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"Animals are my friends. I don’t want to eat my friends anymore."
Such was the moral epiphany of my three-year-old daughter, Chloe. I was impressed by her reasoning, but wondered: Should I let my three year old become a vegetarian? I don’t let her decide her own bedtime or whether she has to brush her teeth. Now I was about to let her make a huge decision about her diet.
I wanted to respect her feelings, but my knee-jerk reaction was worry. Will my vibrant little girl wither away into a malnourished, energy-sapped shadow of her former self? So I did what every 21st century mom does: I hit the Internet, and discovered that with careful attention and planning, a healthy vegetarian diet is possible for kids. And according to Mayo Clinic and other sources, a carefully managed meat-free diet can actually be beneficial, since they're generally lower in cholesterol and saturated fat and higher in fiber. Parents considering this kind of diet for their kids should also talk with their pediatricians, who might recommend nutritional supplements.
Every vegetarian diet is different; Chloe's still eating eggs, cheese, milk, and even fish, which apparently her friends aren't (eating fish but not other meat makes her a "pescetarian"). Eating dairy products ensures that Chloe gets adequate amounts of calcium, protein, and vitamins D and B12 in her diet. But for Chloe, my biggest worry was iron, since the top iron-rich foods are meat products like liver. So I made sure to stock up on non-animal sources of iron, like beans, spinach, nuts and seeds, enriched pasta, chia seeds, and broccoli.
Although a lot of faux-meat products, like imitation chicken nuggets or soy hotdogs, are tasty, they're often loaded with sodium, so I've been trying to limit those foods. And the fact that Chloe still loves to eat fish is a big nutritional boon. Her favorite is salmon, which is packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Chloe had been an informal vegetarian for years, regularly turning her nose up at cheeseburgers, steak, and the pureed chicken that I tried to feed her as a baby (I don't blame her for that one). Instead, she's always preferred veggies, pasta, rice, fruit, and beans. The makings of a vegetarian diet were already in place. Actually calling her a vegetarian simply made me more alert to making sure she was getting enough protein, iron, and other nutrients. Here are some snacks I discovered for Chloe.
Protein and iron-packed meal and snack ideas for the vegetarian tot:
- Apple slices dipped in peanut butter
- Sunflower or pumpkin seeds
- Yogurt sprinkled with chia seeds
- Enriched egg noodles with broccoli
- Make-your-own pizzas with spinach, cheese, and whole-wheat English muffins
- Rice and beans served with baked tortilla chips (let them use the chip as a spoon!)
- Rice, bean, and cheese quesadillas
- Hummus and dippers like carrot sticks and pita bread
Are you raising a vegetarian (or pescetarian) child? How do you meet their nutritional needs?