Welcome to Kids Nutrition Advice, a weekly series where our resident registered pediatric dietitian Ayelet Goldhaber answers common questions parents have about feeding their children. Goldhaber specializes in pediatric and family nutrition. Have a question you want answered? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Is a vegetarian or vegan diet okay for children?
Parents have every right to feel comfortable with how and what their child is eating. It’s a personal and often complex choice, and most importantly, the choice is yours to make. Children can meet all of their nutritional requirements on a vegetarian and vegan diet. However, vegetarian or vegan does not always equal healthier depending on the food you’re giving your child. Over consumption of junk food can happen whether or not the child is eating animal-based proteins. A cookie is still a cookie, no matter if it’s vegan or not!
What types of foods should parents focus on in vegetarian and vegan diets?
For a vegetarian/vegan diet, plant-based protein and vitamins are essential and should include plenty of legumes, beans, nuts, complex grains, organic soy, and leafy greens. I recommend checking in with a registered dietitian to ensure your child is getting an adequate iron and calcium intake, which if found to be on the lower side can be safely supplemented with the right choices.
For children omitting fish from their diet, you’ll want to be sure they are getting enough DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid)—a healthy fat source for brain development—from other sources such as certain nuts and seeds. Ground flax seeds pack a good punch of DHA and can be pretty easy to incorporate into the diet, but for some kids an added supplement might be the right choice to ensure adequate DHA intake.
Do children need milk?
Depending on what your child needs from the milk, different choices might be right for different kids. For example, if you have a kid who’s struggling to get protein in adequate amounts, regular cow’s milk is a great choice. If your kiddo has an allergy or intolerance to milk, almond milk with added calcium sources might be the right choice. My favorite right now is Ripple Milk—it’s pea protein-based and has the added benefit of DHA from algae.
What types of dairy alternatives are best for children?
Typically, one of the drawbacks of non-dairy milks is the added ingredients, which are usually different forms of sugars or preservatives to improve taste or texture. My advice is to look for the shortest, simplest ingredient list. Almond milk should contain almonds and maybe some added calcium or minerals, but that’s about it. I recommend Califia Farms Unsweetened Almond Milk and Elmhurst Milked Almonds.
The same rules apply to coconut milk and oat milk—look for simple ingredient lists. I find the non-dairy milks with the most added ingredients tend to be soy milk and rice milk, so I would recommend almond or coconut over those.
Ayelet Goldhaber is a registered pediatric dietitian and mother of two who holds a master's degree in clinical nutrition from New York University. She completed her clinical rotations at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center and is currently part of the Pediatric Gastroenterology Team at a prominent children’s hospital in New York City.