Catering for a Vegetarian Diet

As a nation we are lucky to have such a range of food choices to meet our individual preferences. We have fantastic evidence based advice available to ensure we are meeting our nutritional requirements. This comes in the form of Public Health England’s (PHE) Eatwell Guide which supports us in making healthy choices when shopping, preparing meals or eating out.

The Eatwell Guide is suitable for the majority of individuals to follow, including people of all ethnic origins and is suitable for those following a vegetarian diet. Approximately 2% of the population in England (including adults and children) follow a vegetarian diet. Even if you are not vegetarian how about challenging yourself to go ‘Veggie’ for the whole week! There are a whole host of fantastic vegetarian recipes available for you to try.

To achieve a balance we should include a variety of foods from the four main food groups. The Eat Well Guide tells us we don’t need to achieve this balance with every meal, but try to get the balance right over a day, or even a week while choose options low in fat, salt and sugar as much as possible.

What is a vegetarian diet?

The vegetarian diet does not include eating meat, fish and poultry. However, there are different types of vegetarian diets.

The most common types include:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet: Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs. This is the most common type of vegetarian diet
  • Lacto-vegetarian diet: Eliminates meat, fish, poultry and eggs but allows dairy products
  • Ovo-vegetarian diet: Eliminates meat, fish, poultry and dairy products but allows eggs
  • Pescetarian diet: Eliminates meat and poultry but allows fish and sometimes eggs and dairy products.
  • Vegan diet: Eliminates meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products, as well as other animal-derived products, such as honey.
  • Flexitarian diet: A mostly vegetarian diet that incorporates occasional meat, fish or poultry.

People often adopt a vegetarian diet for religious or personal reasons, as well as ethical issues, such as animal rights.

Others decide to become vegetarian for environmental reasons, as livestock production increases greenhouse gas emissions, contributes to climate change and requires large amounts of water, energy and natural resources

Diet Considerations

As long as a vegetarian diet is well planned, providing a variety of cereal foods, vegetables, pulses, fruit and dairy products, it is possible for a child to get the energy and nutrients required for good health, normal growth and development.

They  need two or three portions of vegetable proteins or nuts every day to make sure they are getting enough protein and iron. Don’t give whole nuts to children under the age of five years, due to the risk of choking. Instead grind nuts finely or use smooth nut butters. Foods such as milk, cheese and eggs (if eaten) can provide protein, vitamin A, calcium and zinc, but it may be more difficult to get enough iron from a meat-free diet.

When catering for vegetarians in Early Years settings it is important to incorporate the Eat Better Start Better Guidelines 

Top tips for early years settings to achieve a balanced menu for vegetarians:

  • All main meals (lunch and tea) for vegetarian children must include a vegetarian source of protein such as soya, tofu, textured vegetable protein or Quorn, eggs, pulses or ground nuts/nut butters
  • When cooking for vegetarian children or children who exclude food items for religious or ethical reasons it is important to ensure that the food is not compromised in any way
  • It is not appropriate to pick meat out of a dish for a vegetarian child, the vegetarian dish should be prepared first with an appropriate substitute such as tofu, beans or lentils and then the meat added later for other children
  • Processed vegetarian products e.g. veggie burgers can be very high in salt and therefore these products should not be relied on as meat replacements (home-made versions would be suitable)
  • Quorn can be used as a substitute, though it should not be given more than once per week
  • Vitamin C helps to increase iron absorption from vegetarian sources of iron. Providing fruit and/or vegetables with meals will support this
  • There should be one meat free day for all children across your setting once per week
  • To ensure sufficient iron and zinc, provide meals and snacks containing good sources of these nutrients. Iron from plant sources is less well absorbed than iron from meat and fish. Vitamin C helps to increase the amount of iron absorbed from vegetables and cereals. Make sure you provide vegetables and/or fruit with meals to help to increase the absorption of iron
  • First Steps Nutrition have a range of tasty, nutritional balanced recipe ideas that you can access online. We really like their Jacket potato with vegetable chilli. It would be great if you can share any popular vegetarian recipes that you have in your setting

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