In a previous post I explained why Paul and I have chosen a vegan lifestyle for our family. I would now like to share what we have learned about providing Sage with the nutrients he needs as a growing vegan toddler.
Neither Paul or I grew up as vegans. And, most vegans we meet also became vegan later on in their lives, therefore, we do not have many real life examples of what a person who has been vegan all their life looks like. Sage, who has been on a plant-based diet since he was six months old, has done well. He loves food — fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes — he loves them all. His healthy eating habits, energy levels and growth are a testament to his healthy vegan diet, which is why we feel confident in the lifestyle we are raising Sage and his soon-to-be sister.
However, our decision to raise a vegan child did not come lightly, we have done so much research about nutrition for babies and toddlers. The last thing we wanted was to use our children as a science experiment to test the hypothesis that vegan children will be just as healthy as children who consume animal products. Our knowledge about how to raise our child on a plant-based diet is based on satisfying the nutritional needs of our child without animal byproducts. If this is something you’re interested in providing for your child, you must know what constitutes a balanced diet.
Creating a Balanced Diet for Your Child
First, what are the essential nutrients for a growing baby and toddler? Even if you choose to feed your child animal byproducts many children have deficient levels in certain essential vitamins and minerals. It is important for all parents to learn about healthy nutrition for their child and ensure their child is getting everything they need for optimal development both physically and mentally. KidsHealth.org is an excellent resource for nutrition guidelines for toddlers. Another great vegan-specific resource is VeganHealth.org. I also recommend this phenomenal book to parents who wish to raise a healthy vegan child or maybe even raw vegan child: “Creating Healthy Children Through Attachment Parenting and Raw Foods,” by Karen Ranzi.
During the first three years of a child’s life, certain vitamins and minerals are more important for the development of their brain and body. Many people do not realize that these nutritional needs are different from the needs of an adult body.
For example, during the first six months infants only needs breastmilk (or formula). At this stage of life all of your child’s nutrients will be coming from the mother. Therefore, it is essential the mother is eating a nutrient-dense diet. After six months of age the parent may begin to introduce solid foods to the baby. However, until the infant is 12 months old, the baby’s main source of nutrition is derived from breastmilk or formula.
After the child turns a year old and food becomes the main source of nutrition, the nutrients below are what every child needs. I’ve also included the vegan sources of these basic elements of your child’s diet. For more information about baby-led weaning, please check out my BLW section.
The Building Blocks of a Healthy Diet
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
One of the major building blocks of the brain, is DHA, which stands for Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This omega-3 fatty acid is critical for optimal brain health and function. In developing babies, higher levels of DHA are needed for the growth of neuronal cells than other brain structures. Providing Sage with enough DHA was one of my biggest concerns in regards to his vegan diet since DHA is found primarily in fatty fish such as salmon. For infants, brain development undergoes its most rapid and complex growth during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years after birth. This means that during this period the child’s neurological development is highly dependent on his or her dietary intake of essential nutrients, like DHA.
There are two major types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets: One type is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in some vegetable oils, such as soybean, grapeseed, canola, and flaxseed. ALA is also found in walnuts, and some green vegetables, such as brussel sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens. The other type of omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are found in fatty fish. The body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA.
Scientific studies have not shown whether vegetable or fish omega-3 fatty acids are equally beneficial, both seem to be beneficial when consumed in a balanced diet. Unfortunately, most Americans do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids. For optimal health, adults should aim to get at least one rich source of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet every day. This could be through a serving of fatty fish (such as salmon), a tablespoon of canola or soybean oil in salad dressing or in cooking, or a handful of walnuts or ground flaxseed mixed into your morning oatmeal.
In addition to ensuring Sage gets his fair share of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of greens, we give him a plant-based DHA supplement. We also put a serving of hemp seeds in our green smoothies or oatmeal. Hemp seeds are a phenomenal superfood packed with iron, protein, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
Calcium & Vitamin D
The key building blocks for strong, healthy bones and teeth are calcium and vitamin D. Younger kids and babies who don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D (which aids in calcium absorption) are at increased risk for rickets. Rickets is a bone-softening disease that causes severe bowing of the legs, poor growth, and sometimes muscle pain and weakness. Pediatricians recommend that children ages 1 – 3 get 700 milligrams of calcium daily and 600 IU of vitamin D. Unlike milk, plant-based calcium sources contain vitamins C and K and the minerals potassium and magnesium, which are all important for bone health.
One of the best vegan sources of calcium is: GREENS! One cup of kale has 180 mg of calcium; hence our daily green smoothies. Other great sources include broccoli, hemp milk, great northern beans, soybeans, and figs, to name a few. All of these foods are staples of Sage’s diet.
Vitamin D is the sunlight vitamin. We are fortunate enough to live in sunny southern California, so Sage is able to get sufficient vitamin D from its most natural source, since it is not found in many whole food sources. However, if you need other sources of vitamin D outside of sunlight, look for vitamin D-fortified items such as cereals and non-dairy milks or certain mushrooms such as portobello and baby bella.
