Vegetarian Diets for Children

Vegetarian and vegan diets are increasing in popularity.  For adults, following a vegetarian or vegan diet is associated with lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. However, less is known about whether a vegetarian or vegan diet has the same benefits for children. Children need additional nutrients to make sure that they grow to be strong and healthy. While it is possible to get all of the nutrients a child needs following a vegetarian or vegan diet, it can be more difficult. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) agree that appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diets can be nutritionally adequate during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. However, not all vegetarian and vegan diets are created equal and what matters most is how your child eats. 

If your child is going to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is essential to check in with their pediatrician to ensure that they are growing properly and to ask them to refer you to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD or RDN) to discuss your child’s specific nutrition needs. It is also important to discuss with your child why they are interested in this way of eating. Common reasons that often come up include environmental concerns, health concerns, or they got the idea from a friend or a celebrity. For some children, this is a way to mask disordered eating patterns. They may indicate that they want to lose weight by choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet. Do not hesitate to bring these concerns to your child’s pediatrician. 

Types of vegetarian diets

While vegetarian diets broadly indicate that an individual does not eat certain animal products, there are different variations of a vegetarian diet that a child may choose to follow. It is important to discuss with your pediatrician and dietitian which type of vegetarian diet your child follows in order to ensure that they are getting all of the nutrients that they need to grow properly and stay healthy. Below are descriptions of some of the most popular types of vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: No meat included in diet. However, other animal sources such as eggs (ovo), milk (lacto), and other milk products such as cheese or yogurt are eaten.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: No meat or eggs included in diet. However, milk, and milk products are eaten
  • Pescatarian: No meat in the diet. However, fish/seafood is eaten. Eggs, milk, or milk products may or may not be eaten.
  • Vegan: No meat or other animal products such as fish, eggs, milk, or milk products are eaten. Sometimes excludes honey.

What food groups are important for a vegetarian diet?

There are six food groups for children following a vegetarian diet. Getting enough of each food group is important because each group provides different nutrients that allow your child to develop properly. Below are the different food groups, why they are important, and a list of vegetarian/vegan food sources. However, because there are multiple forms of vegetarian diets, not all sources listed will work for all vegetarian diets.

Food Group: Milk and milk products
Importance: Milk and other milk products are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D which are important to build strong bones.

  • Cow’s milk, soy milk, or other milk alternatives
  • Cheese
  • Low-fat yogurt

Note: When choosing a milk or milk alternative, it is important to think about protein content. Cow’s milk has a lot more protein than other dairy alternatives, which is important for your child to be able to grow properly.

Food Group: Protein
Importance: Protein helps kids grow and also helps them feel full and satisfied at a meal or snack.

  • Lentils and beans/legumes such as black beans, chickpeas, or kidney beans
  • Eggs
  • Dairy 
  • Nuts, seeds, or nut butters like peanut butter or almond butter
  • Soy products such as tofu or tempeh
  • Faux meat products such as vegetarian burgers or vegetarian crumbles

Food Group: Grains
Importance: Grains provide vitamins and minerals, are a great source of energy, contain some protein, and provide dietary fiber. 

  • All grains are naturally vegetarian!
  • Choose whole grains as much as possible such as whole wheat pasta, quinoa, brown rice, or whole wheat bread 

Note: In order for your child to get all of the different types of proteins they need, make sure to serve grains and beans daily, but it does not need to be at the same meal to get the benefit.

Food Group: Vegetables
Importance: Vegetables are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, and they help your child to feel full for longer. 
Sources: All vegetables are naturally vegetarian
Note: Aim to get at least 2-3 servings per day from a variety of different colored vegetables – tell your kids to eat the rainbow each day!

Food Group: Fruits
Importance: Fruits are also a great source of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, and they help your child to feel full for longer.
Sources: All fruits are naturally vegetarian
Note: Aim to include 2-3 servings per day from a variety of sources. Fruit should come from whole fresh or frozen fruit. Liquid sources such as 100% fruit juice should be limited since they don’t have the fiber found in the whole fruit and sometimes have sugar added. Dried fruits are a good source of calories for children older than 4 who need help fitting in enough nutrition during the day. 

