A purely vegetarian or vegan diet is a health and lifestyle choice and it’s up to the parents to decide if they want to bring their children up as vegetarians or let them choose for themselves when they’re older.
There are some vegetarians who wouldn’t even entertain the option of weaning they’re baby with a diet that included meat and fish, but there are also some who worry that by withholding meat and fish, they’re child will be lacking in key nutrients they need for healthy growth and development.
Babies need good quantities of calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium (only found in vegetables) and protein when they’re developing at such a fast rate. Many of these are found most commonly in meat and fish products, although there are actually some very good vegetarian sources, it’s just a case of being adventurous and imaginative.
Whether your weaning a vegetarian or meat eater, the same rules apply as to what they can eat when – refer to our weaning food chart for quick reference.
Vegetarian sources of calcium
Your baby should get most of the calcium they need from their milk. You can supplement this with other dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese. However, other non-meat sources of calcium include:
- White bread
- Green vegetables
- Baked beans
- Dried fruit
- Sesame seeds (hummus)
- Ground nuts (as long as there is no allergy and never give whole nuts to a baby/young child – nut butters are ideal)
Vegetarian sources of Iron
The need for iron is one of the main reasons solids need to be introduced at 6 months. It’s vital for growth and development and the production of healthy red blood cells.
- Dark green veg (broccoli, spinach, watercress)
- Avocados and asparagus
- Fresh herbs
- Ground nuts
- Bananas, apricots and peaches
- Well cooked egg yokes
- Sunflower seeds
- Fortified cereals
- Brown bread
- Brown rice
Vegetarian sources of protein
Your baby needs some protein every day for normal growth and development. The amino acids that protein provide are key to the development of cells and hormones. Some of these amino acids we can’t produce ourselves therefore we need to get them from food. If your baby has no meat protein, it’s important to substitute plant protein with whole grains and cereals (millet, oats, rye, spelt, buckwheat) – although not before 6 months and limited before 12.
- Lentils, chick peas, split peas and green peas
- Beans (kidney, haricot, butter and borlotti)
- Ground nuts and seeds
- Cereal grains
Vegetarian sources of zinc
Zinc is an often underrated but vital mineral nutrient. It’s needed for the immune system, moods, the nervous system and brain function as well as sexual development.
- Ground nuts and seeds
- Oats, rye, wheatgerm, spelt and buckwheat
- Brown rice
Vegetarian energy sources
Babies and toddlers obviously need good sources of energy to go about their daily exploring and activities (as well as all that growing) and energy for vegetarian babies come from fats and carbohydrates.
- Dairy food (but too much can lead to weight gain some in moderation)
- Fruit purees and compotes
- Vegetable fats – avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut, olive and hemp oil
Being a vegetarian, if done sensibly, can actually be an incredibly healthy choice for babies and young children (and the rest of us) as it means they’re eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. They’re also less likely to suffer as adults from conditions such as obesity, bowel cancer and heart disease.
With all the fortified soya based products out there for babies, it’s also possible to wean based on vegan principles, and your baby will develop perfectly normally and healthily. However, if you are planning to do this it would be wise to speak to your health visitor or better still a paediatric dietitian before starting as they may suggest some supplements for your baby, to fill in any gaps.
When they want to try meat and fish
Some vegetarian children might begin to get curious about meat around the age of 3, but with all the soya based hamburgers, sausages, mince etc on the market today, they are unlikely to feel like they’re missing out. But if they do, it’s important to try and be impartial and explain your feelings about meat and meat products – try not to bring in the emotional aspect (“I just don’t want to eat the nice cute lamb”). Try and explain about meat as a source of food for millions of people and why being a vegetarian might be better for your particular family. And when they’re old enough, they can make up their own minds. As with everything, you can’t watch them 100% of the time and if they decide to try meat at school or at friends, you should let them, and discuss it after.
Check out some of our vegetarian recipes in our recipes section