Making a vegan diet nourishing for kids By Louise Palmer-Masterton, Stem & Glory
Perhaps it was Money Heist’s fault—if there had been another season ready to binge, you’d never have clicked on Seaspiracy. Or perhaps David Attenborough has convinced you that gravitas beats gravy. Or perhaps the recent clustercluck over the sourcing of supermarket eggs was too much. Whatever the reason, if you’re considering switching to a plant-based diet, you may be worried about nutrition, especially where your children are concerned.
You will often read about concerns of deficiency in the vegan diet, especially with regard to protein. But the truth is that protein deficiency is rarely seen in affluent populations, and generally only seen in populations where ALL food is scarce. Simply put, where food is abundant, all people, regardless of their dietary choices, will be getting more than enough protein.
Animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, making them complete protein. A lot of talk about getting the full spectrum of these amino acids is generally misunderstood, because it is not actually necessary to eat one food that contains everything. You can combine foods to provide a complete protein. And the chances are that you have experienced a couple of these magical combinations already: beans on toast and a peanut butter sandwich.
There are a few plant-based foods that are ‘complete’ proteins on their own (i.e. contain the full spectrum amino acids) and they include tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and chia seeds. Some of these are a bit of an acquired taste; quinoa for example needs a bit of hiding in a tasty-flavoured sauce. But my kids always did well with edamame beans, scrambled tofu and fresh fruit chia pudding.
But rather than focus on just these foods, your protein repertoire can expand massively by combining vegan proteins from different sources (like the hummus and pitta example above) which alone are not complete, both together magically provide a complete protein.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that 100g of wholemeal bread contains 13g of protein, which is more than in 100g of egg, and all vegetables do have a protein component. A diet rich in vegetables can make a significant contribution to your daily nutritional needs, including protein.
Both brown and white rice when combined with beans or lentils give a complete protein. And there are literally millions of recipes out there containing beans or lentils, rice (or other grains) and vegetables. Just about every continent on the planet has a version of this cuisine.
But what about children who haven’t moved on to solid foods?
Best for babies
The best possible start in life for your baby is breastfeeding, and for you to eat a healthy and balanced diet whilst feeding. It’s wise for this reason that you continue to take a pregnancy safe vitamin supplement. That will pass on the best possible nutrition to your child. Don’t be in a hurry to stop breastfeeding. There are no vegan baby formula milk products currently in the UK market, although they will no doubt emerge in the not-too-distant future. Do not be tempted to give your infant plant-based milk substitutes, as they will not have the nutrition your child needs (same goes for feeding an infant plain cow’s milk).
Every child is different when it comes to weaning, my eldest breastfed until more than two years old, and the Vegan Society advice is to continue breastfeeding until your child is two years old if possible. My youngest however stopped the minute they discovered proper food at 10 months, so don’t beat yourself up if your child doesn’t seem to want to keep breastfeeding. If you do stop breastfeeding before two years, you will need to pay special attention to a good balance of nutrition, minerals and vitamins. If this is the case, and you are worried about this, consider fortified baby foods such as baby cereal.
Both my children were weaned first on blended banana and avocado, which is a legend in our house (try it!), and graduated to blended lentils and vegetables, thick soups and baby versions of what we were eating. It’s sensible to pay attention to a vegetable protein component at each meal, for example lentils, beans or quinoa along with vegetables and healthy fats. Babies can eat nuts and seeds, but only if ground or completely blended.
Some babies will let you know when they want food – they may even start grabbing it from your hands! I would definitely allow this. My second child just had what she wanted from what we were eating, and it was a lot easier.
B12 is important
With regard to vitamin B12 which all vegans should be mindful of, there are a number of fortified foods to consider as your child starts to eat more and breastfeed less.
The best possible thing you can do with regard to young children and B12 is get them to fall in love with Marmite (yeast extract is also good). A go to snack of toast and marmite will contain plenty of B12. We also use marmite in many savoury dishes – soups, stews and the best vegan gravy ever. My children are Marmite lovers to this day. We also use Engevita flakes as a cheese substitute, sprinkled on pasta and in many sauces. Engevita is super charged with B12.
I’d also recommend getting your children to fall in love with hummus as young as possible. Hummus is one of those super nutritious super available superfoods, and served with pitta and carrot and cucumber sticks is a winner with most children. Served together in this way, hummus and pitta is what’s called a complete protein – between them, pitta and hummus contain the full spectrum of amino acids that you need.
What about your favourites?
Veganising a traditional dish is usually easy as long as you replicate the key flavours. For example, for an Alfredo pasta dish, use a generous slug of olive oil and soy cream to give it creaminess. Finely chopped and sweated shallots and garlic ives it a sweetness. The other flavours are onion powder, Engevita flakes (remember, loaded with B12), vegetable stock powder, a little lemon juice and generous salt and pepper. We serve ours with tagliatelle and garlic bread. It’s all about making favourite dishes as balanced and tasty as possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning restaurants Stem & Glory; hip and trendy but accessible plant-based restaurants, serving delicious gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredients. Stem & Glory also offers click-and-collect and local delivery in London and Cambridge. In addition, Stem & Glory offers a range of ready meals, finish at home pizzas, and recipe kits available for delivery across the UK. www.stemandglory.uk www.stemandglory.uk