Food Group: Fats/oils
Importance: Healthy fats are important for a growing child. They provide calories to help them grow, are required for certain vitamins to be absorbed, and help them feel full and satisfied.

  • Oils such as olive, canola, or vegetable
  • Seeds such as chia seeds, sunflower seeds, ground flax seeds
  • Nuts such as peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pistachios
  • Nut butters such as peanut butter, almond butter, or soy nut butter
  • Avocados

Note: Very young children should not eat nuts or seeds as these may be a choking hazard.

Are there any nutrients that my child may not get enough of if they are following a vegetarian diet?

While it is possible for your child to meet all of their nutritional needs on a vegetarian diet, it does take planning in order to ensure they are getting everything they need. Common nutrients that are often lacking in a child’s diet if they follow a vegetarian diet are described below. For each nutrient you can find the amount of that nutrient your child needs, food sources of that nutrient, and information on when it may be appropriate to supplement. 

Food is always preferred to provide our nutrition but, if your child is unable to meet their needs with food alone, supplementation may be appropriate. It is important to discuss your interest in supplementation with your pediatrician or dietitian prior to beginning a new supplement. 

Vitamin B12

Why children need it:

Vitamin B12 has a part in DNA synthesis and also plays a role in formation of red blood cells.

Recommended dietary allowances depends on age, sex, and pregnancy or lactation status.

Recommended Amount for each Life Stage

Birth to 6 months — 0.4 micrograms per day

Infants 7 to12 months — 0.5 micrograms per day

Children 1 to 3 years — 0.9 micrograms per day

Children 4 to 8 years — 1.2 micrograms per day

Children 9 to 13 years —1.8 micrograms per day

Teens 14 to 18 years — 2.4 micrograms per day

Adults — 2.4 micrograms per day

Pregnant teens and women — 2.6 micrograms per day

Breastfeeding teens and women — 2.8 micrograms per day

  • Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods such as:
    • Fish
    • Eggs
    • Milk and milk products
  • When to supplement: Because B12 is only found in animal products, both adults and children following a vegan diet need to supplement with vitamin B12.


Why children need it:

Iron is key for growth and development. It is a component of the protein hemoglobin, which allows red blood cells to carry oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body.

Recommended Dietary Allowances depends on age, sex, and pregnancy or lactation status:

Recommended Amount for each Life Stage

Birth to 6 months — 0.27 milligrams per day

Infants 7 to 12 months — 11 milligrams per day

Children 1 to 3 years — 7 milligrams per day

Children 4 to 8 years —10 milligrams per day

Children 9 to 13 years — 8 milligrams per day

Teens 14 to 18 years  — Girls: 15 milligrams per day;  Boys: 11 milligrams per day

Adults: Varies from 8 — 18 milligrams per day

Pregnant teens and women — 27 milligrams per day

Breastfeeding teens and women — 9 – 10 milligrams per day

Food sources:

Breakfast cereals fortified with 100% DV of iron, 1 serving, 18 milligrams per serving

White beans, 1 cup canned, 8 milligrams per serving

Lentils, ½ cup boiled and drained, 3 milligrams per serving

Spinach, ½ cup boiled and drained, 3 milligrams per serving

Tofu, firm, ½ cup 3 milligrams per serving

  • In order to increase the amount that you absorb, combine iron sources with foods high in vitamin C such as bell peppers, oranges, or strawberries. 
  • When to supplement: Children who have laboratory values indicative of anemia may need to supplement with iron under supervision from their physician 


Why children need it:

Calcium helps to build strong bones and is also stored in teeth. Calcium is needed for muscle contractions and to help with nerve signaling. 

