Is Vegetarian Eating Okay for Kids?

Hi Sue,

I'm a vegetarian and am wondering if my children -- ages five, three and a half, and one and a half -- are getting a well balanced diet. I recently heard someone say something about a balance of rice and beans for protein. Can you explain what was meant by this? We eat cheese, some beans and lots of peanut butter -- we have stopped eating eggs and I use a banana or applesauce in its place for cooking, but they do drink milk and take vitamins. Any help would be greatly appreciated.



Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Dear Amy,
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are over twenty different amino acids, most of which your body can manufacture from the food you eat. However, there are eight amino acids that your body cannot make, so you must get them, preformed, from your diet. These amino acids are called essential amino acids.

Some foods contain all the essential amino acids that you need. Animal proteins such as meat, fish, milk and eggs contain all eight essential amino acids. Plant protein are deficient in one or more of them.

It is possible to combine plant proteins to get all eight amino acids, assuming you are aware of which plants have what another does not. A good example of combining the protein in plant foods to get a proper mix of the essential amino acids is mixing legumes (dried beans) and rice. Another combination is peanut butter and whole wheat (this is one reason so many kids can survive on peanut butter sandwiches.). What peanut butter doesn't have, the wheat does, and vice versa.

I strongly suggest you read the "bible" of vegetarian eating, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe. She fully explains protein combining and vegetarian diets. New research is showing that you do not necessarily have to combine foods at the same meal, but they should be eaten within the same day.

Children who are put on vegetarian diets that contain no animal products can and do do well, but much care must be paid to their diet to be sure they get enough protein, fat, calcium and iron. It is good that you have kept milk in your children's diet because it is such a rich source of calcium, and calcium is much harder to obtain from plant sources.

Eggs are an excellent source of complete, high-quality protein and can play an important role in the diets of young vegetarians. If you have no compelling reason to eliminate them, then I suggest you keep eggs in their diet until they are a little older. Young children often have a hard time eating the volume necessary to get their required calories from a strictly plant diet. Eggs are a concentrated source of protein, zinc, energy and other vitamins and minerals. In other words, you get a lot for a little with an egg.

When they are older and have bigger stomachs that can hold the bulkier diet of a stricter vegetarian diet, that would be a better time to eliminate the eggs, and if you must, the milk. Continue with the vitamin supplements as an insurance. Let me know if you have any more questions.

Thank you for writing.

Sue Gilbert

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