The Top Protein Sources for Vegetarian & Vegan Kids

The Top Protein Sources for Vegetarian & Vegan Kids

Article By: Dominica Dieffenbach, RDN

Dominica is a Registered Dietitian and mom of 2 kiddos currently specializing in the special needs pediatric population. She has over 15 years of experience as an RD, working with a wide variety of patients to provide them with individualized medical nutrition therapy and education.

It is often a concern that a vegetarian or even vegan diet might not meet the protein requirements for a growing kiddo or teen. There are many reasons that a child or teen adopts a vegetarian or vegan diet including family or cultural beliefs, a feeding aversion to eating animal products, or simply a lifestyle they want to try to fit in with their peers. It can often be challenging to include proteins for picky eaters. Whatever the motive, a vegetarian or vegan diet can still meet all the protein needs for a growing kiddo or teen IF done properly by building meals around plant-based and also non-dairy protein sources. Because let’s face it — Twinkies and fries are vegan but definitely not nutritious!

1) What are the differences between vegetarian & vegan diets?

Though they sound similar, a vegan diet is more restrictive and avoids any type of animal protein including poultry, meat, seafood, dairy, milk, eggs, cheese, and sometimes honey. A vegetarian diet, like a vegan diet, also abstains from poultry and meat but can include some animal products like dairy, milk, eggs, cheese, honey, and sometimes seafood.

2) What is the role of protein in the body?

Proteins are involved with many systems in the body including our muscle growth and repair, organ function, and building our immune system as well as healthy hair, nails, and skin. The building blocks of proteins are called amino acids. The body needs 20 amino acids to function properly (9 of which are essential) meaning we must get them from foods — while the body can make the rest. For those avoiding animal products, planning meals and snacks to include a variety of vegetarian protein sources is key to making sure all nutritional bases are covered.

3) What are the top plant-based protein sources for kids?

Here's our list of no meat protein foods and high protein foods for picky eaters that are vegetarian or vegan.

  • Tofu and tempeh are made from soybeans and contain all 9 essential amino acids. They pack protein and antioxidants and can be used in a variety of ways including soft tofu added to pasta dishes or sandwiches and firm tofu cubed and baked and/or used in stir-fry dishes. Tempeh is a fermented soybean product with a nutty flavor that contains probiotics, used similarly to tofu.
  • Beans, peas, and lentils offer protein, fiber, folate, iron, potassium, and magnesium. Preparation of dried beans is simple in a slow or pressure cooker or on the stove. Some varieties include black-eyed peas, red lentils, garbanzo beans, adzuki beans, kidney beans, black beans, and pinto beans. Canned beans can also be used in a pinch for homemade hummus, added to soups, or even muffins:
  • Nuts and seeds provide protein, healthy fats, selenium, and vitamin E. Try raw unsalted nuts and natural nut butters without salt, sugar, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. A smear of peanut butter can be added to kids' favorite fruits or veggies (think "ants on a log" with celery), or make a homemade trail mix with a handful of nuts, sunflower seeds, and dried fruit. Chia or hemp seeds blend up great in yogurt and smoothies as well.
  • Amaranth and quinoa are ancient grains that are high in fiber, iron, manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium and can be used similarly to rice for recipes. They are a complete source of protein, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids, which is uncommon in the grain family.

Following a vegetarian or vegan diet can run the risk of nutritional deficiencies including protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 unless it is well-planned out. However, this can be challenging for picky eaters, the typical teenager, and families with busy lives.

Consider daily supplementation with the Renzo’s Picky Eater Multivitamin (it’s vegan-friendly), which contains all the necessary iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and more to support pediatric growth and development.

Renzo's Vitamins provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice.

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