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Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start

Eating habits are set in early childhood. Vegetarian diets give your child the chance to learn to enjoy a variety of wonderful, nutritious foods. They provide excellent nutrition for all stages of childhood, from birth through adolescence.

vegetarian babyInfants

The best food for newborns is breast-milk, and the longer your baby is breast-fed, the better. If your baby is not being breast-fed, soy formulas are a good alternative and are widely available. Do not use commercial soymilk for infants. Babies have special needs and require a soy formula that is developed especially for those needs.

Infants do not need any nourishment other than breast milk or soy formula for the first half year of life, and they should continue to receive breast milk or formula at least throughout their first 12 months. Breast-fed infants also need about two hours a week of sun exposure to make vitamin D—a great motivator for Mom to get back into a walking routine. Some infants, especially those who are dark-skinned or who live in cloudy climates, may not make adequate amounts of vitamin D. In these cases, vitamin D supplements may be necessary.

Vegetarian women who are breast-feeding should also be certain to include good sources of vitamin B12 in their diets, as intake can affect levels in breast milk. Foods fortified with cyanocobalamin, the active form of vitamin B12, can provide adequate amounts of this nutrient. A multivitamin may also be taken as directed by your doctor. Breast milk or infant formula should be used for at least the first year of your baby’s life.

At about 6 months of age, or when baby’s weight has doubled, other foods can be added to the diet. Pediatricians often recommend starting with an iron-fortified cereal because, at about 4 to 6 months, infants’ iron stores, which are naturally high at birth, begin to decrease. Add one simple new food at a time, at one- to two-week intervals.

The following guidelines provide a flexible plan for adding foods to your baby’s diet.

5 to 6 Months

  • Introduce iron-fortified infant cereal. Try rice cereal first, mixed with a little breast milk or soy formula, since it is the least likely to cause allergies. Then, offer oat or barley cereals. Most pediatricians recommend holding off on introducing wheat until the child is at least 8 months old, as it tends to be more allergenic.

6 to 8 Months

  • Introduce vegetables. They should be thoroughly cooked and mashed. Potatoes, green beans, carrots, and peas are all good choices.
  • Introduce fruits. Try mashed bananas, avocados, strained peaches, or applesauce.
  • Introduce breads. By 8 months of age, most babies can eat crackers, bread, and dry cereal.
  • Introduce protein-rich foods. Also, by about 8 months, infants can begin to eat higher protein foods like tofu or beans that have been cooked well and mashed.

Children and Teens

Children have a high calorie and nutrient need but their stomachs are small. Offer your child frequent snacks.

Teenagers often have high-energy needs and busy schedules. Keeping delicious, healthy snack choices on hand and guiding teens to make lower-fat selections when eating out will help to steer them away from dining pitfalls that often cause weight gain and health problems for adolescents.

Caloric needs vary from child to child. The following guidelines are general ones.

Food Groups

Whole Grains

  • Whole grains include breads, hot and cold cereals, pasta, cooked grains such as rice and barley, and crackers.
  • One serving equals 1/2 cup of pasta, grains, or cooked cereal, 3/4 to 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, 1/2 bun or bagel, or 1 slice of bread.


  • “Dark green vegetables” include broccoli, kale, spinach, collards, turnip, mustard and beet greens, bok choy, and Swiss chard.
  • “Other vegetables” refers to all other vegetables, fresh or frozen, raw or cooked.
  • One serving of vegetables equals 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw (unless an amount is specified).


  • Legumes include any cooked bean such as pinto, kidney, lentils, split peas, navy beans, and chickpeas, as well as soy products such as tofu, veggie burgers, soy “hot dogs” or sandwich slices, and tempeh.
  • One serving of legumes equals 1/2 cup of beans, tofu, or other item (unless an amount is specified).
  • Non-dairy milks include breast milk and soy formula for infants and toddlers, and rice-, soy-, and other vegetable-based milks for children at least 1 year of age. Choose fortified soymilk, such as Westsoy Plus, Enriched VitaSoy, or Edensoy, whenever possible, or use other fortified vegetable-based milks.
  • One serving of non-dairy milk equals 1 cup.
  • Nuts include whole or chopped nuts, nut butters, whole seeds, and seed butters.
  • One to two servings of nuts may be included in a healthy diet, but they are optional. One serving of nuts or nut butters equals 1 tablespoon.


