Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of life and can provide the nutrients your baby needs for healthy growth and development. Before the age of 6 months, breast or formula milk provides the most important source of nutrition for your baby. Whilst the principles of weaning are the same for vegetarian as non-vegetarian infants, it is important to consider other sources of nutrients that would be provided by meat or fish to ensure that nutritional needs are met.
As babies are growing rapidly, it is important that their diet provides a good source of protein. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which are essential as the body can’t make them itself. Animal proteins contain the complete mix of essential amino acids whilst most plant proteins provide some in different combinations. Therefore it is important to include a variety of plant proteins in your baby’s diet to ensure they receive the correct balance of amino acids. The exception includes soya, quinoa and hemp which are plant foods containing all essential amino acids.
Vegetarian sources of protein include:
- Pulses such as beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Full fat milk and dairy products
- Nuts and seeds
- Grains and cereals
- Soya and soya products such as tofu
Babies will need two or three portions of vegetable proteins or nuts per day to ensure they get enough protein.
Try out our recipe for courgette pizzas here!
Babies are born with their own store of iron but this will become depleted by 6 months. Vegetarian diets can be lower in iron as it is less easily absorbed from non-animal sources, but there are various plant food sources which include:
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Dried fruit such as apricots, figs and prunes
- Bean and lentils
- Dark green leafy vegetables
Avoid cereals that are high in fibre such as wholemeal varieties as these will inhibit iron absorption. Vitamin C aids absorption of iron from plant foods so try to include this by giving fruit or vegetables in the same meal.
Vitamin D is made by the action of sunlight on the skin but can also be obtained from dairy products, eggs and fortified foods like margarines and some cereals. It is often advised to take a vitamin D supplement particularly if there is little exposure to sunlight.
Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in foods of animal origin. Vegetarian babies should obtain enough of this vitamin from eggs and dairy products. The nutrient is also obtained from fortified foods such as soya products, yeast extract, breakfast cereals.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Getting a good quality source of fat into your baby’s diet is important. There are three omega-3 fatty acids to include in your baby’s diet:
- ALA: found in a wide range of foods such as vegetable oils linseed, flaxseed, walnut, rapeseed and soya oiln
- EPA: found mainly in oily fish
- DHA: found mainly in fish and seaweed
EPA and DHA are thought to have more benefits than ALA. Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel is a wonderful source of the good omega-3 fatty acids for your baby (when preparing, watch out for bones).
Energy density and fibre
Vegetarian diets are likely to provide less energy and be higher in fibre than non-vegetarian diets. Babies do not have the capacity to eat large quantities of food so bulky diets high in fibre will fill a child up before their nutritional needs have been met. Therefore, their diet should be made up of a variety of energy dense foods in small, more frequent meals.