How to Raise Kids on a Special Diet

Considerations for Dietary Preferences and Restrictions

Child eating a salad

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Providing children with a well-balanced diet is essential for growth, wellness, and development. Some parents follow special diets due to religious beliefs, ethical values, or sustainability. Many parents want to know if raising their children on a special diet is safe and healthy.

For example, can your child also be a vegetarian if you are a vegetarian? Depending on the diet, the answer is usually yes. But there is a caveat; you must develop meal plans that ensure your child receives all the nutrients needed for adequate growth and development.

It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all life cycle stages, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.

Vegan, Vegetarian, Pescatarian, Flexitarian Diets

There are slight differences in all these types of eating plans. Vegan diets exclude all animal products, including dairy and eggs, and the restrictions of vegetarian diets can vary. Most vegetarian meal plans exclude all animal meat products but allow animal byproducts like milk and eggs.

A pescatarian diet excludes all animal products but permits the consumption of fish. Furthermore, a flexitarian diet emphasizes plant-based foods while allowing limited quantities of animal products, such as meat and dairy.

Eliminating certain food groups means that you must pay closer attention to specific nutrients in order to prevent nutritional deficiencies.

Key Nutrients That Must Be Considered for Success

Plant-based meals provide many antioxidants, fiber, and other essential nutrients. However, if you exclude all animal products, certain nutrients that are necessary for your child's mental and physical development might be missed. You must ensure that all the essential nutrients are available in your preferred meal plan. The exact amount of nutrients your child needs will depend on their age, height, weight, and activity level.

Be certain to always discuss their exact nutrient needs with their pediatrician or another a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition.

Calories

Calories provide energy and are critical for growth and development. If your child is eating large quantities of raw foods, it might be challenging to meet their caloric needs. To avoid this, offer a variety of cooked vegetables prepared with healthy fat, such as olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil, etc.

Fat

Vegetarian meal plans are often low in fat because they do not include animal products. Fat is an important nutrient in development, especially during the early stages of life, and essential fatty acids are critical components of brain and retinal development.

In addition, eating fat is essential for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E, and K. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, children ages one to three years old should eat roughly 30% to 40% of their calories from fat. In comparison, children ages 4 to 18 should receive around 25% to 35% of their calories from fat.

You should include a variety of fats in your child's meal plan. Hummus, avocado, olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, and nut butters, like almond butter, peanut butter, and sun butter are healthy options. Full fat, fortified soymilk, or full-fat cow's milk can be an option after the first year of life.

Protein

Young children need to consume roughly 5% to 20% of calories from protein, while older children need to consume around 10% to 30% of calories from protein. Whole grains, milk alternatives, nut butters, and legumes can provide sufficient protein.

Some experts recommend that children who follow a vegan diet may need additional protein to meet their needs, likely because of the differences in protein digestibility and amino acid composition. Experts recommend 30% to 35% more protein for 1 to 2-year-old vegans, 20% to 30% more for 2 to 6-year-olds, and 15% to 20% more for children older than 6 years.

Discuss your child's needs with your pediatrician to ensure adequate nutrient intake.

Iron

Iron is crucial for enzyme and protein production and carries and stores oxygen in the blood. Iron is particularly important during childhood because growth accelerates the process of storing and carrying oxygen.

There are two different types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron, found primarily in animal products, is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron. This does not mean that you cannot achieve iron needs by excluding animal products, but it does mean that you'll have to pay closer attention to this nutrient.

Foods rich in non-heme iron include beans, iron-fortified cereals, oatmeal, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, as well as raisins and enriched bread.

To increase non-heme iron absorption, add foods rich in vitamin C to meals. These include broccoli, cantaloupe, kiwi, oranges, lemon, papaya, pineapple, peppers, potato, and strawberries. For example, if you serve your child rice and beans for dinner, add some peppers or freshly squeezed lemon on top or provide them with a serving of fruit on the side.

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that parents monitor the iron and zinc status of children who eat plant-based diets and add supplemental iron and zinc as needed with direction from a health care provider.

Zinc

Humans need constant zinc intake because we cannot store it. Zinc intake is particularly important for children as it supports normal growth and immune system development. Mild zinc deficiency can increase the risk of growth delays. Because zinc comes mainly from meat, it is essential to provide other sources.

