No matter how old your vegetarian kids are, the first step is to educate yourself on healthful alternatives to animal products, such as hummus, tofu, quinoa and legumes. When vegetarian teens live in a meat-eating family, they should also take some of the responsibility for preparing vegetarian meals, says nutritionist and epidemiologist Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, so that the entire burden doesn't fall on parents.
The key nutrients to focus on, according to the American Dietetic Assn., are protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12. Each meal doesn't have to contain all of those nutrients, but they should add up over the course of a day or week.
Protein needs range from 13 grams for toddlers to 34 grams for middle-school students and about 50 grams for teenagers. However, most Americans get too much protein, including vegetarians.
Dairy products and eggs are complete proteins that, like meat, contain all essential amino acids. These foods also provide calcium and vitamin D, essential for healthy muscles and bone development, especially during growth spurts and adolescence. One large egg contains 5 grams of protein, a cup of milk has 8 grams, and a cup of yogurt has 11 grams.
To get complete proteins from plant-based sources, you need to combine foods such as beans, rice, corn, nuts and tofu, but dietitians no longer believe that you need to eat those foods at the same meal. Eating a variety of foods throughout the day works just as well.
Vitamin B-12 is one of the nutrients that vegetarians most commonly miss. Essential for making DNA and maintaining healthy nerve and red blood cells, it is plentiful in seafood and beef and is found in lesser amounts in milk and yogurt. Vegans can get it from fortified cereals or supplements. Doctors often recommend B-12 supplements for breast-feeding mothers who are vegan.
Iron, which is abundant in meat, is present in a harder-to-absorb form in beans, tofu, spinach and raisins. Absorption is enhanced by consuming a source of vitamin C at the same time as a vegetarian source of iron, says Ruth Frenchman, a registered dietitian in Burbank and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. (Pair a cup of orange juice with a peanut butter sandwich, for example.)
Omega-3 fatty acids are also worth paying attention to. Growing evidence suggests they boost brain development of fetuses, babies and young children. Fish-eaters get them easily, but vegetarians need to turn to flaxseed and walnuts as well as eggs and yogurt fortified with them (DHA, EPA or ALA).
Soy does not, despite rumors, appear to have feminizing effects on boys or other hormonal consequences if eaten in moderation -- say, two servings a day in the form of a tofu dog or a cup of edamame. Soybeans are complete proteins.
Calcium and vitamin D are found in leafy greens and fortified soy milk or juice. Make sure to look at the labels on dairy-free versions of milk and yogurt and on organic cereals because they're not always fortified with added nutrients.
Fat: A baby's brain needs enough fat to develop properly. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends full-fat versions of milk, yogurt and other foods until age 2.
Calories are key for vegetarian kids. One of the benefits of vegetarianism for adults is that a plant-filled diet tends to offer lots of bulk without a lot of calories. Small kids, however, have small stomachs that can get full from a plant-based diet before they've consumed enough calories. To make sure children meet the requirements for calories and other nutrients, Meredith Renda, a pediatrician at Doctor's Pediatrics in Wilton, Conn., recommends packing a big punch with foods rich in calories and other nutrients, such as whole-grain breads, nut butters, legumes and foods fortified with vitamin B-12, iron, folate and zinc.
Vitamins should not be needed if a diet is well-planned. However, talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns.
Resources: The above are just a few items to note. For more tips, recipes and other help planning your vegetarian kid's diet, check out the following websites:
The Vegetarian Resource Group, www.vrg.org/family /kidsindex.htm;
U.S. Department of Agriculture (with lots of excellent links): Go to www.usda.gov and search for "Vegetarian Nutrition."
Medline Plus, www.nlm.nih .gov/medlineplus/vegetarian diet.html;
Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com/health/vegetarian-diet/HQ01596;
Vegetarian Parents Yahoo Group, groups.yahoo.com/group/vrgparents.
Loma Linda University,www.vegetariannutrition.org /food-pyramid.pdf.