If you’re a vegan you probably want to raise your little ones that way as well. Even if you started your vegan journey out of compassion for animals or to help improve the environment, health is likely also a consideration for you. But can a focus on health actually get in the way of raising a healthy vegan child?
Keep in mind that nutrition for kids is very different than nutrition for adults. Children are in a major stage of development! Their brains are growing, their bodies are growing, they’re building bones and muscles. Everything for them is just getting bigger, and as parents, we want to make sure we avoid any nutrient deficiency.
That’s why it’s important to know what nutrients your vegan child needs to support their growth and development, and know what foods they will actually eat that have those key nutrients.
This video is a deep dive into this topic.
As a Certified Holistic Nutritionist who works with clients planning vegan diets, I am regularly asked about childhood nutrition. This article details the most important nutrients for vegan parents to focus on for their children.
A quick note on what I’m not going to cover. Here I cover the needs of children once they are eating whole foods. If you have an infant at home, make sure you are eating well to meet your needs and the needs of your baby, and supplement with a soy-based infant formula if you aren’t nursing but your little one isn’t yet eating whole foods.
Table of Contents
- Is a Vegan Diet Appropriate for Children?
- Growing Children Need Calories
- Growing Children Need More Fat Than Adults
- Growing Children Need Quite a Bit of Protein
- Fortification Is a Good Thing
- Calcium is Crucial
- B12 Is Non-Negotiable for Vegans
- Growing Kids Need More Iron Than Adult Males
- Iodine Can Be the Most Difficult for Vegan Children to Get
- Daily Sunshine and Vitamin D for Strong Bones
- Putting This Into Practice, Simply
- That’s a Wrap
Is a Vegan Diet Appropriate for Children?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics vegetarian and vegan diets that are well planned are appropriate for every stage of the life cycle. I fact, they even mention that vegan diets are “healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” (1)
The key here is appropriately planned.
Let’s dive into the macro and micronutrients kids need.
Growing Children Need Calories
Calories supply the energy kids need to run, play, and grow. But feeding kids is easier said than done! No matter how well you introduce foods, most kids are picky at some point.
Add to that the fact that whole plant foods can be very filling but not super calorie-dense. It’s hard to enough calories from a plate of broccoli before you’re completely stuffed! That’s great if you want to lose weight! But we need to get good calories into our kids’ tiny stomachs before they are full.
Calorie needs by age (2)
- Ages 2-4: 1,000 – 1,600, depending on growth and activity level
- Ages 5-8: 1,200-1,800, depending on growth and activity level
- Ages 9-13: 1,400-2,200, depending on growth and activity level
Please don’t think you need to start counting calories for your kids! This is just to give you an idea of how much they need. Think about an adult eating a 2,000 calorie diet. An 8-year old needs almost that much!
The key to raising vegan children is to load up on calorie-dense food, along with fruits and veggies.
Calorie Dense Foods that Kids Love
Every child is different, but here are some foods that kids tend to like. Hopefully, you notice some in here that even the pickiest of eaters will like.
- Nuts. Nuts are not just calorie loaded, they provide protein and fat that kids need. These make for great snacks or homemade granola.
- Seeds. Hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxmeal! Add these to smoothies, oatmeal, cereal, pancakes, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
- Nut butters. Who doesn’t like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich?! That’s what I send my own child to school with most days. Spread on some good whole wheat bread and you’ve got a calorie-filled, protein-packed lunch. Almond butter is great with apple slices as well.
- Hummus. My kids love pretzels and hummus. Total win! Sometimes they’ll eat carrots or celery and hummus, too. My favorite, though, is mixing hummus in with rice, quinoa, or pasta. Both of my kids love that and they eat with their grains most nights.
- Refried beans. I’ve seen a lot of people have success with this option. Refried beans in a tortilla with some vegan cheese and you’ve got a calorie-filled, wholesome burrito that your children may love!
And don’t worry about lightening up on salads, veggies, and whole-grain products. Yes, they are healthy! But if your kids are already eating a vegan diet, they are getting more vitamins and minerals already than most of the kids their age. Focus a little more on calories instead.
Growing Children Need More Fat Than Adults
Often we like to focus on the health benefits of vegan eating. While following a low-fat vegan diet can be appropriate for adults, it’s not the best option for kids. Kids need quite a bit of fat.
The fat needs of kids work off percentages of calories. So no, your three-year-old doesn’t need as many grams of fat each day as you do. But more of their calories need to come from that than for you.
