How to feed your vegetarian child

Remember chasing your toddler with a forkful of peas? Now that your child is a preteen, you may be eyeing those days with nostalgia. Kids are using food to assert power and vegetarianism is becoming a hot trend.

The Vegetarian Resource Group estimates 8- to 12-year-olds are the fastest growing segment of vegetarians (those who don’t eat meat, poultry or fish/seafood). A full 5 percent of this group never eats meat, with girls more likely than boys to follow the trend. Many choose vegetarianism in support of animal rights, while others see it as a way to stand apart.

For a meat-loving family, this can be a real challenge.

“The most common pitfall for young vegetarians would be the meal plan,” explains Jane Verik, a registered dietitian of Naperville. She regularly sees preteen vegetarians.

“They probably take in more carbs than most meat-eaters because of the beans.” It’s all a balance, she says. Protein, iron, zinc and B12 are the biggest nutrients to monitor.

If you find yourself living with a new vegetarian, make sure they’re eating more than French fries and cheese sticks. Healthy snacks could include pumpkin seeds, almonds, dried fruit and yogurt. Sprinkle wheat germ in sauces. And check out the large selection of vegetarian meatless products in grocery stores, such as chicken-less nuggets and veggie burgers.

Patti Gustafson of Woodridge worries about giving her 12-year-old daughter a good balance of vitamins. But she recognizes Bridget has made a life choice. “She’ll stay a vegetarian forever. After three years, it’s an ideology more than a diet. She just cherishes animals.”

Here are some tips on getting vegetarian kids the key nutrients their growing bodies need:

  • Protein: Dairy products, eggs, tofu and other soy products
  • Iron: Eggs, dried fruit, whole grains, leafy green vegetables
  • Zinc: Wheat germ, nuts, pumpkin seeds
  • Vitamin B12: Dairy products, eggs, fortified products

Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if your child expresses an interest. In the meantime, resist the urge to chase them with a hamburger.

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