Topics » Family & Kids » How to encourage children to adopt a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle
T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

Knowing how and what to feed your child can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to raising your child on a plant-based diet. Have you ever received less than favorable reactions from your family, other parents, or even those in the medical community?

Rest assured, you’re not alone. Dr. Reshma Shah is here to help. Dr. Shah is a board-certified pediatrician and co-author of the award-winning book, Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families. She provided a wealth of information, reassurance, and practical advice in a recent workshop for CNS’s Plant Forward Workshop series, where she answered some of those all-too-common questions she hears from concerned parents.

Are plant-based diets safe for children?

In short, yes! Dr. Shah not only reassures us that appropriately planned plant-based diets are perfectly safe for children, but she also refers to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position statement on vegetarian and vegan diets. If you need evidence to share with a medical professional, then this is a succinct, straightforward statement you can show them. Dr. Shah also recommends a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine called “Milk and Health,” which explains how milk might be harmful, even though it is widely considered in the medical community to be an essential part of our diet.

If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or whole food, plant-based (WFPB), you’ve probably been asked countless times about where you get your protein. Dr. Shah explains that even for children, if they are getting enough calories and variety, it’s difficult not to meet their protein requirements.

In terms of specific nutrients, Dr. Shah recommends you give your children a B12 supplement. Factors such as what your children are eating, if fortified foods are being consumed, and the life-stage they’re at, will determine specific nutrient needs. For example, children who are at the weaning stage have greater iron needs and an effective way to boost their iron intake is with iron-fortified infant cereal.

How do you get the whole family onboard?

For many families having different tastes in food can make mealtimes stressful, and if someone in your family doesn’t want to eat WFPB it can be extra challenging. Dr. Shah emphasizes the importance of recognizing people are at different stages. Her advice is to start with you. You can showcase amazing foods and meals the whole family can enjoy. This helps develop familiarity and, in turn, acceptance of what may be new foods for your family.

Although you may have adopted a WFPB diet 100% of the time, or it’s what you’re aiming for, it may not be what other members of your family want to do. Dr. Shah advises that being patient and offering compassion and asking for respect can go a long way to keeping a harmonious household! This may mean accepting that some family members will choose to eat differently when out of the home.

Social situations can feel like a challenge to navigate at times when you are eating differently than others. Dr. Shah offers some great advice in this short clip from the workshop:

What about sugar and processed foods?

If you’re concerned about the number of sugary drinks your child is consuming, Dr. Shah’s recommendation is to avoid having them in the house if you can. Once children get a taste for these beverages, it can be a challenge to get them to drink plain water. Try seltzer water with pieces of fruit or a dash of fruit juice or smoothies made with green vegetables. You could also use a fun straw to make the drink more appealing.

Not all processed foods are the same. We obviously want to avoid hyper-processed foods, but allowing a few processed foods—such as unsweetened, fortified soy milk—accompanied by lots of whole foods, may help to make family mealtimes a lot less stressful, suggests Dr. Shah.

Dr. Shah advises that a toddler may fill up too quickly on a high-fiber diet, so some slightly refined grains can be useful at this stage of life.
From my experience, if you tell your child they can’t have something, then they’ll want it even more. It can often be the same with adults! With my clients, I reinforce the positives and don’t tell them what they can’t have. For example, if I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, what do you think of?

Dr. Shah recommends a pragmatic approach when it comes to the occasional consumption of foods such as ice cream or cake. The idea is that children will develop the confidence to deal with situations away from the family dinner table if they’re used to making some decisions about what they eat.

How to introduce plant-based foods to children

Dr. Shah’s advice here is to talk about food in a positive way, especially with young children. It’s important they learn from you how delicious healthy whole foods can be. If you have older children who are interested in learning about or trying new plant foods, it’s a good idea to provide them with nutritional information, with an emphasis on the positives, rather than focusing on talking about anything unhealthy.

  1. Focus on adding in foods, rather than taking out. This is known as “crowding out” and it also helps with concerns your children have about foods being taken away from them. As you continue to add more plant-based whole foods, the animal foods will get crowded out.
  2. Reinvent favorite meals and substitute a few ingredients to help keep meals familiar. I love Dr. Shah’s idea of replacing taco meat with baked tofu, beans, and seasoning!
  3. When planning meals, emphasize the plant-based foods that everyone already enjoys.
  4. I hope you found this advice helpful. If you’re transitioning your family, maybe you have successful strategies you’d like to share? Please comment below. You can find out more and watch the full video from Dr. Reshma Shah by joining Whole Communities. This is the place where you can connect with others, be inspired, get support, join workshops every month—all with the aim of building resilient communities of health through WFPB nutrition.

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