Jun 08, 2016 7:00 AM

Author: Libby Mitchell

Kids love animals. From the time they are babies, they are presented with books, stuffed animals, movies and cartoons that foster that love. So it is not uncommon for some to decide they no longer want to eat meat once they make the connection that the singing cow they love is a close relative to the dinner Mom cooked last night.

“If your child really wants to be a vegetarian, they need to make sure they have a healthy diet,” says Cindy Gellner, MD, a pediatrician with University of Utah Health. “Like any other diet, you have to plan to make sure the proper nutrients are being consumed.”

Before you let your child make a dietary change, make sure you know why they want to do so. “Is it something their friends are doing? Is it because a friend or family member was pressuring them whenever they ate meat?” Gellner asks. “Is it because of something the read about or saw on TV? Find out the reasons why.”

Finding out the reasons will help you with menu planning. It may be that your child doesn’t want to eat meat, but is still open to fish. Or perhaps it is only a certain kind of meat he or she objects to. Are they still open to eating dairy and eggs? Unless you ask questions, you won’t know the parameters of their new diet.

When making menu changes for your child, consider what nutrients they will be missing by removing meat from their diet, and look for vegetarian replacements, Gellner says. “You’ll likely need to find substitutions for missing calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B12 and healthy fats,” she says. For good, non-dairy sources of calcium, Gellner recommends fortified orange juice, almond milk and legumes, like beans. For extra iron, she says baked potatoes, spinach and raisins “are good choices.” Finally, to provide the omega-3 fatty acids vegetarian kids need, parents can sprinkle flaxseed onto rice or soy-based yogurt, as well as incorporating walnuts and soybean products into their diets.

In addition to replacing nutrients, parents also will need to replace calories. Plant-based foods are lower in calories, and have more fiber, meaning kids may fill up without getting the calories they need for growth and weight gain. “If you notice your child is not gaining weight at a healthy pace, it’s time to change things up,” says Gellner. “You could add in high-calorie protein shakes, or starchy foods, like breads and cereals.”

Of course, while letting your child follow a vegetarian diet is fine in some cases, there are other cases when the answer should be no–for instance, if they already are limited in what they can eat, or are extremely picky eaters. “A parent should say no to a child becoming vegetarian if there are concerns their child won’t be able to eat enough nutritious foods for growth on the limited diet,” says Gellner. “Also, if the child starts a vegetarian diet and starts to show signs of a vitamin deficiency–including a painful, swollen tongue, increased irritability, not being able to think as well or as fast as they used to, and really pale skin–they should reconsider.”

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