I am delighted to bring you this guest blog post from fellow vegan mama and registered dietitian Karla Moreno-Bryce, MDA, RD, LD. Karla is a vegan pediatric nutrition coach and is my go-to resource for all things vegan kids nutrition. This is a must-read post if you are or will be involved in feeding vegan kiddos!
Check out the guest post I wrote for Karla’s blog all about helping kids with body image.
The round, 3-compartment pink silicone plate included white rice, a mixture of steamed veggies, and some strawberries.
It was a photo a past client shared with me of their daughter’s meal. At the time, the vegan parent felt concerned whether they were meeting their daughter’s nutritional needs exclusively on a vegan diet.
Despite being vegan themselves for a few years now and having their own nutrition under control, they had doubts as to whether they were doing everything right for their growing vegan toddler. Raising their daughter vegan was important to them and they wanted guidance in making sure their 15-month old daughter was getting what she needed to grow exclusively from plant-based foods.
I could tell this vegan parent prepared this meal with the best of intentions. Afterall, they cared about offering healthful meals for their little girl. However, there was a crucial element in the meal that could’ve used one more element to boost meeting nutritional needs: dietary fat.
The role of calories and fat in growth and development
Calories and fat play a vital role in supporting a proper growth and development for growing kids and teens—regardless of the child’s dietary pattern. There is often the misconception, influenced by adult diet culture, that fat is “bad” or should be limited. Perhaps you’ve learned that “too much” fat isn’t good for the body.
However, dietary fat is an important component for nutrition. The idea of limiting dietary fat isn’t always true, especially when it comes to growing children. It’s important to understand that the diet of a growing child and teen is distinct and requires a different approach when meal planning. So, to help ensure kids and teens grow well, we have to unlearn some of the misconceptions society has taught us.
During periods of rapid growth, infants, children and teens need an incredible amount of calories and fat to support that growth. Imagine your baby tripling their weight by the first year or having an increase in height for teens once puberty starts. An adequate nutrition is an important factor during these time periods as your baby and/or teen have greater nutritional needs to support this rapid growth. And providing adequate nutrition with calories and fat ensures that vegan kids’ and teens’ growth and development is supported.
We often hear story headlines of vegan babies being hospitalized because they were on a vegan diet. This often leads others to quickly claim that a vegan diet is “unhealthy” or not appropriate for meeting the nutrient needs of a growing child.
However, what these stories fail to mention is that it’s not a vegan diet itself that causes undernourishment, it’s the poor planning of a vegan diet by caregivers that doesn’t ensure key nutrients are offered for a growing child to thrive. For the most part, poor planning stems from a lack of knowledge of what nutrients are important for growing vegan kids.
Calories are a major component of what helps a child thrive. Calories not only support proper growth but they also provide the energy needed for the body to simply function properly. Just like a car needs fuel to run, the body needs calories from food to support basic functions like breathing and keeping our heart beating.
Growing kids and teens also need fat to support proper growth and for normal brain development. Aside from helping kids have energy, fat from food also helps kids absorb certain nutrients like vitamin K, helps their bodies make hormones, and is important for brain development.
Childhood and adolescence is a time when calories and fat don’t need to be restricted. If anything, it should be a priority when planning meals and snacks for them. Whether your child or teen is in the 15th percentile or 99th percentile in growth, it’s still important to ensure that they get adequate amounts of calories and fat to ensure they grow normally.
How much calories and fat do vegan kids need?
The energy needs of a growing child is unique to them. There are recommendations for calorie needs based on your child’s age and physical activity; however, I often refrain from sharing exact numbers to parents and caregivers because this can sometimes cause stress with meal planning to ensure that their child’s exact needs are met.
While having a reference for how much calories and how much fat your child needs may be helpful, I often encourage parents to shift their mindset from thinking about exact numbers to thinking about variety of plant foods.
A good rule of thumb to ensure calories and fat are met in your child’s vegan diet is to focus on offering high-calorie and high-fat foods as part of their meals and snacks and a variety of plant-based foods.