  • Fruits include all fruits, fresh or frozen, raw or cooked, and fruit juices.
  • One serving equals 1/2 cup cooked fruit, 1/2 cup fruit juice, 1/4 cup dried fruit, or 1 piece of fruit (unless an amount is specified).

Sample Menusnus

Ages 1 to 4 years

Breakfast: Oatmeal with applesauce, calcium-fortified orange juice
Lunch: Hummus on crackers, banana, soymilk, carrot sticks
Dinner: Corn, mashed sweet potatoes, steamed kale, soymilk
Snacks: Peach, Cheerios, soymilk

Ages 5 to 6 years

Breakfast: Whole grain cereal with banana and soymilk, orange wedges
Lunch: Missing Egg Sandwich, apple juice, carrot sticks, oatmeal cookie
Dinner: Baked beans with soy “hot dog” pieces, baked potato, spinach, soymilk, fruit salad
Snacks: Trail mix, graham crackers, soymilk

Ages 7 to 12 years

Breakfast: Strawberry-banana smoothie, toast with almond butter, calcium-fortified orange juice
Lunch: Hearty Chili Mac, green salad, bread
Dinner: Steamed broccoli with nutritional yeast, steamed carrots, oven fries, Blackberry Cobbler, soymilk
Snacks: Popcorn, figs, soy “ice cream”

Ages 13 to 19 years

Breakfast: Bagel with apple butter, banana, calcium-fortified orange juice
Lunch: Bean burrito with lettuce, tomato, and guacamole, rice, baked tortilla chips, and salsa
Dinner: Braised broccoli, carrots, yellow squash, and mushrooms, spaghetti with marinara sauce, cucumber salad, soymilk
Snacks: Hummus and baby carrots, fruit smoothie, Luna or Clif Bar


Daily Meal Planning for Children and Teens

1 to 4 Years Old

5 to 6 Years Old

7 to 12 Years Old

13 to 19 Years Old

Whole Grains, Breads, Cereals

4 servings

6 servings

7 servings

10 servings

Dark Green and Other Vegetables

2 to 4 tbsp dark green vegetables 1/4 to 1/2 cup other vegetables

1/4 cup dark green vegetables 1/4 to 1/2 cup other vegetables

1 serving dark green vegetables 3 servings other vegetables


1-2 servings dark green vegetables 3 servings other vegetables

Legumes, Nuts, Seeds, and Non-Dairy Milks

1/4 to 1/2 cup legumes 3 servings breastmilk, formula, or nondairy milk

1/2 to 1 cup legumes 3 servings soymilk or other nondairy milk

2 servings legumes 3 servings soymilk or other nondairy milk

3 servings legumes 2 to 3 servings soymilk or other nondairy milk


3/4 to 1 and 1/2 cups

1 to 2 cups

3 servings

4 servings

Be sure to include a source of vitamin B12, such as any typical children’s multivitamin or vitamin-fortified cereals or soymilk.

download this booklet

Vegetarian Foods: Powerful for Health

The Three-Step Way to Go Vegetarian

Protein Myth

Tips for Making the Switch to a Vegetarian Diet

Cooking Without Eggs

Calcium in Plant-Based Diets

What About Milk?

The New Four Food Groups

Achieving and Maintaining a Healthy Weight

The Veganizer: Changing Your Regular Meals Into Low-Fat Vegan Meals

Vegetarian Diets for Pregnancy

Vegetarian Diets for Children: Right from the Start

Recipes for Health


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