Introducing your family to menus that emphasize more plant foods can open up a world of possibilities for healthy and fun meals and snacks. As you explore meatless menu options, you’ll have the opportunity to sample new foods from different cultures. You’ll also discover new ways of meeting nutrient needs that can make your child’s diet even more nutritious.
Start the day with a healthful—and familiar—breakfast
Breakfast is simple if your child already likes cereal with milk. Opt for cereals that are lower in sugar and give them extra sweetness by topping with strawberries or sliced bananas. Serving cereal with Vitamin C-rich foods like orange juice can improve absorption of the iron in the cereal. This is an especially important consideration for toddlers who are at risk for iron deficiency regardless of what type of diet they eat.
If your child enjoys it, soymilk is a great choice to pour over hot or cold cereal. Some research suggests that young girls who consume soy foods have a lower lifelong risk for breast cancer.
Children also love smoothies. Make them with frozen bananas and other fruit for a nutritious treat that’s perfect for breakfast or a snack. Add silken tofu for a smoothie that’s packed with protein.
Sandwiches and more for meatless lunches
If your child takes lunch to school, invest in some BPA-free plastic containers and a couple of wide-mouth thermal jars along with a thermal lunch bag. Fill a thermos with hot soup or veggie franks and beans. Pack a selection of raw vegetables or sliced apples with hummus or other bean spreads. Hearty salads made from whole grains with chopped nuts and celery added for crunch are another healthy option. Barley, brown rice and couscous are mild-flavoured grains that many children like.
Sandwich options include baked tofu, peanut or almond butter, and veggie burgers (store-bought or homemade). Or try a no-tuna salad with mashed chickpeas combined with mayonnaise and chopped celery. Nut patés also make an appealing sandwich spread.
Kid-pleasing meatless dinners
If your child’s favourite dinner is a hamburger and French fries, then a bowl of lentil soup may not cut it. As you introduce younger family members to more meatless meals, it’s helpful to begin with dishes that are similar to what they already enjoy. Try one of these simple meals:
- Veggie burger, baked “fries,” cole slaw
- Tacos made with meatless ground “beef” and topped with chopped tomatoes and lettuce
- Macaroni and cheese (try making a cheesy sauce with soaked cashews for a healthy and delicious version of this comforting favourite), steamed broccoli, or carrots
- Pizza topped with lots of sautéed veggies
- Spaghetti and marinara sauce with veggie meatballs
- Peppers or tomatoes stuffed with a combination of brown rice, celery and walnuts
Beans and greens for children
Leafy green veggies can be excellent sources of calcium and they have a few other bone-building nutrients that your child won’t get from milk. Most kids aren’t crazy about kale, though. If you’d like to include some of these less common vegetables in your family’s meals, consider a gentle introduction. Chop cooked kale into brown rice or any grain your child enjoys. Season with a dash of cinnamon and a sprinkle of salt, and roll in a tortilla.
Ideally, as you eat less meat, you’ll eat more beans, which are among the most nutritious and health-promoting foods. But beans are relatively unfamiliar to many American adults and they’re that much more so for kids. Interestingly, though, some research shows that many children enjoy beans. The two most popular dishes are chili and baked beans.
When first introducing them to young children, consider pairing beans with something sweet. White beans like navy or cannellini beans can be combined with chopped apples or figs.
Roasted chickpeas are another fun way to get kids to eat beans. Rinse and drain canned chickpeas and then toss them with a little tamari, lemon juice and a teaspoon of maple syrup. Bake on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees Fahrenheit [204 degrees Celsius] for 20 to 30 minutes. These make a great finger food for a snack.
Canned or well-cooked navy beans can also be pureed into a sauce and served over grains or tossed with pasta for a protein-packed meal. It can take some experimenting to get children to eat beans, and it may take some time. But, while they may seem unusual to American kids, children throughout the world eat beans from infancy. An early introduction to these foods—even if it’s small amounts and only occasionally—can set your child up for lifelong eating habits that help to protect against chronic disease.
Snacktime for children
Children, especially young ones, need snacks throughout the day. Keep healthy choices on hand to make the most of these mini-meals. They can be an easy way to set your mind at ease about whether your child is getting enough protein since some favorites are protein-rich. Some good snack ideas for kids who are eating more plant foods include:
- Trail mix with almonds, pumpkin seeds and dried fruit
- Nutty fruit bites: dried fruit, nuts and peanut or almond butter blended in a food processor and rolled into bite-sized balls.
- Soy nuts
- Homemade granola bars
- Homemade pancakes made with chickpea flour for a protein boost
- Chocolate tofu pudding
- Pinwheels: mix together hummus and shredded carrots and spread over a large whole wheat tortilla. Roll it up and slice into pinwheel rounds.
Helping children shift towards a diet that’s lower in meat takes some trial and error and, of course, patience. But as you explore the options—and come up with some of your own ideas—you’ll find that there are plenty of meatless meals to please even the youngest palate.