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

  • By Melanie Pilcher and Dr. Gillian Harris Establishing bedtime routines for toddlers and young children
  • By Dr. Gillian Harris, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Applied Developmental Psychology at the University of Birmingham and ITF member Most parents will struggle at some point to get their toddlers to eat certain foods. Is toddler food refusal a sign of an eating disorder. or is it merely a phase? In the run up to Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Gill Harris provides practical advice to help parents tackle fussy eating in toddlers.  
  • By Lucy Upton, on behalf of the Infant and Toddler Forum On behalf of the members of the Infant and Toddler Forum, I am proud to announce the launch of a new infant feeding educational programme, which includes practical resources for frontline healthcare professionals (HCPs) working with parents and infants.