I'd kill for her
August 16, 2012 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Vegetarian parenting, infant edition.

My wife has been a vegetarian since she was 12, and I've been a vegetarian since I was 18. (We eat dairy and eggs but no fish or poultry.) We're both almost 33 now.

We have a five-month-old daughter who is on the cusp of eating solid foods. We're looking for

* scientific studies about the effects of vegetarian and near-vegetarian diets on young children;
* reliable, trustworthy guides on infant nutrition that are geared towards vegetarian parents;
* specific alternatives to meat for infants;
* some guidance about what sort of meat, if any, we should give our daughter if we decide to go that route;
* other people's experiences with this issue.

Our overriding interest is in making sure she has the proper nutrition.

As a secondary interest, it is important to me (though rather less important to my wife) to preserve her ability to eat meat when she is an adult if she chooses to do so, by making sure she has and retains the necessary enzymes to digest it.

We are not going to eat meat ourselves, and frankly I would expect we will be giving her the absolute minimum quantity of meat required to achieve the first and maybe the second of these goals.

Thanks so much for your help!
posted by gerryblog to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
An acquaintance of mine, someone whose intelligence I respect, wrote a book on vegetarian babies more than 30 yrs ago. I see she's got a new edition of it here.
posted by mareli at 9:38 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really don't want this to sound like a snarky answer---and I realize that MeFi is full of very intelligent, very fabulous people, but at the end of the day it's still a semi-anonymous community weblog. That said, my answer:

Ideally you take her to a pediatrician whom you trust and like. If not, find a new one ASAP. Make an appointment to discuss these issues with your pediatrician and/or request a referral to a dietitian who is an expert in such matters. As a young parent, you'll be bombarded with 500 different "professional" and "from a study" opinions about what you should and should not do (OMG NO CEREAL FOR A YEAR! OMG CEREAL FROM 5 WEEKS! OMG NO CEREAL EVER. RAW Vegetables only, steamed vegetables only, GREEN vegetables only. Non-cured meats only, non GROUND meats only, LEAN meats only, FATTY meats only, NO FISH, LOTS of fish, etc.) These are all things that have been told to us (Mini Melee is 20 months old now).

TL;DR--Trust YOUR pediatrician over a bunch of folks on MeFi.
posted by TomMelee at 9:41 AM on August 16, 2012 [11 favorites]

Google scholar is your friend here. For example the abstract here (albeit from 1988) says lactoovovegetarianism is more likely to give a child satisfactory nutrition (compared to veganism). Another points out that rickets is a danger because of lack of vitamin D. There's a lot you'd have to wade through, but there a are a ton of scholarly articles on the subject.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:51 AM on August 16, 2012

I don't know the answer since I'm not vegetarian, but I wanted to disagree strongly with the suggestion to consult a pediatrician on this. My own experience with pediatricians is that not all of them are up to speed on the latest research and information on eating (its not their specialist area anyway, they are medical doctors) and they often replace expertise with personal opinions on things that fall outside of their core area. This is not meant as a dig at pediatricans at all, they are great and I love my pediatrician. Registered dieticians (NOT a nutritionist, anyone can call themselves that) are much more qualified, but again with the caveat that they are not always up to speed on the latest and greatest research, and not always experts in the areas of pediatric nutrition.

Honestly, I would recommend you do what you are doing - gather a bunch of research and informed opinions, weight them all, and do what seems like the best to you. This is my advice for pretty much every parenting topic.

Anecdotally I have several vegetarian friends who have brought up healthy vegetarian children, who occasionally eat meat when their parents aren't there, with no ill effect.
posted by Joh at 9:51 AM on August 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to head that off, yes we have a pediatrician we like and yes we're talking to him. We want a panopoly of perspectives.
posted by gerryblog at 9:57 AM on August 16, 2012

The American Dietetic Association says (summary here, fulltext here (PDF))
Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes
The fulltext gives a good summary of the relevant health issues and includes a section on infant health.
posted by beerbajay at 10:00 AM on August 16, 2012

As a secondary interest, it is important to me (though rather less important to my wife) to preserve her ability to eat meat when she is an adult if she chooses to do so, by making sure she has and retains the necessary enzymes to digest it.