Food sources include fortified cereals (amounts vary), shellfish, such as crab and clams, beans such as chickpeas (used in making hummus), soybeans, sunflower seeds, cashews, milk, and cheese.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for DNA synthesis, brain development, and cognitive function. Inadequate intake of vitamin B12 during early childhood has been associated with health problems, including impaired brain development. The primary sources of vitamin B12 are meat and dairy products like cheese and milk.

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends monitoring B12 consumption and adding fortified foods and supplements to children's diets when necessary to ensure proper development.

Alternative sources of vitamin B12 include fortified nutritional yeast, certain fortified cereals, fortified non-dairy milk, eggs, and shellfish. Discuss your child's dietary intake with a health care provider to see if they need to supplement with vitamin B12.

Calcium

Calcium is necessary for forming strong bones and teeth and plays a role in muscle contraction and heart function. The amount of calcium a child needs increases as they get older. If your child is not eating dairy, monitor their calcium intake closely, as dairy sources contain the highest amounts.

Dairy alternatives that are rich in calcium include cereals, beans, whole grains, calcium set tofu, calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as almond milk and soymilk, green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and kale, and calcium-fortified juice.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that aids in calcium absorption for bone mineralization and also plays a role in preventing some chronic diseases. Only a handful of foods are rich in vitamin D, and dairy is a common source. Particular attention should be paid to vitamin D for children on dairy-free diets.

Supplementation may be needed, especially because sunlight is not always a reliable source of vitamin D. This is due to sunscreen use, time spent indoors, higher altitudes, and winter months. Discuss with your physician if your child needs vitamin D supplementation.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, all infants and children, including adolescents, should have a minimum daily intake of 400 IU of vitamin D (in the form of a supplement) beginning soon after birth. Vitamin D-rich foods include salmon, tuna, cod, fortified orange juice, milk, soymilk, evaporated milk, fortified cereals, rice milk, egg, and mushrooms.

Supplements

Some children on non-traditional diets may need to take certain supplements. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that parents and health care providers monitor the iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 status of children on some plant-based diets.

Common Dietary Restrictions

Some children may need a special diet due to allergies or intolerances. Food intolerance is different from a true food allergy. A food allergy occurs when the body has an immune response to the protein in the offending food. Symptoms can result in hives, wheezing, rash, itching, stuffy nose, and itchy or teary eyes.

Some people with food allergies can have a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. When a person has a food intolerance, there is no immune reaction; instead, they typically experience a digestive issue in response to a specific food.

Whether or not your child has a food allergy or food intolerance, they may need to avoid certain foods, such as dairy, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish. To rule out food allergies versus food intolerances, your child must have a medical workup by their pediatrician or allergist.

Lactose Intolerance

Children with lactose intolerance may need to avoid dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Tolerance to milk and milk products can be variable. Sometimes limiting dairy will be enough, whereas avoiding it altogether will be necessary for others.

Your pediatrician may recommend lactose enzymes to relieve symptoms. When limiting or avoiding dairy, it is essential to find alternative calcium sources, protein, healthy fats, and vitamins D and B12. Rice milk is usually low in protein and fat, so that may not be the best choice unless it is considered the only option.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease involves the villi of the intestines. People with celiac disease should avoid gluten, a protein found in certain foods like wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. Ingestion of gluten and other gluten-containing products can damage the intestines and cause malnutrition.

Some medicines, vitamins, and lip balms also contain gluten. It's important to meet with a registered dietitian to ensure your child receives adequate nutrition and avoids all problematic foods.

Helping Your Child Adjust to a New Diet

Social norms can be a challenge for children. If your child has a non-traditional diet, they may feel segregated from their peers even if their diet change was voluntary, as opposed to medical. The best way to deal with this is to continue to educate yourself and your child.

They should understand that sometimes people must follow special diets because their bodies are unable to tolerate certain foods, while others choose to eat or restrict certain foods because of their beliefs. Learning how to respect people's choices and beliefs is a way of life and this can be a good starting point.

A Word From Verywell

Ensuring optimal nutrition for your child is vital for proper growth and development. Whether you choose to feed your child a special meal plan, they've decided to make the switch on their own, or they have a medical condition that forces them to eliminate certain foods, they can achieve their goals if you manage certain nutrients well.

Children have different nutrient needs throughout their lifetime, so meeting with a medical professional, like your pediatrician or registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics, is an integral part of this process.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN
Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist.