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Vegetarian and vegan feeding guide for toddlers

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Toddlers eating a vegetarian or vegan diet need one that’s well balanced with plenty of calories.
  • Breastmilk or formula are important sources of nutrition in the first 12 months.
  • Toddlers grow and develop quickly, and they need frequent healthy meals and snacks.
  • Toddlers can be picky with eating, which can add to the challenge of offering certain diets.
  • Toddlers on a vegan diet often need fortified foods and/or supplements.

What is a vegetarian diet?

There are a few definitions of a vegetarian diet. For example, lacto-ovo vegetarians avoid meat but eat eggs, milk and dairy food. Lacto-vegetarians avoid meat and eggs but eat milk and dairy food in their diet.

What is a vegan diet?

A vegan diet is based on food from vegetables and plant-based products. It excludes food from animals.

Can toddlers have a vegetarian diet?

Toddlers can have a vegetarian diet if the food they eat contains enough energy and nutrients for them to grow. Toddlers are busy and adventurous and need a lot of high-quality foods to support their growth and energy needs. A nutrient-rich diet is important for healthy growth and development.

Parents with a vegetarian diet are more likely to give their toddler the same types of plant-based food. However, they need to be in a suitable form for toddlers to chew and digest. Whatever diet parents choose to give their toddler, it is important to ensure their food is healthy and nutritious.

Does a vegetarian diet pose any risks to my toddler?

One of the risks of a vegetarian diet is that there is a potential for nutritional deficiencies. Iron, vitamin B12, zinc and protein are in high concentrations in animal-based food. Plant-based food tends to be high in fibre which can create a sensation of fullness, especially in a small stomach. This means that toddlers may not eat enough energy-rich food to meet their growing needs.

What are some of the challenges of a vegetarian diet?

It can sometimes be difficult to source a quality, vegetarian-based alternative when eating out. Although most restaurants and fast-food outlets cater for vegetarians and people with food intolerances, sometimes they offer a limited range.

Day-care centres that cater meals often include ‘meat-free’ days through the week, making it easier for vegetarian toddlers to eat what is on offer.

Can toddlers have a vegan diet?

Toddlers can have a vegan diet if parents ensure they get enough nutrients. It can be challenging for toddlers to get enough nutrients, in particular vitamin B 12, protein and iron, from plant-based food. It is also harder for the body to absorb non-haem iron when it is in plant form. Often, toddlers fed a vegan diet need to have iron or calcium fortified foods or supplements.

Cereals, bread and plant-derived milk alternatives, for example, soy milk, are available at supermarkets and health-food stores. It is important for parents to read food labels and be familiar with what each product contains.

Does a vegan diet pose any risks to my toddler?

Toddlers fed a fully vegan diet are at risk of becoming deficient in some nutrients and minerals. Plant-based food are harder to digest and growing toddlers need to eat a lot of them to get enough nutrients. Food which is fortified with iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and protein help to boost nutrient levels.

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal-based food, which is why it’s important to ensure a toddler gets enough through other sources.

What are some of the challenges of a vegan diet?

Vegan food can be limited when eating out. It often helps for parents to plan and take their own food. If your child attends day care, speak with the staff who plan the menu and do the cooking. If they don’t have something your child eats, you may need to send this with your child to day care.

Does my child need any supplements?

Toddlers eating eggs and milk, and a range of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, don’t generally need supplements. Protein from beans, lentils, pulses and grains are ideal sources of protein for both vegetarian and vegan children.

Vitamin C-rich food helps the body to absorb iron from plant-based food. Offer your toddler fresh fruits and vegetables each day to reduce the risk of iron deficiency anaemia.

How can I help my child get the right nutrition?

Toddlers often refuse to eat some foods because they don’t like their look, taste or texture. They also go through phases of wanting to eat the same food at each mealtime, eating small amounts or wanting to ‘graze’ throughout the day, rather than eat larger volumes less frequently. This can make mealtime particularly challenging, especially when their diet is already restricted.

It can help to offer the same food in a different form. For example, offer whole chickpeas or lentils in a spread such as hummus, or green leafy vegetables and grains in stews or casseroles. Yoghurt mixed with flaxseed gives them calcium and essential fatty acids.

Another way to boost toddler’s nutritional intake is through healthy drinks. Smoothies made from milk (or milk alternatives), yoghurt and fruit or vegetables can be popular, as long as they’re not given too often.

What are some food suggestions for vegan toddlers?

Here are some vegan food suggestions for toddlers:

  • tofu, tempeh or other soy alternatives
  • nut spreads on toast, bread or crackers
  • avocado — mix it up with fruit or yoghurt
  • high-quality cereals which are iron fortified — wholegrains are ideal
  • meat substitutes, for example, lentils, nutmeat, soy burgers or Quorn (it is important to check the salt and saturated fat content in plant-based meat alternatives — where possible, choose one with a higher Health Star Rating)
  • quinoa and other grains
  • healthy fats contained in extra virgin olive oil

For vegetarian toddlers, add milk, dairy products and eggs to the above.

Resources and support

Speak with your GP and a maternal child health nurse to make sure your toddler is getting the nutrition they need. Often a referral to an Accredited Practicing Dietician is recommended for specific nutritional advice.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2023

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