Meat is protein and fat. There aren't enzymes specific to meat protein versus vegetable protein. If you don't eat meat, you may have a lowered amount of those enzymes, but they don't go away. All it takes to increase the production of the enzymes is to start eating a lot more concentrated protein and fat. To avoid feeling bloated, vegetarians changing their diet can start eating small amounts of low-fat animal protein. However if you eat eggs regularly, you're pretty much already doing this. Eggs are complete proteins.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:11 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hi, vegetarian from birth, daughter of a vegetarian, and, now, mother of a young vegetarian, here... You'll all be fine.

Trust YOUR pediatrician

Yes, for medical issues -- I would certainly not count on a doctor being well-trained in nutrition, though. See a registered dietician if you want to consult a food specialist (which you do not need to do), but a pediatrician...?

Searching for "vegetarian children" on Google Scholar will turn up a number of studies. Short version: there are good and bad vegetarian and non-vegetarian ways to eat; mind iron intake; very little to worry about if not vegan. (Beware of bad advice from people who confuse vegetarian with vegan.)

The minimum quantity of meat required to ensure good nutrition is no meat. Making the default not meat instead of choosing meat for your child is not that rare or radical a thing; I mean this kindly: you are overthinking this; definitely relax.

I do not understand your ideas about enzymes and "preserving her ability to eat meat." Unscientific nonsense. If you are want anecdata, my three siblings all eventually transitioned out of vegetarianism to one degree or another without issue.

Over the years I have looked at many books written for vegetarian parents; I have never read one that was useful. You already know how to feed yourself, thus, you know how to feed your child. There are not "specific alternatives to meat for infants" anymore than there are for teen-agers or the elderly. Do be aware that old recommendations to delay the introduction of potentially allergenic food are now out of date; delaying peanut introduction was found to be associated with an increased risk of peanut allergy (see for example). Eggs and nuts and whatever other meat alternatives your family enjoys are tickety-boo for your baby. (Also have a read through Experts seek to debunk baby food myths) Google "baby-led weaning" for a good method of solids introduction (outline).

Social aspects of this depend a bit on geography. It is certainly easier to have a vegetarian child now than it was when I was a vegetarian child -- nobody needs an explanation of what "vegetarian" is (okay, there are folks who are confused over vegetarian/pescetarian/vegan, but, the general idea is out there), but your daughter will likely deal with birthday parties where she is served a plain bun in lieu of the burger, or school events where a well-meaning teacher gives her a fish stick, or whatever. Shoot for raising a self-confident child who's proud of her diet (albeit not to the point of finding it superior to others') and doesn't feel awkward explaining that she doesn't eat meat.

There are a few children's books about being vegetarian but I can't say I would recommend any with much enthusiasm. I would avoid making too big a deal about it -- it is just something your family does. Be honest and open about your own personal reasons for being vegetarian when asked, don't sugar-coat, but stress that choosing to eat meat is a choice made by millions; don't provoke unnecessary worry about the ethics of young friends, Grandpa, etc.

As for criticisms from others, don't overthink that; this sort of thing should be a personal choice, and there is no reason that the default choice from birth should be: eat meat. I am very grateful to have not been fed meat when young.

