Dietary Patterns for Infants and Young Children
Author: Professor Walter J. Veith, PhD
Publish date:
Summary: A wholesome vegetarian diet is possible even for children, when the proper nutrients and vitamins are included.

Children have smaller stomachs than adults, and higher needs for nutrients per unit weight. Therefore, diets that are appropriate for adults can be deficient for young children.

Children under the age of three can accommodate only 200-300ml of food at each meal, and a high-fiber, low-calorie diet will increase their inability to consume the nutrients they need. Parents should avoid introducing restrictive dietary regimes, and instead make a shift to more high-energy foods, in order to sustain normal development in their children. Variety is the watchword because single-plant food diets, such as an exclusively fruit-based diet, will not supply children with the sufficient nutrients they need for normal development.

Infants and Milk

The best food for infants is their mother's milk. If it can be helped, avoid substituting mother's milk for the milk of other animals, as the composition of milk varies from species to species. Human infants are designed to drink human milk, and a demand-type breast-feeding schedule would go a long way in meeting the infants' needs. Failing this, ensure that infants consume adequate quantities per meal as dictated by their age. The composition of mother's milk will also vary with the mother's diet, but it can be said that good wholesome food will make good wholesome milk. On the whole, the breast milk of vegetarians contains fewer environmental contaminants and additives than the milk of omnivores does,i and it has been found that the vegetarian infant can thrive if care is taken to supplement their iron, B12, and vitamin D intake.

When transitioning from breast-feeding to table foods, avoid restrictive diets such as those followed by some groups such as Zen macrobiotics, Black Hebrews, and Rastafarians. These diets are normally structured around a few grains, vegetables, and fruits in addition to milk made from grains. They are often deficient in calories, proteins, and numerous minerals and vitamins, particularly vitamins D and B12. Such diets have led to numerous hospitalizations for malnutrition, and have been responsible for the deaths of a number of children.ii,iii,iv

Choosing Food for your Children

CC Sistak on Flickr

Some grains, such as maize, increase up to six times in volume when cooked as a porridge, thus drastically reducing the energy content per unit volume. Because porridges in general will not supply sufficient energy for small children, increasing their intake of cereals, nut butters, avocados, dried fruit spreads, and legumes is recommended. Also, limit your child's intake of fruits, vegetables, and porridges (gruels).v,vi,vii

Nut butters such as almond, brazil, cashew, peanut, pecan, and walnut butters or sesame-chick pea butter, can be given to toddlers while avocado can also be served even to infants.viii Avocados are a rich source of numerous nutrients including copper, potassium, and riboflavin. In terms of their fat content, they also supply more energy per unit mass than other fruits.

Choose combinations of grains and legumes or nuts and seeds to satisfy the amino acid requirements of vegan children. Furthermore, weaned children should receive vitamin D and B12 fortified soy milk or nut milk, particularly when their exposure to the sun is limited. It has been shown that vegan diets can support normal growth and development.ix In the table below, a diet plan for young vegan children is presented.

Food group Approximate Daily servings per age

serving size 6m-1yr 1-4yr 4-6yr
Bread 1 slice 1 3 4
1-5 tbsp 1/2
(finely ground)
1 2
Fats 1 tsp 0 3 4
Citrus 1/4-1/2 cup 0 2 (juiced) 3
Other 2-6 tbsp 3 pureed 2 (chopped) 3
Protein foods 1-6 tbsp 2 (cooked and sieved) 3 (chopped) 3
green leafy or deep yellow 1/4-1/2 cup 1/4 (cooked and pureed) 1/2 (chopped) 1
other   1/2 (cooked and pureed) 1 (chopped) 1
Soy milk (fortified) 1c 3 3 3
brewers yeast 1tbsp 0 1 1
molasses 1tbsp 0 1 1
wheat germ 1tbsp 0 optional optional


This diet plan for vegan children supplies sufficient nutrients to meet the demands of growing children, and can be substantially increased by more liberal servings.

