Healthy Living

Plant-based Diet Tips for Kids and Teens

By Beth Rosen, MS, RD, CDN

As kids stake claims to their independence when it comes to eating, more tweens and teens are experimenting with vegetarian and vegan diets. Parents may be concerned that their children are undernourished when adopting these eating patterns, but they can rest easy. Kids can thrive on plant-based diets. All parents need are these 3 plant-based diet tips for kids, tweens (betweeb ages 9 and 12) and teen vegetarians. 

Nutrient-Dense Diets Can Provide All They Need

When teens switch to a plant-based diet, it’s important to make sure they get enough protein, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. These nutrients are in abundance in animal products. A nutrient-dense diet, filled with a variety of unrefined grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, oils, and meat alternatives like fermented soy products, can provide tweens and teens with everything they need from food. In some cases, kids who have adopted vegetarian or vegan eating habits may require vitamin supplementation, so be sure to let their physician know about their change in diet. 

No Need to Combine Protein and Grain 

Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet has gotten easier thanks to recent research. It turns out that combining protein and grain foods at each meal — a tedious process for new vegetarians — is no longer necessary. As long as kids get the minimum servings from each food group every day, their bodies will do the combining for them! 

Teens should eat at least the minimum servings from each food group.

 

This means:

  • 6-7 servings of whole grains,

  • 2 servings of legumes,

  • 1 serving of nuts and seeds,

  • 3 servings of fats and oils,

  • 5 fruits and

  • 5 vegetables,

  • along with 3-4 servings of dairy or dairy alternatives.

 

This may seem like an exorbitant amount of food, but when you consider the actual size of a serving, it's actually reasonable. 

Know the Minimum Servings for Teens and Tweens

Getting Started

Start looking through some of your favorite recipes and also at new recipes for ones that can be tweaked. Proteins such as chicken and beef can be replaced with grilled tofu, veggie crumbles or beans for the vegetarian. Talk to your teen about choosing foods that will provide the energy they need every day. 

This is the perfect time to discuss new foods with your teen. Tofu, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, edamame (soy beans), quinoa, nutritional yeast, dark leafy greens, and fortified soy and nut milks are some good foods to try that are rich in nutrients. 

It is a good idea for vegetarian teenage girls to get the most iron they can from foods. Foods with a large amount of vitamin C can increase the amount of iron that the body can get from plant-based foods. Try to get Vitamin C with at least two meals each day, especially with legumes (alfalfa, clover, beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soybeans, peanuts, and tamarind). Foods high in vitamin C per serving are orange juice and grapefruit juice, oranges, broccoli, strawberries, grapefruit, yellow peppers, and red peppers. 

Meal Ideas 

Try omelets or frittatas made with asparagus, broccoli, mushroom, sweet peppers, and onions. Serve it with some fresh whole grain bread or toast and a glass of milk or fortified soy or nut milk.

 

To satisfy those who love Mexican foods, make burritos or tacos with kidney or black beans, refried beans or veggie crumbles. 

For Asian food lovers, make stir fries with tofu, vegetables, and nuts. Serve with whole wheat couscous or brown rice. 

Make an entrée or side salad with leafy greens, chick peas, white or red kidney beans, nuts, vegetables, pasta, rice, couscous or barley. Top with a zesty salad dressing. 

Try falafels and hummus made with chick peas and serve with whole grain pita bread and salad, diced tomatoes, sweet peppers or carrots. 

Spread some peanut, cashew or almond butter on whole wheat or multigrain bagels and top with sliced banana or apple. Balance this out with a glass of calcium fortified orange juice.

 

Don’t forget about soups! They can be made with lentils, beans, and vegetables. Take advantage of a slow cooker and set it so soup will be ready when you get home! Serve with whole grain bread or crackers.

 

There are lots of good casserole recipes made with beans or lentils, rice, corn, and tomatoes.

 

Everyone likes pizza! Top with a fresh tomato sauce and vegetables!

 

Vegetarian chili is a great option! Serve it with cornbread or couscous. Garnish with some fresh herbs. 

Blend up a soy or nut milk smoothie with a banana (frozen slices make a nice creamy consistency), frozen berries and a splash of orange juice. 

Protein Sources 

A great low-cost protein option is legumes. Buy the beans or peas in dry form and cook them yourself. They’re also available canned, but check the nutrition label for high sodium levels. It’s worth the time to try a lot of different legumes, since their nutrient profile are all a little different.  

Chickpea flour contains 21 grams of plant-protein per cup and has a hearty, dense texture. Substitute chickpea flour for up to half of the wheat flour in pancakes, pizza crusts, or other baked goods.  

 

Tofu is made from curdled soybeans and contains 27 grams of protein per cup. Some teens may prefer the extra firm tofu while others may like the silken. Tofu works great in stir-fries, soups, salads, and sandwiches. Try marinating it and then bake it. Try vegan scrambled eggs by mixing turmeric and crumbled tofu in a skillet. 

 

Soymilk contains 8.7 grams of protein per cup on average. To avoid added sugars, choose unsweetened soymilk. If you want some flavor, there are brands that offer vanilla flavor unsweetened soymilk and nutmilk. Opt for milk fortified with Vitamins A and D. Use soymilk in smoothies and with your morning cereal. 

Whole grains with high protein content include quinoa, spelt, wheat, wild rice, amaranth, barley, and farro. Try a Greek Grain Bowl made with regular or quick cooking farro, baby spinach, halved cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, peppadew pepper, feta cheese, red onion, and hummus. 

Tempeh is a fermented product made from soybeans and other grains such as millet or rice. It has a firmer texture than tofu. Tempeh works well in stir-fries, sandwiches or wraps, and marinated or grilled. 

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) is made from soybean flour and has a chewy texture. Because of this, it’s an excellent substitution for ground meat. Use it in tacos, chili, burgers, or meatloaf.  

 

Chia seeds can be used in pancakes or baked goods, mixed into smoothies, or in simple chia drinks with soymilk or water. 

There are many types of nut butters, including peanut, almond, cashew, walnut, pistachio, brazil nut, and macadamia.  

Have Your Teen Help 

A vegetarian meal can be a healthy choice for the whole family, so let your teen plan and help create a family meal at least once a week. Work with your teen to create a menu and shopping list, and go shopping together. 

If your teen or tween wants to become a vegetarian, make sure that he or she understands how food fuels growth, the body, and the brain, every day. Once they have that knowledge, they will be ready to thrive by keeping in mind these plant-based diet tips for kids.

This information is for educational purposes only. The statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult your physician if you have any question regarding a medical condition

 

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