Most parents can easily say that toddlers are some of the pickiest eaters around. It doesn’t matter if you are vegetarian, vegan, or a meat eater. It’s like a universal code of conduct the toddlers have all sworn by. This can be especially challenging if your child’s diet falls outside the meat eating norm of society, and it illicits a comment or question on the safety of a meat free diet for your child. Try not to let this discourage you. So long as you take care to make sure that all the appropriate nutrients are met, it’s significantly healthier. Some benefits to a lifelong, proper vegetarian diet include a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
That being said, you’ll want to put in effort to develop a well-rounded vegetarian toddler menu that provides enough protein and iron. Since toddlers already have such a small appetite, it can be difficult to get them to eat enough vegetables or beans to receive all of their nutrients. Therefore, it is important that vegetarian children are served nutrient-dense foods. We went through a period of time when my toddler would not sit for a meal. No matter how hard we tried (and it was a constant battle!) To get her the nutrition and calories she needed, we ended up ditching the nutrient void snacks (like crackers or puffs) and having “snacks” of smaller meals through the day that she could graze on. This way, she got what she needed. By the way, I am happy to report that this toddler is now a big kid, and happily sits for meals.
Here are a few tips for successfully feeding your toddler:
- Tofu can be your parenting ally! It is a great source of protein for your toddler. We would cube it, and serve it with plain cheerios. My kids also loved eating chic peas, black beans and these awesome vegan refried beans.
- Finding good sources of iron is easier than you think! It can be found in many vegetarian-friendly foods. Kidney beans, lima beans, green beans, and spinach are all excellent sources of iron. However, unlike iron derived from animal sources, iron from vegetables can be hard for your body to absorb properly. But serving a vitamin C rich food with those beans or spinach can make the iron easier for your toddler to absorb. Some great sources of vitamin C include tomatoes, oranges, broccoli, red peppers, and cantaloupe.
- Vegetarian or vegan parents may need to supplement a toddler’s diet to ensure they get all the nutrition that they need. Vitamin B-12 can be especially difficult to get enough of, especially through the picky toddler phase. While vegetables contain some B-12 vitamins, the body does not easily absorb these. Your toddler’s pediatrician can help you decide on a suitable B-12 supplement.
- Dairy free parents need to be aware of calcium intake for their toddler. Calcium helps to make bones stronger, and aids in proper growth and development. Thankfully, there are many calcium fortified vegan milks (such as soy, etc) and other foods that provide more calcium and nutrients, such as these tasty kale chips (more calcium than milk.)
- Look for whole grain foods that are enriched with vitamins and minerals in a major way, such as waffles (surprise!) They can easily be paired with berries, and are usually very easy for toddlers to accept.
Really, most toddlers are almost natural vegetarians. Consider including the following ideas in your daily menu planning for a well-rounded, nutrient-dense healthy diet:
- 2.5-3 cups fortified soy milk or other non dairy milk
- 1/4-1/2 cup iron-fortified cereal
- 2-5 servings grains (1/2 slice bread, 1/4 cup cooked rice, pasta, quinoa, etc)
- 2-3 servings veggies (1/2 cup salad or raw veggies, 1/4 cup cooked veggies—bear in mind that the younger your child is, cooked vegetables might be easier for them to chew and digest, then introduce raw veggies as they grow older.)
- 2-3 servings fruit (1/2 fresh fruit, 1/4 cup cooked fruit, 1/4 cup juice)
- 2 servings protein foods (1/4 -1/3 cup cooked beans/lentils, a slice or so of calcium-fortified tofu, or peanut or almond butter – be sure that nut butters are fed to children who’ve been tested and shown not to have nut allergies; if you’re unsure, wait until your child’s healthcare provider has had the opportunity to test for such allergies in your child before trying them)
- Vitamin B-12 source – nutritional yeast, breast milk, formula, fortified soy milks and cheeses
- Vitamin D – sunlight, breast milk, formula, fortified soy milk
- Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids – flax seed oil, freshly ground flax seed
And here’s some finger-food friendly options for your growing vegetarian or vegan toddler:
- Fresh or frozen mango (have you tried this toddler friendly mango slushie?)
- Fresh or frozen peaches/nectarines/plums
- Cubed avocado
- Tofu (put in microwave or steam for 10-30 seconds
- Fresh or frozen peas
- Pasta that is slightly overcooked
- Cubed soy or rice cheeses
- Canned beans- black, garbanzo, black eyed peas, or kidney
- Fortified toast, cut into little pieces
I’d love to hear what challenges you are facing, or what worked for you!