As stomach capacity increases, a gradual shift to adult eating patterns can take place. Preschoolers should still receive greater portions of energy-rich foods and foods high in calcium, zinc, iron, and supplementation of vitamin D and B12.xi Furthermore, it is important to ensure a good mix of plant-protein sources. A whole-food diet, comprising legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables (inclusive of the leafy green varieties), together with fortified soy milk, will have children brimming with health. If wholesome eating practices have been adopted in the family and care is taken to supply the special needs of younger children, then there is no need for concern. Furthermore, it is not necessary to cook separate meals for younger children, but merely to ensure that the relative portions that children obtain are geared to their needs.

Cereals: Include commercial varieties of breakfast cereals and enriched rice, millet, macaroni, brown rice, wheat berries, dry oats, and granola.
Other fruits: Include avocado, apple, peach, banana, pear, berries, grapes, as well as dried fruit spreads made with dried peaches, apricots, raisins, and figs.
Protein foods Include nuts, nut butters, peanut butter, legumes, miso, seed butters, and tofu. Nuts and seeds should be ground for toddlers.
Green leafy or deep yellow vegetables Include carrots, green peppers, broccoli, spinach, endive, escarole, and kale.

Table 5.2 Diet plan for young vegan children.x

Parents tend to force their own eating habits onto their children, and might insist that the child eats more vegetables or fruits than the nut-grain-legume dishes that the child needs for growth. Moreover, children also have a natural tendency to consume more of the energy-rich foods, and this should not be discouraged as long as it does not lead to the exclusion of other essential foods.

CC David Brown on Flickr

Healthful eating patterns should be established early. If parents are concerned about the health and well being of their vegan children, they should not adopt a "do as you please" attitude. However, it is also important that flexibility is maintained and extremes avoided. Eating should be a pleasure, not a burden, and mealtimes should be something to look forward to. There should be a relaxed atmosphere at the table, conducive to good digestion, and children should not feel pressured because their parents hold rigid or fanatical views on nutrition.

A study of British vegan children showed that their average energy intake was less than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for British children in general, particularly in the two-to-four year age group. But this is not uncommon, as many non-vegetarian children also fail to meet the RDA. The average nutrient density, however, was higher for vegan diets for most nutrients, with the exception of calcium and fat, when compared to the average UK diet.

vegan children tended to be lighter than average, but average in terms of their blood formation and educational and physical development. Vegan diets have a bad reputation because of a few inappropriate diets, but appropriate vegan diets produce healthy children. Moreover, there is no evidence that either intellectual function or physical stamina are adversely affected by a well-planned vegan diet.xii

What about Adolescents and Young Adults?

Adolescents need more energy, protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and vitamin A because of the rapid growth during this stage. Besides catering for the higher protein and energy needs, ensure that the diet includes green leafy vegetables or other foods rich in calcium. Supplementation of B12 and zinc are also recommended for this stage.

This article is adapted from the book Diet and Health by Dr. Walter Veith. Updated August 2010.



i. J. Hergenrather, G. Hlady, E. Savage, and B. Wallace, "Pollutants in breast milk of vegetarians," New England Journal of Medicine 309 (1981): 792.

ii. Dwyer and Jacobs, "Vegetarian children: appropriate and inappropriate diets," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48 (1988): 811-818.

iii. J. Drakeford, J. Milton, and P. Ward, "Nutritional rickets in Rastafarian children" British Medical Journal 285 (1982): 1242-1243.

iv. P. Dagnelli and I. Van Staveren, "Food consumption, growth and development of Dutch children fed on alternative diets," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48 (1988): 819-821.

v. Dwyer and Jacobs, "Vegetarian children: appropriate and inappropriate diets," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48 (1988): 811-818.

vi. D. Truesdell, "Feeding the vegan infant and child," Journal of the American Dietetic Association 85 (1985): 837-840.

vii. J. Robson, "Zen microbiotic problems in infancy," Pediatrics 53 (1974): 326-329.

viii. D. Truesdell, "Feeding the vegan infant and child," Journal of the American Dietetic Association 85 (1985): 837-840.

ix. T. Sanders, "Growth and development of British vegan children," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48 (1988): 822-825.

x. D. Truesdell, "Feeding the vegan infant and child," Journal of the American Dietetic Association 85 (1985): 837-840.

xi. U. Register, L. Sommenberg, and I. Vyhmeister, "Safe vegetarian diets for children," Pediatric Clinics of North America 24 (1977): 203-210.

xii. T. Sanders, "Growth and development of British vegan children," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48 (1988): 822-825.

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