Is a plant-based diet ‘safe’ for babies and children?

Is a vegan diet is ‘safe’ for babies and children? Many parents are concerned that they will lack the right nutrition if they follow a plant-based diet. So, we spoke to Stem & Glory founder Louise Palmer-Masterton for her expert advice

Girl hiding her face behind silverbeet leaves

Plant-Based Diets – A modern lifestyle choice for children

Odds are, one day you’re going to need to feed a vegan kid: perhaps it will be a neighbour’s child you’re looking after for an afternoon; perhaps it will be one of your child’s friends coming round for tea; perhaps it will be your little one returning home from school announcing their first lifestyle choice. If that last one fills you with worry about how to go about ensuring that you provide balanced nutrition, breathe easy; setting out on a plant-based path is like any journey—one step at a time.

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Here’s an interesting set of ingredients: sugar, salt, citric acid, potassium chloride, dried onion and dried yeast. Put those together in the right quantities and you have the seasoning for a flavour of crisps you may be surprised to learn is 100% vegan.

The first and most important step is all about you. Educate yourself. As with any healthy eating plan (vegan or not), you need to pay attention to balanced protein, healthy fats, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and iron. If you already love to cook, excellent; if it’s not really your thing and you wouldn’t know the top of a Torode from the back of a Wallace, find a way to embrace your inner Jamie, Gordon, Mary or Nigella.

Here’s an interesting set of ingredients: sugar, salt, citric acid, potassium chloride, dried onion and dried yeast. Put those together in the right quantities and you have the seasoning for a flavour of crisps you may be surprised to learn is 100% vegan. Those crisps are prawn cocktail flavour. I mention this not as a favour to Gary Lineker, but to show how combining food stuffs can produce unexpected results. Obviously, ten packets of prawn cocktail crisps for dinner means you’ve lost your way, but you don’t need to be a food boffin or master unfathomable alchemy, you just need to know what to add to your shopping list to make sure you have protein, healthy fats, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and iron covered.

But what about protein?

There is a common idea that vegans lack protein, which has its roots in animal-based proteins containing all nine essential amino acids, making them complete protein. A lot of talk about getting the full spectrum of these amino acids is generally misunderstood, because it is not actually necessary to eat one food that contains everything. You can combine foods to provide a complete protein. And the chances are that you have experienced one of these magical combinations already: beans on toast.

There are a few plant-based foods that contain the full spectrum of amino acids. These ‘complete’ proteins include quinoa, tofu, tempeh, buckwheat, edamame beans, chia seeds and amaranth. Some of these may not appeal to youngsters and you may need to rely on a little artfulness: hide the likes of quinoa in a yummy flavouring, or combining chia with fruit in a creative dessert. Sticking to plant-based complete protein sources can limit your kid-friendly repertoire. Focus on combining the many foods that, alone, are not a complete protein but become just that when teamed up with an appropriate food friend: this is where beans on toast comes in—combining grains and pulses provides a complete protein.

Similarly, brown and white rice when combined with beans or lentils give a complete protein. And there are literally millions of recipes containing beans or lentils, rice (or other grains) and vegetables. Just about every continent on the planet has its own version.

  • If you need to provide a quick tummy filler, a peanut butter sandwich is everyone’s friend. Easy to make, easy to include in packed lunches or picnics, and a very high complete protein. By the way, 100g of wholemeal bread contains 13g of protein, which is more than in 100g of egg.
  • Encourage your children to fall in love with hummus, as young as possible. Hummus is a super-nutritious super-available superfood, and when served with pitta and carrot and/or cucumber sticks it is a winner with most children.
  • B12 is very important, and you may already have a fantastic source on your shelf. Marmite (yeast extract is also good) contains plenty of B12. If your child takes to it on toast, brilliant, but if not, stealth it into them via many savoury dishes – soups, stews and the best vegan gravy ever. You can also use Engevita flakes (super-charged with B12) as a cheese substitute, sprinkled on pasta and in many sauces.

Finally, a few thoughts on following a vegan lifestyle when you have a baby. The best possible start in life for your baby is breastfeeding, and for you to eat a healthy, balanced diet whilst feeding, so it’s wise to continue taking a pregnancy-safe vitamin supplement. That will pass on the best possible nutrition to your child. Don’t be in a hurry to stop breastfeeding. There are no vegan baby formula milk products currently in the UK market, although they will likely emerge in the not too distant future. Do not be tempted to give your infant plant-based milk substitutes, as they will not have the nutrition your child needs (same goes for feeding an infant plain cows milk).

The Vegan Society advice is to continue breastfeeding until your child is two years old if possible, but every child is different when it comes to weaning, so don’t beat yourself up if your child doesn’t want to keep breastfeeding. If you do stop breastfeeding before two years, pay special attention to a good balance of nutrition, minerals and vitamins, perhaps considering fortified baby foods such as baby cereal. You may have also read about concerns of deficiency in a vegan diet, but there is no link between veganism and malnutrition amongst children of any age, as long as attention is paid to balanced nutrition. The world is full of healthy vegan children!

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Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of Stem & Glory

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning restaurants Stem & Glory; hip and trendy but accessible plant-based restaurants, serving delicious gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredients. Stem & Glory also offers click-and-collect and local delivery in London and Cambridge. In addition, Stem & Glory offers a range of ready meals, finish at home pizzas, and recipe kits available for delivery across the UK.