Percentage of Total Fat from Calories (3)
- Ages two to three – 30 to 35 percent of their calories coming from fat
- Ages four to 18 – 25 to 35 percent of their calories coming from fat
That may sound like a lot of fat, but their little brains are growing like crazy. Fat helps fuel that development.
And, according to the American Heart Association, we want most of that fat to come from mono and polyunsaturated sources. Easily done for us vegans!
Here’s an example of what that actually looks like.
Let’s take the average amount of calories a two to four9year old needs each day; 1,300 calories per day. There are nine calories in a gram of fat.
1,300 x 0.30 = 390 calories / 9 = 44 grams per day
1,300 x 0.35 = 455 / 9 = 51 grams per day
Do you need to go and figure out exactly how many grams of fat your kids need to eat every day? No! Absolutely not! Simply understand that they need it, that’s it’s a vital part of their growth and development, and keep those healthy fats comin’.
Great Sources of Fat for Vegan Children
This is the one area that I get some initial snapback from parents. I have worked with a lot of whole-food, plant-based, no oil individuals. It’s an incredibly healthy diet…for some adults. But oils can be a great way to get growing children some of the fat they need.
Most of the top fat sources for children are going to be the same as my recommendations for calorie-dense foods. Nuts, seeds, and nut butters are great!
But let’s throw some oil in there. You don’t need a ton. But some canola oil, avocado oil, linseed oil (flax oil), extra virgin olive oil, even coconut oil will provide fats that kids will use to grow. Vegan butter substitutes are great as well. Serve some up on toast with breakfast.
Alpha-Linoleic Acid and Omega-3’s
Speaking of fat, let’s dive into alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning we have to get it through diet. ALA will convert to long-chain fatty acids. You may have heard of those; omega-3s.
These essential fatty acids help build cell walls and help regulate blood pressure. They help in blood clotting. They work to maintain our cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is important. It’s important for brain health growth and development.
In your child’s early years his or her brain is growing like crazy. Kids need omega-3s to help with that growth and development.
Omnivore children get their omega-3s from fish. The fish are loaded with omega-3 from eating algae. Skip the middleman and go straight to the algae.
The problem is, kids don’t always like the taste of seaweed. So where are kids going to get their ALA?
Vegan Sources of ALA
ALA by age (grams/day) – however, low conversion to omega-3 (4)
- Ages 1-3 – 0.7g (700mg)
- Ages 4-8 – 0.9g (900mg)
- Ages 9-13 – 1.0 g(girls) and 1.2g (boys)
Vegans likely need more because the conversion from ALA to omega-3 is low
The conversion of ALA to omega-3 is low. Without any omega-3 coming in regularly from foods like fish and fortified eggs, ALA is what vegans are counting on.
There is some evidence that vegans may convert ALA to omega-3 at a higher rate than omnivores, but it’s still low. This is likely due to a lower intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, which can lower the conversion of ALA to omega-3 even more. This is why I like to shoot for more than the recommendation. Just to make sure I’m covering my bases and my kids are getting everything they need. And actually, it’s really easy to get quite a bit!
Seeds, seeds, seeds. Chia seeds, flax meal, and hemp hearts are loaded with ALA. One teaspoon of any of these will cover their needs. Walnuts and canola oil are pretty loaded as well.
The number one source for ALA is flax oil, also called linseed oil, or flaxseed oil. It is absolutely loaded. It’s not great for cooking, but add it to cooked veggies and you’re set.
My own kids get the vast majority of theirs is from hemp hearts, flaxmeal, and chia seeds. Add hemp hearts to pancakes, oatmeal, smoothies, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
My kids like walnuts, so I always keep a tin of them sitting right in the refrigerator door. My kids love to just eat those all day long. They’re delicious.
Growing Children Need Quite a Bit of Protein
Protein provides the building blocks for our body structures. In fact, every cell in the human body contains protein. And it’s vital to the growth and development of children.
It’s really not difficult to meet the protein needs of your kids, however. While they need quite a bit of protein relative to their bodyweight, the numbers we’re talking here are pretty small.
And we don’t need to overemphasize it. In fact, a great paper out of the Cleveland Clinic explains that consuming extra protein, particularly from protein supplements isn’t necessarily healthy or beneficial. And that’s especially true for children.
Protein Needs By Age
- Ages 1-3: 13 grams
- Ages 4-8: 19 grams
- Ages 9-13: 34 grams
As long as your children are meeting their calorie needs each day, they are likely also reaching their protein needs. But it’s a good idea to know how much they need and where they. aregoing to get it.