Vegan parents sometimes believe that fruits and vegetables should be the focus of their child’s meals. And it’s great that these are considered in a child’s diet as they do offer several nutritional benefits, such as providing antioxidants, beta carotene, and fiber. However, many fruits and vegetables are not the best foods for meeting the high energy needs for a growing child. There are very few that can satisfy that criteria.
Offering fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks is great, and should be part of your child’s diet, but a more effective approach for providing the energy demands your child needs for proper growth is to prioritize high-calorie and high-fat plant foods.
Plant foods that meet calorie and fat needs
By now, you might be wondering what plant foods are considered high-calorie or high-fat. The good news is that there are a variety of plant-based foods that meet both calorie and fat needs for your growing children.
Some high-calorie foods are also considered high-fat foods. These tend to be foods like nuts, seeds, some legumes, and oils. And others simply meet calorie needs.
High-calorie / High-fat
- Nuts / nut butters
- Seeds / seed butters
- Cooking oils
- Soybeans (tofu, tempeh, edamame)
- Plant-based yogurts
- Cassava / Yuca
- Potatoes / Sweet Potatoes
- Pasta / Noodles
- Dried Fruit
High-calorie plant foods can be incorporated into your vegan child’s meals and snacks in many ways. For example, nut/seed butters are very practical in boosting fat and calorie needs for your child. You can spread on toast or crackers, add to oatmeal, be part of a pancake/waffle/muffin recipe, add to smoothies, make a sauce, or mix with a plant yogurt. The possibilities are endless!
And that’s the beauty of these foods is that they can be part of your vegan family’s meals in a variety of ways to ensure that your child meets their energy needs to support their growth.
From concerned to confident
When my past client learned the importance of dietary fat, they felt reassured that the meals they prepared for their vegan toddler met key nutrients to support proper growth. After learning about the importance of including fats in childhood nutrition and identifying plant foods rich in this essential nutrient, they gained confidence in meal preparation, knowing that they were incorporating key meal components into their meals.
Over the course of our time working together, more meal photos were sent for nutritional feedback. This time I noticed more legumes like soybeans and peanuts, noodles, plant yogurts and cooking oils drizzled over vegetables were incorporated into the family meals.
These were plant foods that were already part of the family’s diet—with udon noodles and fried rice being family favorites—so the family didn’t have to go out of their way to put meals together that included calories and dietary fat. They just needed a bit of knowledge on the nutritional needs of growing children and some guidance on how to fulfill that.
Like this family, my hope for you is that knowing to prioritize high-calorie and high-fat plant foods for your vegan child helps you feel reassured that you’re providing them with what they need to support a proper growth and development.
Whether you just need a few tweaks in your meal planning or this is an approach you’re already following in your meal preparation, feel proud of yourself knowing that you’re setting a proper nutritional foundation for your child to thrive on a vegan lifestyle.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate for Karla’s resources which means when you purchase any of her incredible products through the links below, I’ll earn a commission. I rarely if ever do any sort of affiliate programs but Karla’s work is so outstanding and valuable to me both professionally and personally! I feel confident sharing it with you.
What she is doing is amazing and so needed!
Karla has a whole suite of resources about vegan kids nutrition:
- Vegan Kids Baby Led Weaning course (perfect for anyone who will be feeding vegan babies their first bites)
- Vegan Kids Nutrition Blueprint course (covers nutrition for vegan kiddos 6 months – 8 years)
- Supplement Guide for Vegan Kids (clear-cut guidance on what supplements + how much to give vegan kids, including specific brands)
- Vegan Kids Cookbook (lots of yummy recipes for vegan infants + kids to help them get enough nutrition)
Karla Moreno-Bryce, MDA, RD, LD, is a leading expert in pediatric vegan nutrition and author of the Vegan Kids Cookbook. She has worked with hundreds of committed vegan parents from all around the world to help them feel confident feeding their kids a vegan diet for proper growth and development. Her insights have been featured in highly recognized outlets like Huffpost, BBC, and National Geographic. As the creator of the Vegan Kids Nutrition Blueprint course, she loves helping vegan parents who are concerned about meeting their kids nutritional needs have peace of mind that they’re doing things right. In her spare time, Karla enjoys picnics with her husband and two daughters—unless the Minnesota winter changes our plans.