Plant-based diets: achieving a healthy balance for toddlers!

Lucy Upton, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian and Nutritionist


Vegetarian and vegan diets have become increasingly popular over the past few years, with more and more parents raising their children on a plant-based diet. Toddlers have high-energy needs and small stomachs, so it is important parents know how to ensure their child gets all the nutrients needed for healthy growth and development. The Infant & Toddler Forum are here to help with practical tips and advice for parents considering a vegetarian or vegan diet for their toddler.

  • Pay close attention to foods or food groups that need to be substituted in the diet – you may need to ensure you top up energy, protein and/or certain vitamins and minerals
  • Try combining lower fat, higher fibre foods, such as vegetables, with higher energy foods, like falafel, beans/lentils, dairy or eggs (vegetarian), nut or seed based products
  • Increase the energy content of foods by using nut butters, avocado, full fat dairy products, fat spreads and oils to meet your toddler’s energy needs
  • Fortified foods for example cereals, breads and plant-based milks can be helpful to include in your toddler’s diet to contribute to daily vitamin and mineral intake
  • Give your child regular meals and snacks whilst encouraging them to eat a wide variety of foods. We recommend serving them three meals and two nutritious snacks a day
  • Variety is key! Plan your meals to ensure your toddler is getting foods from all the food groups and the right nutrients to help them grow and develop

To make sure your child gets a healthy balance, key nutrients to include in their diet are:

  • Protein rich foods such as eggs, beans, chickpeas, lentils, soya products e.g. tofu, quornTM, seeds and nuts (these should be ground or chopped nuts or nut butters due to the risk of choking). Aim to include these in at least 2-3 meals/snacks daily
  • Iron to prevent anaemia. Iron is readily found in beans, chickpeas and lentils, seeds and nuts, dark green vegetables, wholegrains like wholemeal bread and brown rice, fortified cereals and dried fruit such as apricots, figs and prunes. Plant-based sources of iron (called ‘non-haem iron’) can be more difficult for the body to absorb than iron from meat sources. Try to include foods high in vitamin C at mealtimes as this improves iron absorption
  • Vitamin B12 is found predominantly in animal-based sources. In a vegetarian diet, foods rich in B12 would include eggs and dairy produce. For vegan toddlers however, foods fortified with B12 should be included in the diet e.g. breakfast cereals, plant-based milk alternatives such as soya, oat, coconut products. Yeast extract, for example MarmiteTM, or yeast flakes can also be a helpful source, just watch the salt content! A vitamin B12 supplement is often recommended
  • Calcium is essential for bone health. Whilst on a vegetarian diet, calcium can be consumed more easily from dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt). Other plant-based sources that would suit a vegan diet are pulses (such as beans, lentils and chickpeas), calcium fortified milk alternatives, tahini, almond butter, calcium-set tofu, dried figs, bread and green leafy vegetables
  • Vitamin D is another important nutrient for healthy bones. There are few foods naturally rich in vitamin D, with sunshine being key for vitamin D production. It is recommended that toddlers take a vitamin D supplement daily. For more information, read our guidance and tips on Preventing Vitamin D Deficiency in Toddlers
  • Iodine can be lacking in plant-based diets that do not contain dairy produce. If this is the case for your toddler, look for plant-based milks fortified with iodine or consider supplementation in discussion with a health professional
  • Omega 3 rich foods are important to include in a balanced toddler diet. These are normally best consumed from oily fish (salmon, mackerel), but plant-based options would include rapeseed/flaxseed oils, walnuts (ground), soya beans and ground/milled flaxseeds

Remember, if you are going to place your child on a vegetarian or vegan diet it is a good idea to seek dietary advice from a healthcare professional. 

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Further Reading

  • Katie Fox, Primary School Teacher   Due to coronavirus, playgroups and nurseries are shut and those children due to start school in a few months will be out of routine and away from friends. It is understandable that many parents are worried about getting their children ready for September. Children learn and progress at different rates so there are no set criteria on what they need to be able to know or do when they first start nursery, but if they have had some experience learning at home it could help to make it a smoother transition. Turn taking games, imaginative play, reading, and developing fine and gross motor skills can promote independence, build confidence and help develop simple skills.
  • Dr Gill Harris, Consultant Paediatric Clinical Psychologist Dr Maddy Harris, Clinical Psychologist   In times of crisis – such as the one we are currently living in – parents may find that the normal stresses of everyday life are magnified and additional worries and concerns emerge. Knowing how to cope may prove difficult, but an approach which has widely been discussed in the media and on social media is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).The premise of ACT is that fears and anxieties are seen as real and cannot be ‘challenged’ away, unlike with cognitive behavioural therapy. By concentrating on our actions we are able to work past our fears. This method may help those struggling with this new chaotic routine we find ourselves in. The Infant & Toddler Forum are here to help with our top tips on how to apply this intervention.
  • Lucy Upton, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian and Nutritionist   As social distancing policies are put in place, and schools and nurseries shut their doors indefinitely, keeping your toddlers entertained and active for hours on end during COVID-19 may seem daunting and at times virtually impossible! Parents and carers have been thrown into a cozy and chaotic ‘new normal’ and may wonder how they can meet the recommended three hours a day of physical activity for under-fives who are walking. But do not panic, the Infant & Toddler Forum are here to help make sure you have plenty of ideas to keep your toddler happy and entertained whilst encouraging physical activity.