The American Dietetic Association (ADA) suggests that a vegetarian diet for babies can meet all their nutritional needs. They maintain that, if intelligently planned, it is appropriate to build optimal health throughout all stages of the human life cycle.
Vegetarians abstain from animal meat (including poultry) and seafood. But some groups do include dairy products and eggs in their diets. Vegans, however, only eat plant-based foods abstaining from all meat and dairy products.
The ADA strongly recommends that parents and caregivers plan vegetarian and vegan diets for babies and toddlers under two years old with extra care. Diet plans should include foods containing sufficient plant-based protein, Iron, Vitamin B12, Zinc, Iodine, Calcium, and Omega 3 fats.
All parents should consult with their health care provider regularly to measure their baby’s weight and length to ensure their baby is maintains a healthy growth rate during their first year, irrespective of the chosen diet.
Replacing Animal Protein in Vegetarian Diets for Babies
Despite all the 21st– Century technological advancements and media hype, humans still need the three macronutrients to maintain optimal health, i.e. Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates.
Animal proteins such as meat, fish, poultry, milk, and eggs, are known as the complete proteins, i.e. they provide the nine essential amino acids that complement the 11 that our bodies create organically.
After much research and various case studies, health experts agree that vegetarians and vegans can get all the proteins and nutrients their bodies need from a plant-based diet. For babies and toddlers, a vegetarian diet can provide sufficient protein needs through plant-based and other protein sources.
Alternative Sources to Animal Protein
Some of the alternative protein sources have become all-time favourite foods for many people regardless of their dietary orientation. Many of us have grown up consuming protein-rich legumes such as lentils, green peas, beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), either in soups, stews, or curries. Your baby will grow to love the new textures and tastes.
- Nuts are amazingly versatile, and the protein content in nuts ranges from 4.5 to 9.5 grams of protein per ¼ cup. The most known nuts are Peanuts, Hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, Pistachios, Almonds, Cashews, Pine nuts, and Walnuts. Whilst nuts are a great source of protein, you must avoid offering these to your baby whole as they can cause choking.
- Soy products gained extensive acclaim among vegans and vegetarians for being a rich, high-protein food source. Among these are Tofu, a bland cheese made from soybean curds, its slightly spicy, fermented counterpart, Tempeh, and Edamame, immature soybeans in a pod similar to green pea pods. It contains 10-19 grams of protein per 100 grams.
- Oats although not a complete protein, Oats and Oatmeal are among the most nutrient-dense superfoods and being gluten-free should be in every pantry. Just 120ml (half a cup) of cooked oats packs 6 grams of protein, carbohydrates, fat, fibre, antioxidants, and a host of essential minerals and vitamins. Oats are an excellent option for a baby's breakfast and ideal first baby food.
- Quinoa and Amaranth are more seeds than a grain but could quickly head the popularity list if you’re planning a vegetarian diet for your baby due to it being a complete protein and gluten-free. It is the perfect food to alternate with rice, pasta, and cereal, packing 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fibre per cup when cooked.
- Seitan is a well-known powerhouse in high-protein foods for vegans and vegetarians. Made from gluten, it packs a powerful 25 grams of protein per 100 grams. This is a meat alternative and assumes the texture and look of meat when cooked. You can find it in the freezer section of your supermarket. Remember, any food served to your little one needs to be mashed or pureed to avoid choking.
- Spirulina that blue-green algae tops the list for building optimal health. But it’s the presence of a plethora of other health-building, disease-preventing nutrients that make this seaweed tasting nutritious superfood so popular. It contains 8 grams of complete protein per 30ml (2 tablespoons) of powder. When including this in your baby's vegetarian diet, ensure that you give the correct dosage, generally 1 – 3 grams per day. You can mix this into your baby’s food or sprinkle it on top.
- Nutritional yeast is one of the most versatile complete proteins and, having a cheesy flavour, can be sprinkled on almost everything ranging from tofu, pasta dishes, mashed potatoes, or cooked vegetables. It packs a healthy 14 grams of protein per 28 grams (about 3 level Tablespoons).
Health-Building Nutrients to Include in a Vegetarian Diet for Babies
The most essential food for your baby during their first six months of life is breastmilk. However not all mothers are able or want to breastfeed. If this is the case then the healthiest alternatives are fortified, unsweetened, full-fat soy milk or a vegan baby formula fortified with iron.
Please do not experiment with unfortified soy milk, rice, coconut or almond milk, or homemade formulas. These lack the perfect protein, carbohydrates, and fat ratio, the vital building blocks during your baby’s first year of growth and development.
Introduce solid foods that are age-appropriate for vegetarian infants as you would for non-vegetarian infants once they are developmentally ready, which typically is anywhere between 4 to 6 months of age.
