If your kids don't eat meat, they're not alone. In a Harris Poll, 7 percent of 8–18 year olds said they never eat meat, and 12 percent of boys 10–12 said they don't eat meat. Some surveys suggest those numbers may be 4–6 times higher among older teens who have more freedom to select what they eat.
It's a good choice for many kids. One study found that vegetarian teens show better scores on cardiovascular health, including cholesterol, HDL, and LDL ratios, as well as waist circumference.
But a vegetarian diet that's composed of sodas, bagels, and pasta isn't healthy. If your kid wants to cut out meat, make sure she's not filling up on fries and fast food. Emphasize a diet that's rich in vegetables, with plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and important nutrients, including the following 6 nutrients:
While milk and cheese are concentrated sources, kids shouldn't rely on dairy for all their calcium needs. Milk is a common allergen, and studies suggest that high dairy consumption leads to hormonal fluctuations and increased risk of acne in adolescents. In addition, insulin-dependent (Type 1) diabetes has been linked to consumption of dairy products in infancy. Focus instead on plant-based sources of calcium such as kale, collard greens, broccoli, almonds, sesame seeds, and fortified nut or soy milks. If your child does eat dairy, aim for one to two servings per day, and buy organic cheese and milk, preferably from grass-fed cows—it's richer in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, and CLA, a beneficial fatty acid that's linked with reduced risk of cancer.
Kids Need: 1,000 mg per day for 4–8 year olds, 1,300 mg for 9–18 year olds.
You'll Find It In: 1 cup of yogurt (200 mg), 1 cup of cooked collard greens (270 mg), 1 cup of navy beans (130 mg).
Iron deficiencies can lead to mood swings, memory problems, and changes in behavior. Even moderately low levels can leave kids feeling tired or weak. Teenage girls are especially susceptible to iron deficiency when menstruation begins. Because red meat is the primary source of this critical nutrient, vegetarian kids are also at risk. But you can find iron on a meat-free diet. The best sources include dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, lentils, white beans, tomato paste, and blackstrap molasses.
Kids Need: between 8–15 mg a day.
You'll Find It In: 1 cup of beans (10 mg), two ounces of pumpkin seeds (5 mg), 1 cup of tomato sauce (5 mg).
It's easy to get if you eat meat, a little more challenging on a plant-based diet. Eggs, if your kids eat them, are a complete protein. Buy organic, pastured varieties-like milk from grass-fed cows, they're higher in nutrients. If your kids are vegan, focus on beans. They're loaded with protein, rich in fiber, and high in cancer-preventive nutrients. Nuts, seeds, and high-protein grains such as quinoa can fill in the gaps. Be careful with soy. It's linked with increased levels of estrogen and possible hormone-related cancers. Use it sparingly, mainly in its whole or fermented forms: edamame and tempeh.
Kids Need: 30–50 grams daily.
You'll Find It In: 1 cup kidney beans (18 grams), 2 eggs (12 grams), 1 cup tempeh (31 grams).
4. Vitamin D
It's difficult to get from dietary sources. Vegan and vegetarian kids should spend at least 20 minutes a day outside without sunscreen, and in winter, supplement with 400 IUs a day.
Kids Need: 600 IUs per day. 1 cup shiitake mushrooms (41 IUs), 1 boiled egg (40 IUs), fortified almond milk (115 IUs).
You'll Find It In: 1 cup shiitake mushrooms (41 IUs), 1 hard-boiled egg (40 IUs), fortified almond milk (115 IUs).
5. Vitamin B12
Because it occurs only in animal products, vitamin B12 is hard to get on a vegan diet that excludes dairy and eggs. The most reliable plant source is nutritional yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), which is grown on molasses. It comes in yellow flakes and tastes a little like Parmesan cheese. A daily dose of 1-2 tablespoons will meet your kids' B12 needs.
Kids Need: between 1 mcg–2.4 mcg.
Find It In: 1 egg (0.6 mcg), 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (1.8 mcg). Other sources: yogurt, milk, Swiss cheese, nori, shiitake mushrooms, and fortified cereals.
6. Omega-3 Fats
If your kids eat fish, the best sources are wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and mackerel. Otherwise, it's trickier to find in a vegetarian diet. While some plant foods contain omega-3s, they're in the form of ALA versus EPA and DHA, the forms found in fish. The body converts ALA to EPA and DHA before using it, and only 8-20 percent is converted. Because it's so critical, consider a supplement—look for an algae-based source of omega-3s (several brands such as Garden of Life Minami Supercritical Algae Omega-3 Vegan DHA and Nordic Naturals Algae Omega.
Kids Need: 250–1,000 mg per day.
Find It In: 1 ounce flax seeds (6,300 mg), 1 ounce chia seeds (4,900 mg).
Lisa Turner is a chef, food writer, product developer, and nutrition coach in Boulder, Colo. She has more than 20 years of experience in researching and writing about nourishing foods, and coaching people toward healthier eating habits. Find her at inspiredeating.com.