Breaking Down Plant-Based Eating for Kids At Every Stage

childhood nutrition picky eating plant based

Plant-based eating, particularly a whole foods (unprocessed) approach, offers tremendous health benefits at every stage of life.  Often, the health benefits discussed focus on adults and the lowered risk of virtually every major chronic disease (think: heart disease, diabetes, stroke). But, the reality is that a plant-forward approach offers amazing health benefits to kids, too.  Not only can it help improve symptoms of common childhood conditions from asthma to constipation, but starting kids off early on a plant-heavy diet sets them up for a lifetime of better health!  What a gift.

Despite these potential benefits, many parents struggle with confidently moving the needle towards more plant-based eating at home.  

  • Do you want to move your kids towards more plants and reduce animal based foods - but worry about how or when to do so?  

  •  Do you or your family worry about missing key nutrients? 

  •  Has your kids’ pediatrician given you push back?

Do any of the above concerns sound like you? If so, you're in luck because today we're diving into some must-know-facts about plant-based eating for kids, and how to introduce children to whole plant foods in age-appropriate ways.

First of all, what is a plant-based diet? Plant-based diets focus predominantly on foods that come from plants. In addition to a foundation of fruits and vegetables, plant-based diets include plenty of nuts, seeds, whole grains,  legumes, beans, herbs, spices and lots of water. Whole food, plant-based diets aim to get the bulk of our nutrition from foods in their most natural (“whole” or unprocessed) state!

Are plant-based diets safe and appropriate for kids of all ages? Parents all around the world are raising happy, healthy children on a plant-based diet. If you're new to the game, you might be wondering how to go about doing this, or whether or not this kind of diet is suitable for kids. I understand that it's common for parents to have concerns about whether or not a plant-based diet is nutritionally adequate for children. But you'll be glad to hear that there is growing evidence-based support from national and international nutritional and health organizations, like the American Dietetic Association - which stated in its position paper that "...well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence."

It makes intuitive sense that such a health-promoting diet may be as beneficial for children as it is for adults, right?  But, the key is in the planning and making sure that the special nutritional needs and developmental challenges of rapidly growing children are addressed! 


Infants: Under 12 months

When infants are developmentally ready for solids (typically around six months), a magical window of openness to different flavors, textures and combinations begins. Often parents opt for the route of iron-fortified cereals as first foods.  The reality is that babies may safely begin eating the rainbow of texture-appropriate vegetables and fruits as first foods, too.  There is no set strategy for the order of introduction of foods, but you should focus on variety, single foods at first, and emphasize vegetables! As an alternative to meat, infants may enjoy plant-protein sources like mashed beans, soft tofu, or thinly spread nut butters on soft bread for older infants.  Remember children under 12 months still rely on their breastmilk or formula as the dietary foundation of nutrients (like protein and fat) and calories. 

Young Eaters:  1-4 years old

While early eaters can throw mealtime curveballs related to selective eating, it is very important to keep the spirit of variety in foods offered. The good news is that many of the foods that children commonly enjoy in early childhood are plant-based. Foods like oatmeal, pasta, rice, fruits, crunchy veggies like carrot sticks can all be boosted with extra plant power through adding beans, seeds, or chopped vegetables. Dairy milk - often recommended by pediatricians as an easy source of protein, fat, calcium, and vitamin D -  can be substituted with appropriate plant-based milks (fortified unflavored soy milk or pea milk are the best options for little kids). Setting loving limits at mealtime around what is being served and allowing your child to develop independence around what they eat (out of what you serve) helps to establish healthy eating habits and happier mealtimes! 

School-Aged Kids: 5-11 years old

Older eaters are often a bit more willing to try new foods, especially if they are involved in decision-making! Encourage a wide variety of whole plant foods through meal planning, cooking and exploring new foods together. Keep in the mind the colorful plant-based meal plate as a model for how to create nourishing balanced plant-forward meals (see picture below). A varied diet will help to ensure that they are meeting their nutritional needs and encourage them to keep an open mind about trying new things.

Top tips for kids ages five and up:

  • Introduce new foods to your child's repertoire each week, including different varieties of grains, legumes, and vegetables.
  • Get your child involved in the cooking process by allowing them to choose recipes, shop for ingredients, and help in the kitchen
  • Create plant-based versions of familiar kid favorites, like bean burritos, veggie burgers or cheeseless pizzas.
  • Keep lunchboxes fresh and interesting with different fruit and veggie snacks, healthy homemade baked goods, and varied sandwich fillings.

Teens: 12 years and up

By this age, your child will probably be eating pretty much the same foods that you are but may require much more frequent meals as they are growing fast! Even if your child was raised plant-based, encouraging a healthy diet at this age can be tricky because teens typically prioritize sleep and convenience over pretty much everything else! :)  Your big job as the parent of a teen is making the healthy choice the easy choice as much as possible.  That could look like pre-chopping veggies to have in the fridge with hummus, prepping overnight oats for a quick grab-and-go breakfast, and limiting less healthy snacks/sugar-sweetened drinks in the home.  Your teen is making independent eating decisions in the outside world - but at home, you can and should still set an example for a lifelong healthy diet. 

At the end of the day, your decision to adopt a whole food plant-based diet is one that will benefit both you and your children in the long run. You're helping them form lifelong healthy eating habits, understand the role that food plays in health and well-being, and make informed decisions about what they put in their bodies.  We can’t think of many greater gifts a parent can give her children!

Further Reading:

Blog Image Source: Whole Food, Plant-Based Plate Graphic - American College of Lifestyle Medicine