Ready to give your baby a vegan diet (except, you know—breast milk)? Here's how to ensure your child thrives on a meat-free, dairy-free diet.
If you've been living a vegan lifestyle yourself, you're probably excited to introduce your baby to a meat-free, dairy-free diet. The good news? It's totally healthy for you and your baby. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics officially deemed a vegan diet healthy for both children and adults last year—though you'll need to pay extra attention to your baby's diet to ensure he gets exactly what he needs.
"You may be excluding more foods, but care needs to be taken that you don't exclude the nutrients found in those foods," says Dr. Keith Ayoob, a diet and lifestyle nutritionist and dietitian. "Vegan diets can be lower in calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, as animal foods are the primary sources of these nutrients for omnivores. And with B12 especially, a fortified food source or a supplement will be necessary for most vegan children because B12 is only naturally present in animal foods."
Just like with any other dietary restriction, it might take practice, trial and error, and patience to raise your baby vegan. Here's how to get started.
Consider breastfeeding longer
Registered dietitian Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN, LD recommends adding on more months to your breastfeeding cycle if you'll be raising your baby vegan. "Vegan infants may need to be breastfed longer than non-vegans since breast milk is such a great source of nutrients," she says. "Wean your child to soy milk fortified with vitamins B12 and D to ensure he gets additional fortification in those key nutrients. Avoid other plant-based milks due to their lack of protein." (Note that babies shouldn’t drink any milks—including plant-based—as a primary beverage before 12 months. Before that stick with breast milk or formula.)
And even when your baby reaches toddlerhood, registered dietitian Diana K. Rice recommends reading your almond, soy and coconut milk labels carefully. "Keep in mind that vegan milk alternatives are not necessarily direct substitutes for cow's milk. Many substitutes, including almond milk, do not have the same amount of protein as cow's milk and many contain added sugar," she says. "At the same time, remember that even omnivorous children do not require milk and can easily obtain the same nutrients it offers from other foods. So be sure to regularly offer sources of calcium and protein, including leafy green vegetables and beans."
Know where the vegan diet may fall short
In addition to Vitamins B12 and D, vegetarian and vegan diets are at risk of deficiency in a few other key nutrients, including iron, zinc and Omega-3 fatty acids. To ensure that your baby gets enough of these key nutrients, you could give her a vitamin supplement, choose fortified cereals and juices, or look for plant-based alternatives. For instance, to help your baby get the 11 mg of iron and 3 mg of zinc she needs each day, a fortified cereal would be a great bet—or consider tofu or beans like chickpeas and kidney beans, according to Jenna Helwig, food editor at our sister site Parents.com, and author of Real Baby Food. Walnuts, flax seeds, kale and chia seeds all offer plant-based versions of Omega 3s, while fortified orange juice or soy milk—or a half-hour of sun exposure without sunscreen—helps with Vitamin D. Fortified cereals or supplements are the best vegan sources of Vitamin B12.
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Consider consulting a nutritionist
If your pediatrician isn't well versed on veganism, she might not be able to offer as much insight and guidance as you need when questions arise or your babe turns out to be a pickier eater than you expected. That's why McMordie suggests making an investment in a nutritionist who can specifically tailor menus and vitamin and supplement plans, plus address all issues that pop up. "A registered dietitian can help you plan nutritionally sound vegan meals for your child," she says. "It will take more work and planning to provide an adequate diet for a vegan child but it is possible!"
Get creative with menus
As your baby begins to taste train, Rice recommends getting creative to help introduce your little one to a vegan lifestyle. "In the case of children—who are still developing their taste preferences and have specific nutrient needs as compared to adults—it might take more work on the parents' part to make sure that they are offering and the child is consuming a variety of foods that will meet the child's nutritional needs," she explains.
This might mean making your own baby food at home to introduce a variety of spices and textures to your baby's palate, and keeping in close contact with your pediatrician or nutritionist to ensure your baby gets the nutrients he needs. "Your pediatrician should be aware of your child's dietary restrictions so they can look for certain nutrient deficiencies, notably iron and vitamin B12," Rice advises. "Such deficiencies should be uncommon if the diet is well-planned. If your pediatrician is closed-minded about the diet, I suggest finding another practitioner who is open to it as you want to be working with someone who will be helpful as you navigate this process."
Try different types of protein
For babies who are just starting their vegan journey (and you know, eating solids for the first time!), make feeding more fun by incorporating different types of vegan protein. "For vegan children, soy protein is one of the most protein-rich, vegan-friendly and versatile foods," Dr. Ayoob says. "It's not all about tofu either, so consider all the various forms of soy. Some forms look and taste similar to ground-meat alternative. There's also tempeh, a fermented form of soy, and soy butter. Firm or soft tofu works very well in pasta sauce, where it just absorbs the flavor. It makes pasta and sauce have a better and more complete protein profile."
Beans are also a great, protein-rich finger food. "Let younger children pick individual beans up with their hands to get familiar with them," Dr. Ayoob says. "Canned beans are just fine and they're convenient. Rinse them with water and you'll remove about 40 percent of the sodium in canned beans."
Maintain an open mind as baby grows
Your baby won't be little forever—and growing kids tend to have a mind of their own when it comes to eating. For vegan parents, that may mean making peace with letting their child eat a non-vegan diet. "Parents generally provide choices and guidance for children's eating," Grace Wong RD MSc, a pediatric dietitian, says. "At some point during a child's life, he or she may wonder why she or he eats differently from others. As children grow, they would eventually assume more autonomy with their own eating. They may make their own food choices at a friend's birthday party. Adolescents often eat with their peers in social settings." You've got time, but you may want to consider how you'll respond if your child wants to make different food choices down the line.