Recommended Dietary Allowances depends on age, sex, and pregnancy or lactation status:

Recommended Amount for each Life Stage

Birth to 6 months — 200 milligrams per day

Infants 7 to 12 months — 260 milligrams per day

Children 1 to 3 years — 700 milligrams per day

Children 4 to 8 years —1,000 milligrams per day

Children 9 to 13 years — 1,300 milligrams per day

Teens 14 to 18 years — 1,300 milligrams per day

Adults - 1,000 — 1,200 milligrams per day

Pregnant teens and women — 1,000 – 1,300 milligrams per day

Breastfeeding teens and women —1,000 – 1,300 milligrams per day

Food sources:

1.5 ounces cheese — 300 milligrams per serving

1 cup yogurt — 300 milligrams per serving

1 cup cow’s milk — 300 milligrams per serving

1 cup calcium-fortified orange juice — 300 milligrams per serving

1 cup milk alternative 300 — 450 milligrams per serving

½ cup canned white beans — 95 milligrams per serving

1 ounce almonds — 75 milligrams per serving

  • Calcium absorption in the body is controlled by Vitamin D, therefore it is important to have enough Vitamin D so that the calcium you eat can be adequately absorbed in your gut. 
  • When to supplement: If your child refuses milk or milk alternatives and does not eat 3-4 servings of yogurt or cheese daily.

Vitamin D

Why children need it:

Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption and is necessary for bone growth. 

Recommended Dietary Allowances depends on age, sex, and pregnancy or lactation status:

Recommended Amount for each Life Stage

(international units (IU) /day)

Birth to 6 months — 400 IU (10 mcg)

Infants 7 to 12 months — 400 IU (10 mcg)

Children 1 to 3 years — 600 IU (15 mcg)

Children 4 to 8 years — 600 IU (15 mcg)

Children 9 to 13 years — 600 IU (15 mcg)

Teens 14 to 18 years — 600 IU (15 mcg)

Adults 600 IU — 800 IU (15 – 20 mcg)

Pregnant teens and women — 600 IU (15 mcg)

Breastfeeding teens and women — 600 IU (15 mcg)

Food sources:

(international units (IU) /day)

3 ounces cooked salmon (sockeye) — 447 IU

1 cup vitamin D fortified milk — 100 IU

1 large egg (vitamin D is in the yolk) — 41 IU

  • Few foods contain naturally-occurring vitamin D.
  • When to supplement: Most of the Vitamin D your body requires should come from the sun or a supplement. Your body will make its own vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun. A sufficient amount is 10-15 minutes of sun exposure a few days a week in the summer. During the winter, if you live in the northern United States, it is virtually impossible to get the correct amount of sun exposure to make enough vitamin D, therefore a supplement is typically recommended.


Why children need it:

Zinc is essential in many functions including protein synthesis and cell division and is therefore key for growth and development in children. 

Recommended Dietary Allowances depends on age, sex, and pregnancy or lactation status:

Recommended Amount for each Life Stage

Birth to 6 months — 2 milligrams per day

Infants 7 to 12 months — 3 milligrams per day

Children 1 to 3 years — 3 milligrams per day

Children 4 to 8 years — 5 milligrams per day

Children 9 to 13 years — 8 milligrams per day

Teens 14 to 18 years — Girls: 9 milligrams per day; Boys: 11 milligrams per day

Adults — Varies from 8 - 11 milligrams per day

Pregnant teens and women — 11 – 12 milligrams per day

Breastfeeding teens and women — 12 – 13 milligrams per day

Food sources:

¾ cup breakfast cereal, fortified with 25% of the daily value (DV) for zinc, 3.8 milligrams per serving

½ cup vegetarian canned baked beans, 2.9 milligrams per serving

½ cup cooked chickpeas, 1.3 milligrams per serving

1 cup milk, 1 milligram per serving

½ cup cooked green peas from frozen, 0.5 milligrams per serving

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Why children need it:

Omega 3s are important for cognitive development, cell membranes, and providing energy for the body.  Our bodies cannot produce Omega-3s, so we must get it from our diet.