Vegan Protein Sources
All plant foods have protein, ut some definitely have more than others.
- Beans and legumes are loaded.
- Tofu is amazing and it is high in all of the essential amino acids.
- Soy milk is a great option. Skip the almond milk for kids. Soy milk has more calories and is loaded with protein and calcium.
- Whole grains and bread. Shoot, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole-grain bread will pack about 15 grams of protein right there!
- Nuts and seeds are also great options.
Again, pretty easy to meet protein needs. And as long as their diet is varied, they will have no problem meeting their essential amino acid needs.
Before we move on to the vitamins and minerals that you want to make sure your kids are getting every day, I want to briefly touch on the fortification of foods.
Fortification Is a Good Thing
Fortifying foods is simply adding vitamins and miners to the food that may have been lost through processing or that populations of people may be historically low in.
B12, iron, and calcium are commonly added to foods because they are so important and many people can be deficient in them. Another great example is iodized salt.
When you’re looking on a nutrition label, keep these numbers in mind:
- 10-19% is good – this food is a good source of that vitamin or mineral
- 20%+ is great
- Less than 10% is not a good source, but…
Just because a food may be low in a vitamin or nutrient doesn’t mean it’s a bad food. Only supplying 4% of a nutrient isn’t great, but it will add up throughout the day.
Also, keep in mind that those percentages are based on adult needs. What may be 4% for an adult could be well into the teens for a child. This is why I tend to focus more on the grams, milligrams, and micrograms that my kids need. It’s just easier that way.
Calcium is Crucial
You get one shot to build lifelong, healthy, strong bones. And calcium is key.
We need a substantial amount to build bone. But calcium is also used for contraction, dilation, muscle function, blood clotting, nerve transmission, and hormone secretion. Calcium actually does a lot for us.
So we want to make sure that we’re getting plenty of calcium for our kids every single day.
Calcium Needs of Children
Ages 1 – 3 years – 700 mg
Ages 4 – 8 years – 1,000 mg
Ages 9 – 13 years – 1,300 mg
To put this into perspective, an adult also needs 1000 milligrams of calcium a day. So your four-year-old needs the same amount of calcium that you do for optimal health and for all of the growth they’re doing.
This one’s actually pretty easy to get with just a little effort.
Vegan Calcium Sources for Kids
Plant-based milks! Fortified soy milk is my favorite!
Calcium-fortified foods (tofu, orange juice, cereals)
Dark green leafy vegetables (except spinach)
Soy milk is my absolute favorite here! Not only will a glass of soymilk provide upwards of 400mg of calcium, it packs in 8 grams of protein! It’s easily digested, calories dense, and delicious. If your child has a soy allergy, however, look for another plant-based milk that has 300 or more milligrams of calcium and provides at least 3 grams of protein.
Calcium-fortified orange is always a win at breakfast, and calcium-set tofu for dinner will round off a day of calcium-loaded, protein fun.
Just remember that not all brands are fortified with calcium. always look at your labels to make sure.
B12 Is Non-Negotiable for Vegans
b 12 non-negotiable for vegans. You’ve probably heard that before, but it’s true. B12 is required for the development and functioning of the nervous system, red blood cell formation, and DNA synthesis. Not things we want to mess around with.
We get our B12 from supplements or from fortified foods.
For kids, ook for nutritional yeast, cereals, and plant milks. Nutritional yeast goes on or in a lot of things easily. It has a cheesy flavor that most kids like. Then simply opt for cereals that your kids like that are fortified with B12.
Try and spread B12 food throughout the day. B12 is not well absorbed, so spreading it out helps. Also, it can be blocked or hindered by other vitamins and minerals. This is why I don’t like to take or give B12 to anyone as part of a multi-vitamin. Take B12 on its own, away from any other vitamins you are taking.
If you choose to supplement, opt for a chewable or sublingual supplement. The B12 will bind with proteins in your saliva and on your tongues, which will help move the vitamin through the stomach and into the intestines where it can be absorbed.
Here’s how much your kids need:
- After infants are weaned – 5 mcg a day
- Ages 4 – 10 – 25 mcg per day;
- Ages 11 and older – 50 mcg/day or 2,000 per week
I give my kids B12 fortified foods, but I also give them a 1,000mcg tablet once a week. there’s no upper limit toxicity, so I’m not worried about giving too much. And I want them to have B12 stores in their livers just in case. It’s that important.
