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Introducing meatless meals

Introducing meatless meals

Alyssa RolnickAs vegetarianism becomes more popular in pre-teens, you may be wondering if your children can still get the nutrients they need to grow to be healthy and strong just eating these foods. With a little bit of planning, a vegetarian diet – or at least a few veggie meals a week – can actually be a very healthy way to eat, even if you’re not a vegetarian yourself. 

The Dietitians of Canada have stated that well planned vegan and vegetarian diets are healthful, for all stages of the lifecycle from childhood to pregnancy to seniors. They can be nutritionally adequate and also provide certain health benefits. Vegetarian diets may lead to lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, healthier weight and less incidence of type 2 diabetes, all of which can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Whether your child or family chooses to be vegetarian – or partially vegetarian – for health or other reasons, what’s most important is that you provide them with a variety of foods that will provide enough calories and necessary nutrients to allow them to grow normally. This will depend on the type of vegetarian your child chooses to be or the vegetarianism your family follows.

Types of vegetarians

  • ovo-vegetarian - eats eggs; no meat or dairy products
  • lacto-ovo vegetarian - eats dairy and egg products; no meat
  • lacto-vegetarian - eats dairy products; no egg products or meat
  • vegan – no meat, dairy or egg products; eats only foods from plant sources

Here are some of the nutrients to be sure that your children are getting and vegetarian food sources they can be found in. If you are concerned about your children not getting the right nutrients, speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian. Try to make sure that you include some of these foods throughout your children’s meals everyday.

Iron Non-meat sources of iron include beans (cooked dry or canned), leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale), whole grains, iron-fortified cereals and breads, dried fruit and eggs. Plant-based iron sources are not absorbed as readily as iron from meat. Eating foods that contain vitamin C such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli or berries will help the absorption of plant sources of iron from a meal.  

Calcium This mineral is important for strong bones and vitamin D is necessary for your body to be able absorb it. Calcium is found in all dairy products and vegetarians who don’t eat dairy products need to get calcium from other sources. Certain green vegetables (broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage) naturally contain some calcium. Calcium-fortified sources include some tofu, some grain products, soy and rice beverages as well as orange juices.

Vitamin D This vitamin is often added to milk and some margarines (but not cheese or yogurt). Vegetarians who don’t eat dairy products may also lack vitamin D if they don’t get it from other food sources or are not exposed to sunlight often (the body can make vitamin D from the sun). Fortified soy and rice beverages, calcium-fortified orange juices as well as some cereals have added vitamin D.  

Vitamin B-12 This vitamin is necessary for cell division and blood formation  and is found in dairy products and eggs. Some plant-based foods that have been fortified with B-12 are cereals, breads, nutritional yeast, soy and rice beverages as well as some meat alternatives. It’s important to read labels to ensure you’re getting enough B-12. If you or your children are vegetarian or vegan, consult your health professional about a B12 supplement if you are not sure you're getting enough from your diet.

Protein Non-meat sources of protein include dairy products, soy beverages, eggs, tofu, tempeh, beans (cooked dry or canned) and nuts and nut butters.

If your child chooses to be a vegetarian, it is not only important to support them but try to have the whole family join in and enjoy vegetarian meals along with them. Here are some tips to making meatless meals for the whole family.

Make substitutions Beans can be used in place of meat in many recipes from stews, casseroles, lasagna, chili and even stir-fries. Warm up with these delicious recipes: our vegetarian chili or white bean and pasta pot with tomatoes and herbs. Add a salad and crusty whole grain bun and you have complete meal that all will enjoy.

Veggie up All you kids’ favourites like hot dogs, hamburgers, nuggets and deli slices come in vegetarian versions. There are several food companies that market these products – so don’t stop at one, try them all until you find the ones your kids like best. They are all a good source of protein and are low in fat because they don’t contain the saturated fats that meat has. Tofu, found either firm or silken can be used to make a variety of recipes. Try our tofu nuggets recipe and watch your children ask for more. Our tofu hummus tortillas make for a great school lunch.

Health Check™

Look for the Heart&Stroke Health Check™ symbol on food products when shopping and on menus when dining out. It is the only food information program in Canada based on Canada’s Food Guide and approved by the Foundation’s dietitians. It’s one important way the Foundation is helping Canadians eat well.

Posted November 2008.

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