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Plant-based diets are gaining in popularity and parents who follow a vegetarian diet may want their child to follow it as well. But are vegetarian diets safe for children? First, it is important to distinguish between the different types of vegetarian diets.

A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes dairy products and eggs, making it relatively easy to meet the nutritional needs of a growing child. A vegan diet excludes all animal protein sources and more planning is needed to ensure your child meets nutrient needs.

A vegetarian diet can be healthy and taste great! The key is in the planning. The following are some tips to ensure your child gets the nutrients needed for proper weight gain and overall growth.

• The vegetarian diet is naturally high in fiber which is good. However, too much fiber can fill your child up, making it difficult to get in adequate quantities of food to meet calorie and other nutrient needs.

• A vegetarian diet should be nutrient dense. This means that meals and snacks need to include foods high in calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. Avoid empty-calorie foods that are fillers and lack nutritional value.

• If your child needs extra calories, include hummus, nut butters/nuts, avocado, cheese or smoothies that contain soymilk, whole fat dairy milk or yogurt, with added vegetables and fruits for color and flavor. Healthy fats such as olive or canola oil can be added in meal preparation as well.

• To ensure your child is consuming enough protein, serve dairy foods and eggs routinely on a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. For a vegan diet, dried beans, nuts and soy products are good sources of protein.

• You may need to focus on certain vitamins and minerals such as calcium and vitamin D if excluding dairy products. There are many alternative milk options such as soy, almond and coconut, to name a few. Make sure they are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and keep in mind that these options can be low in calorie content and may not be appropriate for kids under 2 years old. You will need to pay attention to vitamin B12 intake. It is naturally found in animal foods, but plant foods may be fortified. Iron intake is also a consideration. Many foods are fortified with iron such as cereal, but absorption can be an issue. Pairing an iron-fortified food with a vitamin C source can help with this.

• If you are concerned that your child may not be getting the nutrients needed, consider a children’s vegetarian vitamin mineral supplement.

• For the school-age child, keep in mind that most school lunch programs may offer limited vegetarian options. Check with school staff to see what is available, but a packed lunch can ensure your child is consuming an adequate meal.

• Your child may accept eating vegetarian more readily if he or she is involved in buying and preparing meals and snacks. Or better yet, grow a family garden or take part in a community garden project.

Nutritional goals for vegetarian children are the same as any child: growing at a normal rate and eating a nutritionally adequate diet. A vegetarian diet can be a healthy way for a child to eat, but extra care is needed to provide a variety of foods including dried beans, whole grains, vegetables and fruits on a regular basis. The following vegetarian recipes are easy to prepare and delicious!

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If you would like more information on this or any nutrition topic, call Gundersen Health System’s Nutrition Therapy department at (608) 775-3447 to schedule with a registered dietitian. More information and recipes are also available at gundersenhealth.org/nutrition.

Sweet Potato Bean Burrito

  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup frozen corn, thawed
  • Half lime, juiced
  • 2 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1½ cups shredded cheese
  • 1 cup salsa
  • 2 avocados, pitted, sliced
  • 6 (8-inch) tortillas

In a microwave-safe bowl combine sweet potato, onion and water. Microwave on high for 5 minutes or until sweet potatoes are soft and easily pierced with a fork. Meanwhile, in a large skillet heat oil, garlic and green pepper. Sauté until green pepper is tender. Add beans, corn, lime juice and spices. Add potato mixture. Stir until heated through. Remove from heat. Place 1/6 of the mixture on each taco shell and sprinkle with cheese. Top with salsa and avocado.

Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 250 calories, 6 g fat, 10 g protein, 44 g carbohydrate, 9 g fiber, 360 mg sodium

Quinoa and Black Beans

  • 2 cups cooked quinoa
  • 2 cups cooked black beans
  • ½ cup green onions, chopped
  • 2 medium tomatoes, diced
  • ½ cup cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons lime zest
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, whisk together the cilantro, lime zest, lime juice, olive oil, sugar and salt. Add the quinoa, black beans and tomatoes and stir to combine. Serve chilled.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition analysis per serving: 300 calories, 9 g fat, 12 g protein, 43 g carbohydrate, 12 g fiber, 156 mg sodium

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