  • There are several different types of Omega-3s. There is ALA, which is found in plants, and EPA and DHA, which are found in fish.
  • To use Omega-3s, our bodies convert ALA to EPA or DHA. This conversion is not very efficient, so we must make sure to get adequate amounts of EPA and
  • Sources of Omega-3s:
      • Flaxseed oil
      • Chia seeds
      • Walnuts
      • Salmon
      • Herring
      • Fortified
  • Many fortified foods exist on the market today.  If a product, like eggs, says it contains omega-3s, this likely means the chickens were fed flaxseeds or another plant source.  Products that contain ALA will always be from a plant source.  Products with DHA or EPA may come from a fish or algae source.
  • For pescatarians, eating fish is the best choice for getting enough Omega-3s.  Eating fish twice a week is generally adequate to meet Omega-3 needs.
  • For vegans or non-fish eaters, consider a dietary supplement.
  • When to Supplement:  If your child is vegan or if your child is choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet and has somewhat selective eating habits.  In this case, consider a children’s multivitamin.

Sample meal and snack ideas

Following are some meal and snack ideas for children on a vegetarian and/or vegan diet.
Aim for three meals and 2-3 snacks each day.


  • Oatmeal made with milk or milk alternative and add nuts, cut-up fruit and cinnamon for additional flavor.
  • Whole grain cereal with milk or milk alternative and add fruit on the cereal or on the side.
  • Whole grain waffles, pancakes, or whole wheat bread topped with peanut butter or other nut butter. Serve milk or milk alternative and/or fruit on the side.
  • Yogurt with cereal or granola and fresh or frozen berries.


  • Peanut butter and banana in a whole wheat wrap. Add fresh vegetables on the side and a glass of milk or milk alternative.
  • Cold salad with whole grain like quinoa, beans such as lentils, diced vegetables and salad dressing. Serve with a fruit and milk or milk alternative on the side.
  • Whole grain pita bread stuffed with hummus, vegetables, or slice of cheese. Serve with fruit on the side. 


  • Whole wheat pasta or bean pasta with favorite tomato sauce or pesto. Add green peas or white beans. Serve with a side salad and a glass of milk or milk alternative.
  • Stir fry tofu or tempeh with vegetables and serve atop brown rice. Enjoy a fruit and yogurt parfait for dessert.
  • Taco bar:  Serve beans as a meat alternative, include your favorite toppings such as salsa, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, etc. Serve on corn or whole wheat tortillas. Serve cut-up melon on the side.
  • Use whole wheat premade pizza crust or flat bread to make personal pizzas. Add tomato sauce or pesto, cheese, and a variety of vegetables. Serve with a side salad (add chickpeas) and a fruit. 

Snack ideas:

  • Apple with peanut butter
  • Yogurt with berries and granola
  • Cheese and fruit or vegetable skewers
  • Graham crackers and peanut butter
  • Whole wheat crackers with cheese
  • Hummus or bean dip with vegetables
  • Popcorn with sprinkled parmesan cheese
  • Trail mix with nuts and dried fruits
  • Smoothie made with 1 cup of milk or milk alternative and 1 cup of frozen fruit

Recipe websites:


  • The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook: A Fresh Guide to Eating Well with 700 Foolproof Recipes by America’s Test Kitchen
  • How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman
  • Living Vegetarian for Dummies by Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD
  • Moosewood Restaurant Favorites: The 250 Most-Requested, Naturally Delicious Recipes from One of America's Best-Loved Restaurants by The Moosewood Collective
  • Quick-Fix Vegan: Healthy, Homestyle Meals in 30 Minutes or Less by Robin Robertson
  • Student's Vegetarian Cookbook, Revised: Quick, Easy, Cheap, and Tasty Vegetarian Recipes by Carole Raymond
  • Vegan for Everybody by America’s Test Kitchen

Written by Erin Scarlett MPH, RD, Nicole Urdahl, MPH, Natalie Manitius, MPH, Samantha Hahn, MPH, and Kelly Borton, MPH

Updated December 2020