There are many benefits to having more plant-based foods in our diet, but getting our children on board with this can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. Here, we’ll be sharing the positives for health and wellbeing, as well as recipes, ideas and tips for onboarding our little ones too.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet, is one which involves most of our food coming from plant-based sources. Unlike vegan or vegetarian diets, it doesn’t involve excluding meat or dairy completely.
A Mediterranean diet, for example, relies heavily on plant-based foods, but includes some fish, poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt. It doesn’t include red meat.
Is a plant-based diet healthy for children and what are the benefits?
First and foremost, a balanced diet is what is most essential for our children’s health, growth and development. That includes limiting fried, fatty and sugary foods, whether following a plant-based diet or not. It’s also important to check that our children are getting enough of the essential nutrients that they need from food.
A plant-based diet which also includes eggs and dairy, will include all of the nutrients that children need for growth. For those on a vegan diet, it’s important to include plant foods which are rich in Vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and Vitamin D. Some alternatives include tofu, tempeh, plant-based milks and vegan cheese.
Introducing our children to a plant-based, healthy diet at an early age, can help them to form healthy eating habits that they can then take with them into adulthood.
A healthy, balanced, plant-based diet, can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Why is it more of a challenge to introduce plant-based foods in the winter?
In the spring and summer, children are often excited by helping to plant, water and care for the fruit and vegetables, in our gardens, allotments or window boxes. This can then spark their interest in wanting to taste them too. Introducing plant-based foods in the winter months lacks this connection, but there are also other ways in which we can inspire them to try new things.
Winter-friendly plant-based foods that may appeal to children, are root vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains. They are nutritious and versatile and can be blended into soups or smoothies or added to bread, desserts and cereal.
How can I engage my children in food preparation?
The following references to age-appropriate activities are a general guide only. It’s very much down to us as parents, to make the decisions regarding what is safe or appropriate for our own children. Some children may be capable of certain tasks at an earlier age, while others may not be mature enough until later.
We can engage our children in food preparation from an early age, helping with tasks like stirring and pouring. It’s a chance to explore their senses with them, describing the colours, tastes, textures and smells, to increase their vocabulary. Try introducing contrast, such as raw carrots being crunchy and cooked carrots being softer and mathematical language, such as less and more. If we show our children that we are enjoying food preparation and cooking, they are more likely to take an interest and not see it as a chore.
By age 6-9 years, try inviting them to measure out ingredients (great for developing Maths skills) whisk, crack eggs and peel veg (using a vegetable peeler, under supervision).
With pre-teens or teens, depending on their level of maturity and capability, it can be a good time to introduce the supervised chopping of food and cooking using pans, grills and ovens. Children will often rise to being given this new level of trust, responsibility and independence and it may coincide with food tech lessons at school, where they will be bringing home foods which they have prepared and cooked themselves. At this point, they may well start to try new foods again, out of curiosity and a sense of pride in their achievements.
How can I help my children to eat more plant-based foods when they are resisting?
Trying to force our children to eat something, is most likely to end up with more resistance and upset all round. Bribery, threats, or promised rewards are not the way to move forwards effectively, as time has shown. However, many of the gentler strategies that have been passed down through generations, can still be really effective.
Ideas to try:
Mashing parsnip in with potato
Having ‘orange mash’ (potato mashed with carrots and swede)
Adding a variety of blended vegetables to tomato-based sauces
Gradually introducing a plant-based alternative into familiar, favourite recipes
Making smoothies together, allowing your child to choose some of the ingredients
It’s important to make transitions gradually and to have a patient approach, especially as, for some children, conditions such as autism can mean that they can really struggle with certain colours or textures. After trying different strategies over a period of time, if you are still concerned that your child won’t eat a balanced diet, it is advisable to contact your GP for advice.
What are the benefits to the environment of plant-based diets?
It has been suggested that plant-based diets are beneficial for animal welfare, ethical, environmental and sustainability reasons.
An article by Lisa Patel, MD, FAAP and Amanda Millstein, MD, FAAP, states that:
‘It has been estimated that adoption of plant-based dietary patterns, could on average lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions ranging from 17% to 29%, in addition to decreasing land, water and fertiliser use.’
Ideas for how to switch to more plant-based meals
For breakfast, try adding fruit, seeds and nuts to cereals and switching from cow’s milk to oat milk or soya milk.
Fruit and nut bars can be a healthier, plant-based alternative to cakes, biscuits or crisps
Hummus and other dips, with carrot or cucumber sticks and breadsticks are great for snacks or as part of lunch.
Plant-based recipes for main meals, that can be found on the BBC website, include butterbean and kale cannelloni, vegan lasagne, butternut squash soup, veggie burgers (such as tofu burgers or plantain and bean burgers) and creamy mushroom pasta.
Here are some of my favourite cookbooks, for more inspiration
Easy Vegan by Sue Quinn
Honestly healthy for Life, Natasha Corrett and Vicki Edgson
Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
Indian Vegetarian Curry Cookbook by Pat Chapman
This cheese is nuts by Julie Piatt
‘Plant-Based Diets: Are They Good for Kids?’ By: Lisa Patel, MD, FAAP & Amanda Millstein, MD, FAAP
Other helpful sites for further information