Plant Based Diets for Children

March is National Nutrition Month and we want to spread awareness to the importance of a well-balanced diet for children’s health, development, and growth. All kids need an adequate amount of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats every day. Today, some kids and families are choosing to adopt a plant-based diet. And while all kids will benefit from a nutritional plan, vegetarians and vegans will need specific considerations.

A plant-based diet is safe during any life stage and can even be beneficial in many ways. Children who become vegan or vegetarian tend to have more room in their diet for vegetables and fruits. But, not all plant-based products are healthy such as processed foods. Regardless if your child chooses a plant-based diet or not, it is best that their diet consists mostly of whole foods. Whole foods provide children with a range of nutrients, while processed foods remove some of the nutrients and contain artificial ingredients. 

There are many whole food sources of plant-based protein, including legumes (such as beans, peas, and lentils), nuts, soy foods (such as tofu, edamame, and tempeh), and chia seeds and flaxseeds. Complex carbohydrates and grains like quinoa, brown rice, wheat or multi-grain breads, and whole wheat pasta can also provide protein, especially when paired with other sources. These foods provide fiber as well. For vegetarians, dairy products such as cheese and yogurt are also good protein options. 

In addition to protein, many of these foods offer other essentials. Nuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are great sources of healthy fats. Children can also get their fats from hummus and avocados, which can be combined with vegetables to make healthy snacks in between meals. Vegetables, as well as fruits, are important for everyone as they provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Vegetarians and vegans can get calcium from eating leafy greens such as kale and spinach, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. 

When planning a plant-based diet, iron is an important mineral to pay attention to. If your child does not get enough iron, they can get iron-deficiency anemia, causing fatigue and low energy. Iron is commonly found in meat, particularly heme iron which is more readily absorbed. However, it is still possible to get enough iron in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Good sources of iron include beans, leafy greens, tofu, dried fruits, and fortified cereals. Iron can be better absorbed when combined with vitamin C, so it’s best to add foods rich in vitamin C to your children’s meals. These include fruits like oranges, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, papaya, and lemon, as well as broccoli and sweet potatoes.

Vitamin B12 is another important one to pay attention to.  It is primarily found in animal products and an inadequate intake of Vitamin B12 can lead to anemia or with severe deficiency, to neurological problems. For children who are vegan, they will need to take a Vitamin B12 supplement. Fortified nutritional yeast and fortified cereals are also potential sources. 

Keep in mind that every child’s dietary needs may vary, especially if they have certain restrictions due to celiac disease, diabetes, and other health conditions. If you have questions or concerns regarding your child’s nutrition, please contact our office.

Advice for Starting Solids

For National Nutrition Month, we want to share advice for starting solids and making sure that your baby is getting all the nutrients they need. Starting solids is an exciting milestone for your baby, but it can also be messy and confusing. Read on to learn how to make the transition easier.

Babies can begin eating solids generally around 6 months of age. Prior to that, it is recommended that they be given only breastmilk and/or formula. Breastmilk has all of the nutrients your baby needs. After 6 months, it is still beneficial to continue breastfeeding until the first year or beyond, while feeding your child introductory foods.

Your baby will be ready to start eating solids when they can hold their head up and sit in an infant seat. They should also generally weigh at least 13 pounds and be able to swallow food. When you start feeding your baby solids, you may notice them spitting out some of the food, leaving a mess on their bib or high chair. This often happens because they’re not used to consuming anything thicker than milk or the taste of other foods. Over time, however, their taste buds will develop and their tolerance of different textures will grow.

To begin feeding, start with tiny spoonful amounts of baby food and gradually increase the amounts as your baby learns how to swallow solids. Patience is key here. Don’t feel discouraged if your baby turns away from the food or starts crying. If they refuse to eat, go back to breastfeeding or feeding them infant formula and try again another time. Eventually, your baby will learn to accept solids and will enjoy it!

What you feed your baby is also really important. There are many types of baby’s first foods to choose from, but you’ll want to make sure that their food includes nutrients such as iron, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Try giving them a variety of options to avoid picky eating later on. When babies begin eating solids, their food should be soft or pureed to prevent choking. Once they’re able to bring their hands and other objects to their mouths, you can give them soft finger foods to learn how to feed themselves. Finger foods should also be cut into small pieces to make it easier for swallowing.  

Baby-led weaning is another approach to starting solid foods.  This approach allows you to follow your baby’s lead and to watch for signs of developmental readiness and, when baby is ready, allowing them to self-feed.  Cutting foods into “finger-size” slices that are made for grasping and food should be firm enough to pick up and hold, long enough that they can see a little portion sticking out of their hand and soft enough to gum or chew.  Examples include soft ripe fruits such as banana, pear, avocado, kiwi and mango or strips of roasted/baked/steamed vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots and squash.  Soft, shredded strips of meat that you can move your fingers through is also an option.  Most babies will embark on their solid foods journey with a combination of these two approaches.

Some great first foods for babies include mashed fruits and vegetables like bananas, peaches, applesauce, sweet potatoes, and avocados, as well as grains like oatmeal and baby cereal. Protein options include meat, mashed eggs, yogurt, beans, and tofu. After your baby starts eating solids and there’s no special reason to be concerned about food allergies, you can gradually begin to introduce them to allergenic foods like peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish. It is advised to keep 3 days in between new foods to ensure there are no signs of allergy to the food introduced.

Once your baby reaches 6 months, they can also be introduced to drinking water. Babies under 6 months get the water they need from breastmilk and/or formula. For babies under age one, 8 ounces of water per day is enough in addition to breastmilk and/or formula. Children under 12 months should not be drinking juice as there is no nutritional benefit at this age. Juice also increases the risk of tooth decay. 

Additionally, you’ll want to avoid feeding your baby anything they can choke on, such as popcorn, nuts, and vegetables that are not mashed. You may notice your child gagging when eating baby food and this can be confused with choking. However, gagging is a normal reaction that occurs when your baby has taken in too much food or pushed it back into their mouth. The gag reflex keeps the food out of the wind pipe and prevents choking. If your child is choking, they will show signs of difficulty breathing. If this occurs, contact emergency right away or perform CPR if trained. 

If you have any questions about introducing solids to your infant, please contact our office.