A couple of weeks back, I asked my newsletter readers what they would like me to write about and loved hearing your responses…thank you! One reader wanted to know how she could help her daughter transition to a vegetarian diet. As the mother to vegetarian kids (well, one went omnivore a couple of years ago but I still cook veg at home), I may have a few opinions on this one 🙂 This post ended up being way longer than I expected!

I feel like vegetarian and vegan diets are fairly mainstream these days – at least here on the West Coast. But when it comes to feeding your kids, people tend to have a few opinions about whether it’s a good idea for them to go veg. Of course, when I see my kids eating broccoli and tofu instead of chicken nuggets, I feel pretty okay with it.

Kids can absolutely thrive on vegetarian and vegan diets but make no mistake – their rate of growth and development make nutrition all the more critical (no matter what their diet).

As parents, we should be aiming to feed our kids the healthiest possible diets because their little bodies are like nutrient sponges. And luckily, plant foods have nutrition to spare.

So let’s start first with the nutrients you have to keep in mind for your little veg heads. No one typically worries about their kids getting enough carbs…bless their little bread-loving ways. But other things, you’ve got to pay some attention to.

Nutrients to Watch


We hear so much about calcium that we tend to tune it out…but when it comes to your kids, it’s beyond critical. They get about 30 years to build bones that need to withstand the next 70.

How much do they need?

1-3 years: 700mg
4-8 years: 1000mg
9-18 years: 1300mg

If they are consuming dairy, three servings a day (milk, yogurt, cheese) will do it. Easy peasy, end of discussion.

If they are not eating dairy because of a vegan diet, allergy or pure aversion…it’s a little harder but still doable. You will probably need to pay more attention to getting the calcium sources into their little tummies daily.

I recommend going for the easiest solution possible: fortified milk alternatives. Drinking a couple of cups of organic whole bean soy milk, pea protein milk or almond milk (over the age of two) will provide the same calcium as a couple of glasses of milk (about 650mg).

Daily high calcium proteins such as tofu or white beans, cooked greens and extras such as tahini round out the calcium needs for a totally plant-based diet. For more on calcium, read this.


“…but where do you get your protein??”

We can put that one to rest, yes? Kids need way less protein than you think they do. On the flip side, if all they eat is rice milk and pasta, you’re hooped.

How much do they need?

1-3 years: 13g
4-8 years: 19g
9-13 years: 34g
14-18 years: 46g (girls) 52g (boys)

If you want to raise a healthy eater, you have to train them to eat well. Which means that from day one, their meals look like a healthy adult meal, but in smaller portions. Each plate should have veggies, whole grains and a small portion of a protein food.

So, where do you find plant-based protein? My favourites are organic tofu, tempeh and beans. If your kids eat dairy and eggs, they will get additional protein from those foods. One egg has half a toddler’s daily protein needs. A half cup of beans has roughly the protein of one egg. You can sneak a bit of protein into every meal and snack…from a slather of almond butter on an apple to hummus to dip their veggies.

I try not to eat a lot of vegetarian meat alternatives. While some are made from whole foods, most are not that healthy, filled with salt and super processed junk. So, just like you wouldn’t give your kids meat hot dogs and junky chicken nuggets everyday, you don’t want to give them the veggie versions either (EXCEPTION: awesome homemade veggie burgers like this).


Iron. Builds the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. So…pretty critical. And here we get into a bit of controversy. Plant sources of iron are typically less bioavailable than animal sources and so we have always recommended that vegetarians aim for inhumane amounts of iron. But there is some interesting (and very preliminary) evidence poking holes in the theory that a ton of super bioavailable iron is a good thing.

However, because low iron can cause developmental and behavioural problems in kids, it’s not to be taken lightly. If kids seem pale or fatigued, get to the GP ASAP and have their iron levels tested. My son was five weeks early with early cord clamping and by four months (so still exclusively breastfed…nothing to do with diet) he had low iron. We managed to catch him just before his iron dipped into full blown anemia.

How much do they need?

7-12 months: 11mg
1-3 years: 7mg
4-8 years: 10mg
9-13 years: 8mg
14-18 years: 11mg (boys) 15mg (girls)

Instant (no-sugar, please!) oatmeal is a ridiculously good source of iron – it will provide roughly three-quarters of what a child (not a teen) needs. Cooked spinach, beans and seeds also offer plenty of iron. And if you want to ramp it up, an old fashioned spoonful of blackstrap molasses will do the trick. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables also provides vitamin C that aids in the absorption of plant-based iron.

For more on iron, read this.


Zinc is an interesting mineral. Unlike iron, our body doesn’t store it so daily steady intake is important. It is involved in immune function, healing, the health of the digestive tract, normal growth and development in kids and even taste and smell.

