More than 20% of children in the UK are already vegan or would like to be, according to new research from BBC Good Food.
The survey of 1,004 children aged five to 16 found that 8% are already following a vegan diet, while 15% said they want to stop eating animal-derived foods.
If you’re a carnivore or vegetarian parent, you may be worried that your child won’t get enough nutrients if they cut out meat and diary products completely, or that their choice will be disruptive for your family.
But that needn’t be the case. Here, experts offer their tips for how to support a child who wants to follow a plant-based diet.
Embrace your child’s decision
“I think it is so important to support your child emotionally with this decision they have made – even if you don’t agree with it,” says Paula Hallam, specialist paediatric dietitian at Plant Based Health Professionals. “Talk to your child about their reasons for wanting to go vegan and commit to learning more about vegan nutrition and foods together.”
Dr Giuseppe Aragona, GP and online doctor for Prescription Doctor agrees that it helps to keep on open mind: “In most cases, as a parent and an adult brought up in a different time, you may find it hard at first to understand your child and why they would want to change their eating habits. Be proactive and use the internet, books and other research on veganism, what it means and why it is becoming more common for ethical reasons.”
Make sure their diet includes enough energy, protein and nutrients
“Children need enough energy and protein to meet the demands of growth, so it is very important to ensure that a child’s vegan diet is not too low in fats,” says Hallam, meaning endless salads, roasted veggies and soups might not be adequate.
“Many plant-based foods, such as beans and legumes, are naturally low in fat, so it is important to include plenty of foods such as nuts (nut butters or ground nuts for under-fives), seeds, avocado, olive oil and tofu, to provide good sources of fats for your child. Beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrains will also provide enough protein for your child, as long as they are eating a good variety of plant foods and enough energy/calories.”
She also recommends including plant-based sources of three important nutrients: calcium, iron and zinc.
“Calcium is essential for bone health. Good plant-based sources include fortified plant-based dairy alternative drinks and yoghurts, fortified breads and cereals, nuts, dried fruits, oranges, some green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, spring greens, pak choi and watercress.
“Iron is an essential mineral to keep our blood healthy. Good sources include all types of beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits.
“Zinc is important for children’s growth and development, as well as a healthy immune system. Good sources of zinc include beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and some fortified cereals.”
Plan meals and cook together
Instead of seeing your child’s dietary change as an inconvenience, try to view it as an opportunity for the whole family to discover tasty new dishes you can all enjoy.
“Once you understand [veganism] a bit better, you may be able to enjoy cooking new foods and dishes, and it may also mean more affordable meals for your child once you have a good understanding of the different foods,” says Dr Aragona. “It can sometimes be difficult cooking more than one family meal each day, so you might find it easier becoming vegan yourself. This is not an easy choice, but you may find that it means you are eating healthier, more balanced meals – and it may also mean a cheaper weekly shopping bill, as meat is commonly quite expensive.”
Hallam recommends focusing on foods that can be added to the diet, rather than those that need to be taken away: “For example, experiment with cooking tofu and using different herbs and spices to flavour it, or learn about creative sandwich/wrap fillings for school lunches, such as chickpea ‘chuna’ with vegan mayonnaise; hummus and falafel wrap; or butterbean pate. There are some fantastic plant-based recipe books out there.”
There are four key nutrients to know about when your child is on a vegan diet.
“Everyone – adults and children – following a vegan diet should take a vitamin B12 supplement, as this nutrient is not available from plants at all,” says Hallam.
“All children in the UK under the age of 5 years should take a vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms per day and older children and adults should consider a supplement in the winter months, from October to April, when the sunshine is not at the appropriate wavelength to promote vitamin D synthesis in your skin.”
As the main sources of iodine in the UK diet are dairy products, eggs and fish, a supplement is “the most reliable way to obtain a daily source of iodine. Children need 50 to 130 micrograms per day.”
Finally, there is some debate as to whether Omega-3 fats, such as DHA, need to be supplemented in older children and adults.
Hallam continues: “All children on a vegan diet under the age of two years, as well pregnant and breastfeeding mums following a vegan diet, should supplement these fats. There are also plant-based sources of the precursor of DHA (ALA) which can be included in a plant-based diet, such as chia, flax and hempseed, walnuts and flaxseed oil.”