Growing Kids Need More Iron Than Adult Males
We need iron for physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and the synthesis of hormones.
Most people actually get most of their iron from plant sources. So it’s not terribly difficult to get all the iron your kids need on a vegan diet.
The iron that is supplied by plants is nonheme. The great thing about nonheme iron is that your body will use what it needs at the time and get rid of the rest. So we avoid iron toxicity. However, this also means that we better get our iron each and every day or we could run into deficiency problems.
Iron Needs By Age
Ages 1 – 3 years: 7 mg
Ages 4 – 8 years: 10 mg
Ages 9 – 13: 8 mg
An adult male needs eight milligrams. So looking at four to eight-year-olds, they need even more than a grown man!
We have a ton of options for iron:
- Lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, quinoa, and fortified cereal (or foods in general)
Take a look at the list and see what foods your kids like to eat. Then, take a look at other foods your kids like that may be fortified with iron. If you are already getting them all the iron they need, awesome. If not, look for places that you can seek a bit more in
And here’s a tip that can really help. Eat iron with vitamin C to help your body absorb it. This one’s really easy. Give your kids some fresh fruit with each meal and you’re covered. Geat examples of vitamin C-rich foods are kiwi, oranges, strawberries, pineapple, grapefruit, and orange juice.
Iodine Can Be the Most Difficult for Vegan Children to Get
Iodine is incredibly important for everyone, especially kids. , like I said, this is the hardest one to get in for your kids.
Why do we need it? What exactly does iodine do?
Iodine is involved in chemical reactions, protein synthesis, and metabolic activity. But the biggest thing iodine does for children is that it is required for proper skeletal and central nervous system development in fetuses and infants.
So making sure your kids are getting their iodine every day is incredibly important.
How much do children need?
Ages 1 – 8 years: 90 mcg
Ages 9 – 13 years: 120 mcg
So where do we get our iodine from a vegan diet?
The big iodine hitters are seaweed (kombu, nori, arame, and wakame) and iodized salt.
You can probably see why iodine can be hard to get on a vegan diet. Outside of sea vegetables, which can vary widely in the amount of iodine they have, there aren’t any reliable sources for vegans.
And if you’ve completely bought into the health aspects of a vegan diet, you may well skip adding table salt to your food.
But table salt is probably the best option for vegan kids.
Salt, is salt, is salt. Don’t buy into the sea salt tale. While sea salt may have more nutrients than table salt, the extra nutrients are inconsequential compared to what you get on a vegan diet. Basically, they don’t matter. It’s just more expensive.
And sea salt is not fortified with iodine! Neither are processed foods. You can’t add iodized salt to processed foods because you could potentially cause iodine toxicity.
A quarter teaspoon has roughly 74mcg of iodine. That’s almost the entire need for kids! Check and see if any other supplements your kids take have iodine in them. If so, you may have just met their need. If not, 1/2 teaspoon a day will keep them healthy.
I try and find little times where I can add a small amount of salt to my kids’ food. A bit on some watermelon (brings out the sweetness), or in with their pasta works really well. I just make this a priority.
And since my children eat almost no processed food, this is almost all of the salt they are getting.
My kids do like sushi, I just don’t make it that often. But that’s the one time I really get them to eat enough seaweed to make a difference. If I have some dried kombu or nori on hand I’ll crumble it into smoothies for them, but that’s about it.
Daily Sunshine and Vitamin D for Strong Bones
Vitamin D is the last one I’ll cover here. Vitamin promotes calcium absorption, which is why you’ll likely see vitamin D2 added to foods that are also fortified with calcium. Adequate calcium and vitamin D help prevent Rickets. Rickets is a softening of bone caused by calcium and vitamin D deficiency.
Kids need to get about 600 IU (International Units), or 15 mcg each day.
Best Ways to Get Kids Their Vitamin D
We can get vitamin D from the sun. Technically we use the sun to make vitamin D, which is actually a hormone.
Spending time in the sun is a great way to get your kids their vitamin D. But there are some requirements to actually get all of the D they need.
- 15-30 minutes of full sun
- no sunscreen
- full torso
- midday sun
- summer sun
If your child goes outside and is always slathered in sunscreen or has a shirt on, they’re getting enough direct sunlight to make their vitamin D. And, if you always skip midday sun because it’s too hot, and opt to go out later in the afternoon or earlier in the morning, you may not be maximizing the benefits. Many studies have shown that we are most efficient at making vitamin D around noon.
