Can My Child Be a Vegetarian? A Dietitian’s Take

written by DANA PETERS, RD
Source: Canva
Source: Canva

If one thing is predictable about children, it’s that they are unpredictable. So naturally, when you think you have something figured out, such as their eating habits, they change. One day, they will eat just about anything you put in front of them; the next, they won’t touch a growing list of foods. While this is a natural part of development, you may wonder what happens if your child stops eating animal-based foods. Can your child thrive as a vegetarian? Well, actually, yes, they can.  

Plant-based eating in all forms has been trending over the last few years, and there are a number of reasons people are embracing it, selective eaters aside. These reasons commonly include improved health outcomes, food sustainability, or ethical concerns. Others may choose to follow vegetarianism due to religious or cultural practices. Whatever the reason, parents should be aware of how to plan a well-balanced vegetarian diet for toddlers up to adolescents before embracing this eating pattern. 

Before we dive in and explore the benefits and challenges of raising a vegetarian, let’s define what this label and its variations mean. 

What does it mean to be a vegetarian?

While the term vegetarian typically means a person avoids eating animal-based foods, there are a handful of variations of the diet. Like all eating patterns, vegetarianism can be highly individualized. Here is a short list of the common vegetarian eating patterns.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian

Lacto-ovo vegetarians typically don’t eat animal products such as meat or fish, but they include dairy products and eggs in their diet. Someone may also be a lacto-vegetarian and include dairy products but not eggs or an ovo-vegetarian and include eggs but not dairy products.


A pescatarian will consume fish and seafood but generally avoids other types of meat and poultry. They may or may not eat dairy and eggs. 


Plant-based or flexitarian eaters will focus on eating a wide variety of plant foods but typically still eat animal foods on occasion. 


Vegans avoid all animal-based foods, including meat, fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs. Some vegans exclude honey as well because it is made by bees. 

can my child be a vegetarian girls cooking
Source: Shutterstock

Can my child be healthy eating a vegetarian diet?

Yes, children can grow and develop optimally while eating a vegetarian diet as long as the diet is carefully planned. However, they may need supplements to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need. Common nutrients of concern include protein, calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.

Additionally, it’s important to consider your child’s personal eating habits when deciding if vegetarianism may be appropriate for them. A more adventurous eater may have an easier time being a vegetarian as they may be more open to trying new foods. This doesn’t mean a more selective eater cannot be a vegetarian—it just might be more of a challenge.

Benefits of vegetarianism in children

A vegetarian eating pattern may offer benefits to kids (and adults!). As with any healthy eating pattern, the diet should consist mostly of minimally processed foods, including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Eating these fiber-rich foods is beneficial for gut health as well as helps to regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels. 

Other health benefits include reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Concerns of vegetarianism in children

One of the biggest concerns for a child who is vegetarian is ensuring they are getting enough calories. High-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables can be very filling for small stomachs and displace important nutrients such as protein and fat in the diet. Be sure to serve protein foods and fatty foods with most meals and snacks to prevent this. 

Watching for overly restrictive behaviors is key, too, especially for teenagers. Starting a vegetarian or vegan diet may signal the beginning of an eating disorder in some adolescents.

child eating vegetarian pasta
Source: Canva

Important nutrients for vegetarians

Some nutrients may naturally be lower in the diets of plant-based or vegetarian eaters and may need to be carefully accounted for or supplemented. If you are concerned about the nutrition in your child’s diet, talk with a dietitian or other health professional. 

These nutrients of concern include:


There are plenty of plant-based foods with protein, including nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. Just be sure to include a protein source with most meals and snacks to ensure needs are being met.

Omega-3 fatty acids 

Typically found in fish, these essential fatty acids are also found in low amounts in walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed. Omega-3s are critical for brain development and should be accounted for in a vegetarian diet. 

Vitamin B12

Unless fortified, vitamin B12 is typically only found in animal-based foods. It may be found in small amounts in nutritional yeast or fortified grains. For many plant-based eaters, this is a needed supplement. 


Iron is typically more easily absorbed from animal-based foods, but beans, leafy greens, and nuts provide plant-based sources of iron. Eat iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C to increase their absorption. It’s not recommended to supplement with iron before talking to your doctor, as too much iron can be life-threatening. 


Calcium is found easily in dairy products, but if your child does not eat them, then you need to watch out for other sources of calcium in the diet. These include dark leafy greens, broccoli, some nuts, and fortified products such as soy, almond, or other alternative milk.

Vitamin D

Sources of vitamin D in the diet are low, vegetarian or not. You will find it in mushrooms or fortified milk alternatives. However, most people do not get enough of this vitamin and will need a supplement. Get your child’s levels checked, and then decide on an appropriate dose with your health provider. 

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