Catering for Vegetarian Children in your Early Years Setting

Here in the UK, we have fantastic evidence based advice and resources to support us to eat well and meet our nutritional requirements. This comes in the form of Public Health England’s (PHE) Eatwell Guide, which aims to help us to make healthy choices when shopping, preparing meals or eating out.

To achieve a good 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 at every meal, but should try to get the balance right over the course of each day and across the week.

Is The Eatwell Guide suitable for people following a vegetarian diet?

The Eatwell Guide is suitable for the majority of people to follow, including individuals following a vegetarian diet. According to the National Diet and Nutrition survey in 2012, around 2% of adults and children are vegetarian. However, this is through to have increased in recent years.

What is a vegetarian diet?

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

The most common types include:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet: includes both dairy products and eggs- 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 often 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.

Why might someone decide to follow a vegetarian diet?

There are a number of reasons as to why someone might follow a vegetarian diet. For example, religious, personal or ethical reasons, such as animal welfare.

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

Dietary Considerations for Vegetarian Children

As long children get all they nutrients they need,  they can be brought up on a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet. It’s important that they get plenty of energy and protein, to help them grown, develop and learn. It’s also essential that children following a vegetarian or vegan diet, get enough iron, calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

Key considerations:

  • If children have a diet that doesn’t contain meat or fish (vegetarian) or without any food from animals (vegan), they’ll need to have other good sources of protein.
  • They  need two or three portions of vegetable proteins or nuts every day to make sure they are getting enough protein and iron.
  • Good protein sources include eggs, dairy products such as milk and cheese, soya products, pulses and beans, nuts and seeds.
  • However, it’s important that children under the age of five years aren’t given any whole or broken nuts, 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 also provide vitamin A, B12, iodine, calcium and zinc.

Top tips for early years setting to ensure you offer a balanced menu for vegetarian children:

  • All main meals (lunch and tea) 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’s 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 can be added later for other children
  • Processed vegetarian products e.g. veggie burgers and sausages can be high in salt, therefore these products should not be relied on as meat replacements. Instead choose high quality plant- based proteins, such as beans, pluses, lentils, tofu, etc
  • 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, so be sure to provide fruit and/or vegetables with meals and snacks
  • There should be one meat- free day for all children across your setting, once per week. So include vegetarian sources of protein on these days
  • Just because a child doesn’t eat meat or fish, doesn’t mean their meals should be repetitive or boring. There’s lots of a great places to get recipe inspiration from! Some of our favourites are:
  • Our YouTube Channel for step-by-step recipe videos, such as our tasty spiced carrot and lentil soup and our homemade Falafal with tzatziki and pitta fingers
  • First Steps Nutrition for lots of easy and delicious meal ideas for the whole family
  • Start4Life for some simple and tasty meat-free recipes.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to keep an eye out for our latest recipe creations!

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