I don’t count on the sun for vitamin D. If my kids meet the above criteria, I don’t supplement that day. If we don’t, I’ll give them a vitamin D gummy at nighttime.
I also don’t count on foods that are fortified with vitamin D. The type of D used in most fortification is D2. This will help with the absorption of calcium, but it’s not the most usable form. I just count it as an added bonus.
When I supplement I look for a vegan D3. D3 is the most bioavailable form. But it’s usually made from lanolin. I opt for versions that are vegan, sourced from lichen.
Mary Ruth’s Vegan D3 Gummies are the ones I use.
Putting This Into Practice, Simply
Start by taking a look at what your kids already eat on a regular basis and see if they are meeting their needs in any of these areas.
Next, look for any areas that your kids are low in. See if any of the foods I listed will work with your kids. Try and add those in.
Always look for foods that meet several criteria! Soy milk hits protein, calorie, and calcium needs! two or three glasses a day and you’ve hit your protein and calcium needs! And it’s a great way to add calories to any meal.
Possibly look into some supplements. I don’t love recommending supplements to anyone, but the most important thing is that your kids are getting the vitamins and minerals they need. Foods are best, and supplements are not an excuse to eat a bad diet. But kids can be picky, and supplements can be a great insurance policy.
Here are my favorite supplements for kids if you want to go this direction:
Vitamin Friends – Iron Supplements for Kids
Coral Calcium Vitamin D3 Kids Gummy
NUTRAMIN Sugar-Free, Allergen-Free & Vegan Gummy Multivitamins for Kids
Here are a couple of great websites that provide incredible information!
This is Dr. Jackie Busse’s website. She also has an Instagram account under the same moniker. She’s absolutely incredible and she’s got her own kids.
Registered Dietitian duo Whitney and Alex are plantbasedjuniors. They also have their own children and have a ton of simple ideas for raising vegan children.
That’s a Wrap
Vegan nutrition can be a challenging task for any parent, but it’s worth the effort. The most important nutrients to focus on when raising vegan children are calories, protein, fat, calcium, iodine, b12, iron, and vitamin D. Omega-3 is also incredibly important on a plant-based diet for kids, so focus on getting in plenty of nuts, seeds, and oils that are heavy in ALA.
If your child meets these criteria then they should have no problem getting their necessary vitamins from foods that are already fortified with those particular nutrients. If they don’t meet these requirements then adding supplements might be an option if you think your picky eater will take them willingly! Even though many people believe supplements aren’t as healthy as getting nutrients from food sources, supplements are still very beneficial and you shouldn’t feel guilty about adding them to your child’s diet.
Keep on raising your healthy, thriving, vegan children! Use what you learned here to help your own child thrive on a vegan diet. If you have any questions please contact me through my contact page, or drop a comment in the comments section below.
Until next time,
Plant-Based, Plant Built
What is the best formula for infants?
Infants’ nutritional needs are best met by their mothers’ breast milk, which helps to build immunity. However, if a mother can’t nurse, infant formulas are incredibly important. If you are vegan or your child has an allergy, look for a soy-based infant formula.
What are the health benefits of vegan diets?
Children who are raised on healthful vegan diets have a reduced risk for heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other conditions.
What are the best vegan protein sources?
Soybeans are a fantastic source of protein, as are other types of beans as well as lentils, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, whole-wheat bread, quinoa, and oatmeal.
What is the Best Way to Get calcium on a vegan diet?
Eat a wide variety of plant foods that are high in calcium, as well as calcium-fortified foods. Calcium-fortified nut milks and tofu are great! In fact, more calcium stays in the bones of people who get it from veggies than in the bones of those who eat or drink dairy products.
What foods are good for calcium?
Some sources of calcium that you can feel good about eating or drinking include broccoli, kale, beans, almonds, some brands of tofu, calcium-fortified soy or rice milk, and orange juice.
What is the difference between complete protein and incomplete?
A complete protein has all of the essential amino acids in relatively high quantities. An incomplete protein is lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids. We know now that this is incorrect. All plant foods are complete proteins. They possess all 8 essential amino acids. It is important to note, however, that most plant proteins will be low in one or more of the essential amino acids, which is why it is still a good idea to eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day and week
What vegan foods are rich in iron?
Vegan iron sources include cooked dried beans, peas, and lentils; leafy green vegetables; and iron-fortified grain products.