Vitamin A & C
Vitamin A plays an important role in vision and bone growth and helps protect the body from infections. Vitamin A promotes the health and growth of cells and tissues in the body, including the hair, nails, and skin. Top foods for this nutrient are sweet potatoes, carrots and dark leafy greens. Sage loves when I make homemade sweet potato fries.
Vitamin C helps form and repair red blood cells, bones, and tissues. It also helps keep your child’s gums healthy and strengthens blood vessels, minimizing bruising; and vitamin C assists with healing, boosts the immune system, and keeping infections at bay. Vitamin C allows the body to absorb iron from iron-rich foods. Papaya, broccoli, brussel sprouts and strawberries are all great sources of this nutrient. Lucky for us, Sage could eat steamed brussel sprouts every night for dinner!
Just like vitamins, minerals help your body grow, develop, and stay healthy. Here are some of the minerals your child needs for a healthy diet.
Iron is a nutrient that’s needed to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells (RBCs). Red blood cells circulate throughout the body to deliver oxygen to all its cells. Without enough iron, the body can’t make enough RBCs, and tissues and organs won’t get the oxygen they need. Infants who breastfeed tend to get enough iron from their mothers until 4-6 months of age, when iron-fortified cereal is usually introduced. For Sage, we liked the oatmeal by Earth’s Best. Infants ages 7-12 months need 11 milligrams of iron a day. Toddlers need 7 milligrams of iron each day. Excellent vegan sources of iron include hemp seeds, dark leafy greens, legumes, and nuts, specifically cashews.
Potassium & Magnesium
Potassium keeps your muscles and nervous system working properly. Your blood and body tissues contain water. Potassium helps make sure the amount of water is balanced between cells and body fluids. A favorite potassium source for many toddlers is bananas. Other sources include green vegetables, citrus fruits, and legumes.
Magnesium is required for the proper growth and maintenance of bones. Magnesium is also required for the proper function of nerves, muscles, and many other parts of the body. In the stomach, magnesium helps neutralize stomach acid and moves stools through the intestine. Green vegetables such as spinach offer the greatest concentrations of magnesium in the diet. Nuts, seeds and whole grains are also great sources. Foods that are high in fiber are generally high in magnesium.
This mineral helps your immune system, which is your body’s system for fighting off illnesses and infections. It also helps with cell growth and helps heal wounds, such as cuts. Children who don’t get enough zinc may risk stunted growth. Toddlers need 3 mg of zinc per day. Foods rich in zinc include nuts, such as cashews, almonds, and peanuts and legumes, such as beans, split peas, and lentils.
Fat is important for proper growth and development in children. More specifically, fat helps a child absorb vitamins, is a source for energy and helps him maintain healthy skin and hair. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain development in children. Children under age two should avoid consuming a fat-restricted, or low-fat diets because fat is important for cognitive development. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, two-year-olds need about 1,000 calories each day. The acceptable macronutrient distribution range for fat in toddlers’ diets is 30 to 40 percent of their total calorie intake.
Therefore, a toddler who consumes 1,000 calories would require 33 to 45 grams of fat each day. Eating whole food plant-based diet fat can be difficult to incorporate into your diet because most fruits and vegetables only have 5-10% fat, if any at all. Sage’s fat sources include avocados, nut butters and seeds such as hemp and chia.
As you have noticed, many of the same foods fall in multiple categories. Therefore, given your toddler’s small stomach it’s not too difficult to make their meals nutrient dense without having to constantly keep them eating. Below you’ll find some power packed meal ideas that Sage loves.
Examples of Nutrient-Dense Vegan Foods for Toddlers
Banana and Nut Butter: There are two power-packed nut butters we feed Sage often, whether we spread them on banana slices, on a piece of toast, or feed them to him by the spoonful. You can’t go wrong with these great choices: NuttZo or Kolat superfood fusions.
Green Smoothies: You can pack almost all of your child’s needed nutrition in a sweet morning smoothie. In my opinion, smoothies are the easiest way to get in all of your greens. In addition to spinach and kale, I will add frozen broccoli to some of our smoothies. Check out some of Sage’s favorite smoothies in our smoothie section.
Tolerant Red Lentil Rotini: Some weeknights I am tired and don’t have much energy to prepare an elaborate meal. In those instances my go-to is organic red lentil pasta. The one and only ingredient in this product is red lentils. This product is packed with iron, zinc and calcium among numerous other vitamins and minerals including 21g of protein. To boost this meal even more we will blend spinach into our pasta sauce. You can never have too many greens!
Cashews: Nutritionally, cashews are an ideal food for toddlers, but they can be a chocking hazard in their normal nut form. An alternative is in a granola bar such as cashew cookie by LARABAR. We also combine cashews and nutritional yeast in our vegan “cheese” sauces. Side Note: Nutritional yeast flakes are also a great vegan source of B12.