When feeding vegetarian or vegan babies and toddlers, pay close attention that all nutrients are replaced with the equivalent highly nutritious alternative plant-based food choices.
Planning Nutrient-Rich Vegetarian Diets for Babies
The Dietitian Association of Australia recommends the following nutrients be included in your baby’s vegetarian diet. (If in doubt, consult with your healthcare provider or an accredited, registered dietitian).
Essential for healthy growth and learning abilities. Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs and via the blood throughout the body.
Iron-fortified baby cereals, mashed tofu, softly cooked lentils, beans, peas, groundnuts & seeds, and nut or seed butter thinly spread on cubes of soft bread and soft scrambled eggs. Iron has a better absorption rate in the presence of vitamin C-rich foods.
Protein is required for healthy muscle growth and repair and for making enzymes and hormones.
Babies get sufficient protein from breastmilk which is critical during the baby’s first year for healthy growth and development. Infant formulas also supply much-needed protein.
Well-cooked and pureed beans and legumes, mashed tofu, thinly-spread smooth nut butter on soft bread cubes are also excellent protein sources. Once you have weaned your baby, try fortified full-fat soy milk.
It helps teeth and bones grow healthy and strong.
Babies that are breast or formula-fed, and later as solid food is introduced get sufficient calcium in their diet through the consumption of milk and dairy foods such as cheese and yogurt.
Vegan toddlers can have fortified soy yogurt, calcium-fortified tofu, soft-cooked and mashed peas, beans, and lentils, almond, and sesame butter thinly spread on cubes of soft bread. Also, check with your doctor if Calcium supplements are necessary.
It supports the body's use of fats, makes red blood cells. But this vitamin only occurs naturally in animal foods.
Dairy foods, milk, eggs, cereals, soy beverages, nutritional yeast, and meat substitutes are all valuable sources of B12. However, if you are vegan then you and your baby may require a B12 supplement in addition to fortified plant-based foods.
Zinc supports an infant's normal, healthy growth and development. It also assists the body's use of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins obtained from foods. Zinc is also needed to build immunity and ensure the growth and repair of body tissue.
Breastfed babies receive sufficient Zinc from your milk. But sources of Zinc should immediately be introduced as a first food with other solid foods.
Vegetarian diets for babies can include well-fortified infant cereal, softly-cooked mashed beans, peas, and lentils, as well as soft cheese and yogurt.
Critical for the absorption of minerals such as Calcium and Phosphorous to build strong bones and healthy teeth.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all breastfed babies receive 400 IU of supplemental Vitamin D daily, shortly after birth – fortified infant formula already contains Vitamin D.
Vegan mothers can substitute breastmilk with a quart of full-fat, fortified soy milk containing vitamins B12, D, and Calcium once your baby reaches 12 months of age.
Fat is an important energy source and necessary for the absorption of other essential nutrients.
Your baby or toddler must consume a source of fat at every meal. Excellent fat sources are breastmilk, store-bought infant formula, yogurt (4% milkfat or higher), avocado, pasteurized cheese, ground nuts & seeds. Nut & seed butter thinly spread on pieces of soft bread are also excellent sources of fat.
These fats play a critical role in normal brain development and healthy vision.
The best source of Omega-3 fat is – you guessed it – breastmilk! Also, store-bought baby formula, Canola oil, Soy oil, Soybeans, Tofu, and ground Walnuts. Some eggs and mono-unsaturated margarine are also enriched with Omega-3.
Dietary fibre supports bowel health.
Dietary fibre, though highly beneficial, does bulk up, causing your toddler to feel ‘full’ much faster. Provide your toddler with frequent snacks and meals. Fortified cereals, bread, and pasta contain refined grains, rather peel the skin on fruit and serve cooked instead of raw vegetables more often.
It helps with the production of the thyroid, supports metabolic rate, and maintains healthy cells.
The primary sources of iodine for vegan and vegetarian babies are found in dried sea vegetables such as Seaweed, Green Beans, Potatoes, Strawberries, Cranberries, and leafy greens such as Watercress.
Foods to Introduce to Your Baby from 6 to 12 Months
It’s essential that you introduce a wide range of foods from all five food groups into your baby’s vegetarian diet plan. The order in which it is introduced is not essential, as long as it's prepared for the baby’s age and includes foods rich in iron at the outset.
- Grain (cereal) foods;
- Protein foods (Tofu, legumes, seeds, nuts, and eggs;
- Milk, cheese, yogurt (or plant-based alternatives for vegans.)
