The world is full of healthy vegan children. There is no link between veganism and malnutrition amongst children of any age, as long as attention is paid to balanced nutrition.
The first thing you need to do if you are considering raising vegan children is educate yourself. You need to become familiar with plant-based nutrition and understand what constitutes a balanced diet, paying particular attention to protein, healthy fats, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and iron.
Don’t worry, feeding your family healthy plant-based meals is not hard, in fact, there are lots of kitchen gadgets for family meals available which make prep and cooking much easier than you might think.
Best for babies
The best possible start in life for your baby is breastfeeding, and for you to eat a healthy and balanced diet whilst feeding. It’s wise for this reason that you continue to take a pregnancy-safe vitamin supplement. That will pass on the best possible nutrition to your child. Don’t be in a hurry to stop breastfeeding. There are no vegan baby formula milk products currently in the UK market, although they will no doubt emerge in the not-too-distant future. Do not be tempted to give your infant plant-based milk substitutes, as they will not have the nutrition your child needs (the same goes for feeding an infant plain cow’s milk).
Every child is different when it comes to weaning, my eldest breastfed until more than two years old, and the Vegan Society advice is to continue breastfeeding until your child is two years old if possible. My youngest however stopped the minute they discovered proper food at 10 months, so don’t beat yourself up if your child doesn’t seem to want to keep breastfeeding. If you do stop breastfeeding before two years, you will need to pay special attention to a good balance of nutrition, minerals and vitamins. If this is the case, and you are worried about this, consider fortified baby foods such as baby cereal.
Both my children were weaned first on blended banana and avocado, which is a legend in our house (try it!), and graduated to blended lentils and vegetables, thick soups and baby versions of what we were eating. It’s sensible to pay attention to a vegetable protein component at each meal, for example, lentils, beans or quinoa along with vegetables and healthy fats. Babies can eat nuts and seeds, but only if ground or completely blended.
Vitamin B12 is important
With regard to vitamin B12, there are a number of fortified foods to consider as your child starts to eat more and breastfeed less.
The best possible thing you can do with regard to young children and B12 gets them to fall in love with Marmite (yeast extract is also good). A go-to snack of toast and marmite will contain plenty of B12. We also use marmite in many savoury dishes – soups, stews and the best vegan gravy ever. My children are Marmite lovers to this day. We also use Engevita flakes as a cheese substitute, sprinkled on pasta and in many sauces. Engevita is supercharged with B12.
I’d also recommend getting your children to fall in love with hummus as young as possible. Hummus is one of those super-nutritious super available superfoods and served with pitta and carrot and cucumber sticks is a winner with most children. Served together in this way, hummus and pitta are what’s called a complete protein – between them, pitta and hummus contain the full spectrum of amino acids that you need.
There is a lot of talk about getting the full spectrum of these essential amino acids that are generally misunderstood. Animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, which makes them complete proteins, but it is not actually necessary to eat one food that contains everything. That’s where the idea that vegans lack protein comes in, which is false. Combining plant foods results in complete protein and gives exactly the same result nutritionally.
There are a few plant-based foods that are ‘complete’ proteins on their own, i.e. contain the full spectrum amino acids. They include Tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and chia seeds. Some of these are a bit of an acquired taste for an infant, quinoa for example needs a bit of hiding in a tasty-flavoured sauce. But mine always did well with edamame beans, scrambled tofu and fresh fruit chia pudding.
But rather than focus on just these foods, your protein repertoire can expand massively by combining vegan proteins from different sources (like the hummus and pitta example above) which alone are not complete, both together magically provide a complete protein.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that 100g of wholemeal bread contains 13g of protein, which is more than 100g of egg, and all vegetables do have a protein component. A diet rich in vegetables can make a significant contribution to your daily nutritional needs, including protein.
Food combining is easy
Peanut butter sandwich. This will come as a welcome surprise maybe! The peanut butter and the bread combine as a very high complete protein.
Beans on toast. A classic, and a complete protein.
Rice and lentils or beans. Both brown and white rice when combined with beans or lentils give a complete protein. And there are literally millions of recipes out there containing beans or lentils, rice (or other grains) and vegetables. Just about every continent on the planet has a version of this cuisine.
Once your baby is weaned and able to feed themselves (more or less) it’s all about making their favourite dishes as balanced and tasty as possible. Continue with attention to a protein and vegetable component with every meal, where they are getting their B12 from, and get their other nutrients from a wide variety of vegetables of all colours and types as possible.
You will often read about concerns of deficiency in the vegan diet, especially with regard to protein. But the truth is that protein deficiency is rarely seen in affluent populations, and generally only seen in populations where ALL food is scarce. Simply put, where food is abundant, all people, regardless of their dietary choices, will be getting more than enough protein, and following the steps as outlined above, will ensure your child will thrive on a wholefood plant-based diet.
From Louise Palmer-Masterton, Stem & Glory