I never wanted to try meat and my 5yo hasn't either, so I've never dealt with the 'when is the kid old enough to make an informed choice' issue, but I think you will know in your heart whether she's old enough if that day comes.
posted by kmennie at 10:11 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hello! My wife and I are both vegetarian and have been raising our son as a vegetarian for almost 2 years. He looks pretty damn great on it :-)

From what I can gather, there are a couple of things you're in danger of your daughter missing out on. One is vitamin B12, the other is Omega 3 oils. B12 is easy enough to sort out with things like Marmite (or another yeast extract), but Omega 3 is pretty tricky to get from any other source than animal products. I think eggs have some, cheese too (maybe)... but not much, and it's vital to the development of the brain and the eyes (from memory, possibly also other things). Fish oil supplements are one way to get it, but you can also get little vegetarian capsules filled with oil derived from algae. They're expensive, but they make you feel better. Some books say you can use ground flax seed or oils derived from flax, but it's apparently that only gives you Omega 6, which your body then has to break down and reconstitute into Omega 3s - not a very efficient process.

My wife found Liz Cook's Wallchart to be a very useful guide to which nutrients occur in which foods.

All that said, I would urge you to ignore "nutrition" as much as possible, in favour of cooking and eating delicious food together as a family. My son loves dhal, egg-fried rice, all sorts of pancakes, cous cous and so on and so on. Get some kids / family cookery books and enjoy!

And if you fancy a laugh, try baby-led weaning...

Good luck!

I miss salt.
posted by ZipRibbons at 10:45 AM on August 16, 2012

A bit of personal anecdata here. My sister and I grew up with a vegetarian dad and non-veg mom. Meat was eaten only very occasionally (once/twice a month, the odd fast-food every now and then), and it was white meat 99% of the time. I grew up perfectly healthy, scarless, and very happy. My sister stayed non-vegetarian and I became vegetarian.
If your daughter wants to eat meat, let her; if she doesn't, don't let anyone force her. Simple as.

It's just like any other diet - as long as you make sure it's healthy and well-balanced (getting all the necessary proteins, vitamins, etc.) you'll be A-OK.
posted by krakus at 10:51 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I prepared my own (pureed) baby food for about a year and it was much more challenging to find sensible tasty ways to include meat in the baby's diet than it was to just not. For quite a while your baby will be getting her nutritional needs met almost entirely by formula or breastmilk.
posted by bq at 11:08 AM on August 16, 2012

We want a panopoly of perspectives.

Though personally non vegetarian, I was born in a 'pure vegetarian' extended Indian family of unusually large size. On a balanced vegetarian diet, babies grow up healthy. One option might be find an Indian nutritionist or doctor who might be able to answer your questions from an entirely different perspective altogether.
posted by infini at 11:17 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've found that the guides at Wholesome Baby Food are really awesome for being truthful, informative, and embracing of the extremely varied needs and realities of babies.
posted by batmonkey at 1:40 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

We are not vegetarians, but we rarely eat meat at home and our baby just doesn't seem to like it. (He's a very late teether-- almost 13 months and no teeth, and our ped suggests that it might be just too tough to chew.)

Here is the protein we feed him our practically-vegetarian:

-- lots of cheese
-- lots of beans
-- some protein enriched pasta
-- occasional tofu (I feel kind of iffy about a lot of soy right now)
-- occasional eggs

The bonus to this stuff is that it's great, easy finger food. Easier for us to prepare, and easier for him to eat. Our pediatrician is totally fine with no meat for our baby. Obviously we aren't as worried about long term deficits, since he'll figure out meat eventually, but as an infant, it's more about learning how to eat and learning to enjoy eating. Only now that he's past a year and off breastmilk/formula do we really have to start worrying about balancing his diet.

Wholesome Baby Food is my first stop when I have what-to-feed-him questions.
posted by that's how you get ants at 5:35 PM on August 16, 2012

Just keep in mind that your baby needs way more fat and protein than you do

Yes, this is very important. It sounds like you're quite a bit more sophisticated than this, but I have a vegetarian family member who thinks meat is "bad for you" because there's "so much fat" and from a very young age (maybe 8 months?), fed her first child basically only two things: jarred baby-food vegetables and fruits, and bottles of skim cow's milk. It's my understanding that cholesterol is really important for infants' and toddlers' brain development. He is not neurotypical, which may well be a coincidence, but it can't have helped, either, to have him on such an unusual diet so early in life.