Experimenting with vegetarian recipes from 6 to 12 months
Many vegetarian and vegan options are available in supermarkets; however, preparing your baby's food at home has many benefits. When preparing food at home, food must be the right texture based on your baby’s age.
- Iron-enriched baby cereal, soft-cooked beans, legumes, or soft bread cubes thinly spread with seed or nut butter.
- Well-poached egg (yolk must begin to thicken and set)
- Cooked and pureed fruit, such as apple, peach, apricot, or nectarine (you can also use canned fruit)
- Cooked tofu cut into cubes that baby can hold
- Ripe mashed banana or mango
- Cooked and pureed vegetables such as sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin, cauliflower, potato, broccoli, or zucchini
- Raw, mashed avocado
- Slow-cooked vegetable soups or stock mixed with vegetables
- Melon or sweet, juicy plums, with skins and seeds removed
- Dried fruit, such as apricots or prunes, cooked to soften, then pureed
- Smooth, organic peanut butter (no sugar or salt added)
- Yogurt, pieces of cheese, or grated cheese.
- Toast fingers spread with nut butter or rusks.
- Remove the skins and seeds from all fruits before serving, and do NOT add salt, sugar, or honey to any of your baby's food.
Your baby’s soft food-readiness
- 7 to 8 months – babies start to chew thicker food containing some soft lumps.
- 8 to 9 months – they love to feed themselves and hold soft ‘finger food’.
- At 12 months – toddlers can join in nutritious, tasty family meals
You should give your one-year-old toddler an additional two servings of milk or fortified soya milk or milk products each day. A serving is 250mL, one cup.
The Bottom Line When Planning a Vegetarian Diet for Babies
A vegetarian diet for babies can meet all the essential dietary protein requirements for healthy growth and development as long as it meets your baby’s energy needs through various foods from the different plant-based food groups.
It's essential to get your baby used to a feeding routine of at least 2 to 3 meals and up to 2 small snacks of solid foods per day. Remember to include iron-rich nutrients into your baby's first foods at least twice per day. Once your baby happily enjoys these meals, continue introducing a variety of other nutrient-rich foods daily. However, be prepared that your baby will make the final decision about how much they want to eat.
Once again, do not stress about combining all the different plant proteins at every meal. ‘Trust the system', as they say. Our bodies wisely maintain a rich pool of amino acids that efficiently combine with other dietary proteins when needed.
Finally, do not worry if your baby refuses certain foods as you introduce them to them. Refusing to eat solid food from time to time is not uncommon for babies and toddlers.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Vegetarianism?
Vegetarianism, far from being a new trend on social media, has been around throughout history, practised and preserved in many diverse cultures over the centuries. Similarly, vegetarian diets for babies would have been introduced by vegetarian mothers once their babies were old enough to eat soft foods.
A vegetarian diet generally doesn’t include meat and seafood. However, vegetarianism is not limited to one specific kind of diet:
- Lacto-vegetarians do not eat meat, eggs, and seafood, but they do include dairy products in their diet.
- Ovo-vegetarians do not eat meat, dairy, and seafood, but they include eggs in their diet.
- Lacto-Ovo vegetarians abstain from meat and fish but include eggs and dairy products in their diets.
- Pescatarians don’t eat any meat products, but they do include fish in their diets.
The Difference between Vegetarianism and Veganism
Veganism is a diet devoid of all animal-derived foods such as meat, eggs, fish, cheese, poultry, and dairy products; it only consists of plant-based foods. Think of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, legumes, and grains; foods already included in a vegetarian diet.
One would think that a vegan diet should be straightforward, but there is a fundamental difference between a vegan plant-based and whole-foods plant-based diet. While plant-based vegans can buy pre-packaged frozen foods for convenience, a whole-food plant-based diet, as the name indicates, abstains from all pre-packaged, frozen, and processed foods, as well as oils.
Should a Vegan Mom Breastfeed her Baby?
If ever an organically-produced superfood has reached hero status, especially in the 21st – Century, it is human breastmilk! Despite the advances in producing infant formula as close to mother's milk as possible, breastfeeding remains the number one choice for new mothers globally!
The value and benefits of breastmilk can never be overstated. Breastfed babies are naturally protected from infections, reduced risk of SIDS (infant sudden death syndrome),and developing allergic conditions and asthma later during their developmental years.
The exact value and benefits are available to vegan or vegetarian moms deciding to breastfeed their baby. While vegan moms should supplement their diet with B12 (a vitamin not contained in plant protein), every mammal produces the perfect milk formula to give their babies the best start in life.
Such a high value is placed on breast milk that premature babies are fed with donated, expressed human milk in cases where the mother cannot breastfeed her baby. This is the surest way to improve the premmies' development and survival rate.