How much do they need?

7-12 months: 3mg
1-3 years: 3mg
4-8 years: 5mg
9-13 years: 8mg
14-18 years: 11mg (boys) 9mg (girls)

Zinc can be found in the usual suspects: whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans. Working pumpkin seeds into snacks for the kids is great because they are quite high in zinc. Stirring wheat germ into their morning oatmeal will boost zinc too. If your kids eat dairy and eggs, there is some zinc in those foods too.

Learn more about zinc.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is involved in the formation of red blood cells and normal brain development and building DNA in those rapidly growing cells of theirs. If your child consumes animal products, you don’t need to worry about B12. However, a vegan child must get a B12 supplement daily.

How much do they need?

7-12 months: 0.5 micrograms
1-3 years: 0.9 micrograms
4-8 years: 1.2 micrograms
9-13 years: 1.8 micrograms
14-18 years: 2.4 micrograms

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is very unique in that there are few food sources that supply it. We typically think of it as a bone health nutrient but we are learning more about the varied roles of vitamin D in our bodies everyday. Vitamin D appears to have a role to play in supporting the immune system and may help us fend of chronic disease as we get older.

How much do they need?

0-12 months: 400 IU
1 year + : 600 IU

The only plant-based food sources of vitamin D tend to be fortified (not naturally occurring), such as plant-based milks and orange juice.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

I could write a whole post on omega 3 fatty acids but sufficed to say that most North Americans eating a standard diet don’t get a lot of omega 3. If you don’t eat fish, it is likely your intake is low….unless you are already loading up on omega 3-rich seeds.

How much do they need?

7-12 months: 0.5 grams
1-3 years: 0.7 grams
4-8 years: 0.9 grams
9-13 years: 1.2 grams (boys) 1 gram (girls)
14-18 years: 1.6 grams (boys) 1.1 gram (girls)

You can easily reach this amount by eating seeds daily: ground flax, hemp, and chia are all awesome sources. A tablespoon of these daily will do it. Stir it into smoothies, oatmeal or soups and stews.

To learn more about omega 3 fatty acids for kids, read this.

Do kids need supplements?

To be totally honest, they help…but they are not essential. And they certainly don’t become essential just because your kids are vegetarian. For example, some meat eating kids might have crap diets and benefit more from a good multi than a veggie kid would.

There are two exceptions. The first, is vitamin D. All children need vitamin D from birth – yes, even (especially) when breast fed. Give all infants 400IU of vitamin D3 daily. My recommendation is to continue with 600-1000IU throughout childhood. Why? Because there is little vitamin D in our food supply and you dutifully protect their skin with sunscreen, which blocks vitamin D production.

The other exception is vitamin B12 for vegan children. B12 is only found in animal foods and so I recommend, even if you are consuming B12 fortified foods, that you give your kids a supplement. Because deficiency can be hard to diagnose and the damage done in deficiency can harm growth.

The only other maybe is a plant-source DHA for kids. DHA is the long chain form of omega 3 fatty acid that has been well researched for its health benefits. Pregnant moms should be getting 200mg of DHA daily in pregnancy and it is worthwhile offering DHA to growing kids too.

So what should I actually put on my veggie child’s plate?

As I mentioned earlier, resist the urge to give them ‘kid food’ all the time. When a parent assumes that all a child will eat is macaroni and peanut butter sandwiches, the child will learn that more flavourful food is not for them. Train them to be a healthy eater by challenging their palette from day one with less spicy/salted/sweet versions of what you would serve yourself.

My children have received kale, tofu and quinoa since they were old enough to consume solids. We have one version of the family meal (with rare exceptions). Kids can choose which foods they want to eat off the plate and how much they want to eat…as long as they try one bite of everything. It took my son five years of trying kale before he liked it but when I took him to Japan, he ate the craziest stuff that even I don’t touch. My 10 month old daughter took to kale instantly but I am still struggling getting ‘kid friendly’ avocado and banana into her. Sometimes, I order pizza for us all. I praise my kids for being great eaters because it is an important trait for our family.

A healthy plate should follow this simple formula: 50% fruits/vegetables, 25% protein and 25% whole grains…with a liberal sprinkling of healthy fats.

If your kids are already well versed in the language of ‘white food’, it will be a little more difficult to progress their palette but it can totally be done. My favourite trick is to introduce new foods within their favourites…like a little chopped broccoli in the mac and cheese.

Have a burning question about feeding vegetarian kids? Send me an email and I will add to the post!

Want to learn more? The Canadian Paediatric Society has a position statement on nutrition for vegetarian children.