long as you choose the food carefully (see below). However, the absolute majority of their energy needs to be provided by breastmilk or formula.
Six months to one year
You can start introducing pureed or mashed foods on a spoon. These should include good iron sources, such as mashed beans, lentils, chickpeas and tofu, all without added sugar or salt. They are best combined with other foods, such as nut or seed butters, avocado, sweet potatoes, bananas and other soft fruit and vegetables. You can also try soft bread cut into strips, mashed pasta, age-suitable cereal products (low sugar and salt), porridge and a little soya yogurt. Aside from breastmilk or formula, try giving your baby small amounts of water and home-made fruit smoothies or purees for added vitamin dose.
Continue with vitamin D drops and depending on what your baby eats, you may need to consider their vitamin A and C intakes, also. It’s best to consult with your healthcare provider to decide if your baby needs multivitamin drops.
When your baby starts teething, it’s time to introduce ‘finger foods’ that can be chewed and explored – fruit, vegetables or bread cut into a size and shape that your baby can easily hold in his or her fist. Make sure you watch your baby eating as there’s always the risk of choking.
As your child starts eating more solid food and has less breastmilk or formula, you need to adjust the amount of food to their needs – make sure they eat enough and, as their tummies are small, feed them small amounts and often. Avoid salt, sugar, spices and condiments but you can start adjusting their diet to your own – take out a small portion of a meal you’re cooking before you add the final seasoning, that way you’ll have a baby and adult version of your meals.
Although wholegrains are recommended as a healthy option for everyone, for very small children, it’s best to choose half-white versions of bread, pasta or rice as these contain less fibre and your child won’t fill up too fast.
Alongside breastfeeding or formula, you can also start giving your baby special soya milk, fortified specifically for children over one year old. If your baby is allergic to soya, try fortified oat milk but only as an addition, not the main energy source.
Vegan toddlers need a reliable source of vitamin B12 (1mcg a day) and you can achieve this through fortified drinks and yoghurts, nutritional yeast, low-sodium yeast extract or a supplement. The latter may be advisable as toddlers also need 15mcg (or 600 IU) of vitamin D, 7mg of iron and 70mcg of iodine.
Three to six year-olds
Your child needs a lot of energy and nutrients so feed them three main meals and two or three snacks. Include five portions of fruit and vegetables, starchy foods such as wholemeal bread, pasta, brown rice, root vegetables, sweet potatoes and potatoes, pulses, nuts and seeds as butters because these eliminate any potential choking hazard, calcium fortified yogurts and drinks. It’s best to steer clear of low-fat versions of foods because children need all the energy they can get!
Children over six and teenagers
The main food groups remain the same – fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, pulses – but try to increase your child’s fruit and vegetable intake to seven portions a day and, with teenagers, even higher if possible. With unhealthy snacks creeping in and possibly your child’s preference for sweet or processed treats, it can be difficult to make them eat the food they need so try to establish a good balance. Blend fruit and vegetables in fresh smoothies, add nut butters or tahini to main meals, blend veggies in soups and sauces, make dips from beans and peas, make them healthy but tasty sandwiches but, most importantly, lead by example and eat the same foods as them!
At this age, it’s also great to include your child in choosing foods in shops and preparing their meals with you – a degree of choice will encourage them to eat a wider variety and make them curious about new foods, too. And if that doesn’t work, keep trying – it may take 20 times before your child agrees to taste a new food but over that period their curiosity and willingness to try it builds up so be patient – it does work!
Note on drinks
Encourage your child to drink water from an early age. A sweet or fizzy drink habit is hard to break so the best option at mealtimes is always water. Home-made smoothies are great as nutritious snacks but the main source of water should still be plain water.
Foods to include for specific nutrients:
The best vegan protein sources are: beans, chickpeas, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds, tofu and other soya products. However, there’s protein in most foods and some other good sources include: oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice, quinoa, millet and some other grains. Aim to include a variety of protein-rich foods daily.
Omega-3s are essential unsaturated fats we need in our diets so it’s crucial to include them in your child’s meals. The best sources, and easy to stir into just about anything, are: ground flaxseed, ground chia seeds, ground hemp seeds and ground walnuts.
Iron and vitamin C
Iron is a very important mineral and iron deficiency is common among small children so be sure to include these foods when planning your child’s meals: beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, ground nuts or nut butters, dried figs.
Vitamin C improves iron absorption so it’s ideal to combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C foods, such as peppers, cabbage, broccoli, mango, citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwi.
It’s a crucial mineral but you probably already know all about it! So just a reminder about the best sources: calcium-fortified yogurt, plant milks, tofu, almond butter, tahini (sesame seed paste), figs and green leafy vegetables. Aim for about 500mg daily for children under 10 and 700mg for older ones.
All vegans need a vitamin B12 supplement or a consistent intake of foods fortified with vitamin B12, babies and children included. However, relying on food intake only in toddlers can be challenging so it’s best to give them a supplement providing 1mcg daily. This amount is sufficient until your child is about 10 years old and then should be increased to 2mcg.
Seaweed is the best source of iodine but kelp (kombu) contains very high amounts so avoid giving it to your child. Other types, such as nori used for sushi or as sprinkles on meals, is a good source and making it a part of your meals a couple of times a week is a good strategy. Or you can buy a kelp supplement with standardised iodine content so you know exactly how much you’re getting – babies need 60 mcg a day, toddlers 70mcg, older children 100mcg and teenagers 140mcg.
Our skin makes vitamin D when exposed to sunlight but it’s risky to rely on just that in small children. In winter, when there’s less sun and we cover up, absolutely everyone needs a supplement so it’s best to choose one for both your child and yourself and follow recommended dosage on the pack.
Essential for a healthy immune system and growth and repair of body tissues, zinc is a must. Nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds, are a great source, as well as beans, peas, lentils, tofu and wheat germ.
How to get your child to eat nutritious foods?
- Keep a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table and always add fresh fruit to lunchboxes.
- Spread nut or seed butter on thinly sliced fruit and stick raisins on top.
- Add chopped fresh, frozen or dried fruit to cereals, yogurt, ice cream, pancakes etc.
- Offer your child freshly cut vegetable sticks for snacks.
- Finely chop or blend vegetables into a salsa to put on savoury meals.
- Blended vegetable soup, with added lentils or beans, can be super nutritious and disguises what veg it contains! Same goes for pasta and other sauces.
- Smoothies are a great way to add fruit, veg and nut butters to children’s diet!
- Have both raw and cooked vegetables at mealtimes so that your child can choose what they want.
- Let your child choose from healthy foods in shops – having a choice between healthy options is better than making them choose between, say, fruit and sweets.
Because very young children need several vitamins that are best delivered in a supplement and often there’s a risk they wouldn’t get enough relying on breastmilk, formula or foods alone, it’s best to give them multivitamin drops or chewable multivitamins. There are several vegan preparations on the market but do check the age recommendations to make sure your child is getting the right amount of everything.
For detailed information on nutrients, see our A-Z of Nutrients.
And don’t forget to check out our fabulous Mother & Baby Guide!