I try to think about the composition of breastmilk when deciding which foods to rely on heavily once my kids wean: it is especially rich in fat and cholesterol. I think eggs are a wonderful food for babies, and they are so easy to make and to eat.

I guess the main thing I'm saying is that it's important to jettison any sense that there are evils-by-association to meat (saturated fat! cholesterol!) when feeding a small child, even if you feel this is an added benefit of a vegetarian diet for adults. For small children, it's important to try to make sure they're getting the very things that are currently considered unhealthy for adults.
posted by palliser at 7:26 PM on August 16, 2012

I am a vegetarian since childhood, and my 16-month-old is so far vegetarian. She is under the care of a paediatric dietician (who is very happy with her diet and progress) as she was premature, had gastroschisis requiring abdominal surgery at birth, and was very low birthweight. She is now absolutely fine, if still a little small.

We started off with mashed banana at five and half months, and quickly progressed to other soft fruits, avocados, mashed roasted vegetables and then dhal at six and a half months. She was late with her teeth and didn't have any by this point. The dhal I make by sauteeing lots of different vegetables in oil with chopped garlic, ginger and just a little bit of spice (cumin, ground coriander and cinnamon), then adding tinned tomatoes and red lentils and a bit of water, then let simmer for 20 mins or so until most of the water is gone, then cool and blend. Then stir in a lot of butter until it melts. My daughter LOVED this from day one, and still loves it now I add cooked rice for texture (plus blending it a little chunkier) and a bit of chilli.

From there we moved onto: blended vegetables and puy lentils with different herbs, small pasta shapes with blended tomato/ vegetable sauce and occasionally some quorn or soy mince (not much though as it is low fat and my daughter needs lots of calories), bean chili with lots of different blended vegetables, vegetable bake with cheese sauce, haricot beans cooked in cream with blended vegetables and sometimes just a plate of salad (tiny chopped cucumber, tomato, cheese, celery, carrot and a chopped hardboiled egg). During this time I added lots of butter to everything I cooked for her, to ensure she was getting enough calories. And yoghurt - lots of full fat, organic yoghurt, both plain and fruit (this is the brand we get with our fruit and veg box each week). Snacks were fruit (fresh and dried), cherry tomatoes, breadsticks, olives, cheese, toast, peanut/ cashew/ almond butter (you may need to be careful of this, we didn't have to be)...

Now she pretty much eats what we eat, and a lot of it. The one thing I regret is not giving her a try of commercial baby food BEFORE we went on holidays - she has never eaten it and wouldn't as it is generally very bland compared to the range of flavours I feed her, and on holidays at eight months it was a real pain). She also started refusing the breast after a couple of weeks on solid foods (which was more sad for me, I think) and refused formula a couple of weeks after tasting cow's milk for the first time, so she is on daily vitamin drops (for vitamin D as much as anything else). I also still try to maximise her calories as she is only 25th percentile, and so damn active she burns them faster than she can take them in, so she gets lots of butter and oil.

Good luck! You will get lots of people commenting on your choice to raise her vegetarian, but if she is healthy and happy and meeting all her developmental milestones you can happily tell them to sod off.
posted by goo at 1:26 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

People forget that there are cultures that are and raise their children totally vegan, and they're all fine. There's no need, beyond breast milk (or equivalent) during the early years, for even darin in one's diet. We're all just used to the "western" diet due to subsidies making meat and dairy cheap and advertising normaling their consumption. There is increasing evidence that meat and dairy consumption are,linked with higher cancer and heart disease rates (among other things). And it's pretty clear that the factory farming practices to provide cheap meat and dairy to us all,is unsustainable from a health and environmental perspective.

So, don't really worry about,it. You can easily raise a healthy vegetarian or,vegan baby / child / self. Eat a wide variety of foods. Talk to your doctor. Take a b vitamin regularly.
posted by reddot at 5:10 PM on August 17, 2012

« Older Complex market research project needs hope   |   Underground Uppsala? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.