At 14 months, Felix is a great eater and for that I am very thankful. I am a big believer in Baby Led Weaning (except the name...it's just self-feeding really, but I'll cover that in more detail in another post) and I do think we have been able to lay the foundations for really positive eating habits at no great effort to us! That said, babies often start getting picky with food later on so we take things day by day and just enjoy our food.
Last time we looked at the four big essential vitamins - Omega 3, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D and Iodine - that you have to be careful to fit into a plant diet. Today I want to look at three of the core building blocks of a plant diet: protein, calcium and calories. These three elements often cause concern in people unfamiliar with the diet.
When you say your child is on a plant diet (or vegan, as most people call it) you can guarantee some stock questions. The first is "where will they get their protein?", quickly followed by "but they need dairy for calcium". Lets lay these ones to rest now.
Babies do indeed need a high protein diet as their high rate of growth is based on this. Much is made of the claim that animal foods are needed because they are complete proteins (containing all eight amino acids). However, so long as you eat enough variety and volume, the plant world offers all you need. Some of them - soy beans and quinoa - are also complete proteins.
Beans and pulses (legumes) - these are really important and all provide different amino acids, so mix them up and eat every day. Beans must be one of Felix's favourite foods and he alternates between delicately picking them up one by one, and cramming big fistfuls in his mouth at once! Beans and lentils are also an important source of calcium.
Nuts and seeds - we used ground nuts and nut butters (almond is a favourite butter) from the early days of weaning and at a year Felix also has finely chopped nuts. Never feed a young child whole nuts and read up about allergies before you decide when to start feeding peanuts.
Soy - Much is said about the pros and cons of soy, but my attitude is that soy is a really important resource for plant eaters, and a little bit of it as part of a varied diet is a good thing. We most commonly use soy milk (fortified with Vitamin D, B12 and calcium), yoghurt (also fortified) and tofutti (cream cheese, brilliant for stirring into sauces and stews). We occasionally use tofu but not very often.
Grains - these are an everyday essential, preferably at every meal. Like beans and pulses, there are so many grains to choose from you shouldn't get bored with them. The big daddy of them all - Quinoa - is not actually a grain but a seed used like a grain. It tastes great and is a complete protein so is a win-win. Toast it gently in a pan before putting in water to cook for even more flavour. Get creative too, like substituting bulgar wheat for rice in risotto.
Just remember, while wholegrain is the standard for plant diets, with young children it is important not to fill them up with too much fibre before they've had enough calories. Some processed (white) grains such as white bread and pasta are a good idea to avoid this. I make our wholemeal bread with at least 30% white flour for this reason.
Our most used grains are quinoa, bulgar wheat, rice (mostly either brown or basmati), cous cous, a mix of white and wholewheat pasta, and bread. On my list to use more are spelt and pearl barley.
The debate on just how good the calcium you get from dairy products is will rage on for as long as the dairy industry exists (and that's as political as I'm getting...) but there is a vast array of plant based foods that offer great sources of calcium. As with all things, the most important thing is to eat a wide variety and eat it everyday, especially with little toddler tummies. Breaking away from the dairy products = calcium mentality can be a challenge if you've been raised on it like I was, but I feel more comfortable now (especially with a good crib sheet) that I can give Felix what he needs. Good calcium sources include:
Blackstrap Molasses (see Full Meal Muffins for a great recipe, also brilliant for iron)
Beans and pulses (baked beans are great, also chick peas, black eyed peas and lentils)
Seeds (sesame and tahini - creamed sesame seeds - are packed with calcium, I put them in soups, sauces, bread...anything really)
Fruit (figs are particularly good so I use dried ones in baking, also oranges, raisins and apricots are good)
Vegetables (greens greens greens...such as kale, broccoli, okra)
Fortified soy products (make sure you buy fortified milk and yoghurt)
Bread (if you buy bread, check the label to see the calcium content)
Concerns about there being too few calories in a plant based diet can be genuine, but it is also easy to resolve. There are plenty of healthy energy dense foods that provide both calories and essential fats, so I make sure Felix has something from this list at least twice a day (in addition to the breast milk).
Hummus (full fat)
Nut and seed butters (i.e. almond, cashew, pumpkin seed, tahini, peanut if you are using it)
Avocado (brilliant food for young plant eaters)
Breast milk (over 50% calories from fat so it's a great idea to carry on feeding longer)
Tofu (Tofutti - soy cream cheese - is great, or just mashed tofu)
Olive, rapeseed and flax oil
Also important for keeping up energy, whatever the diet, is for babies and toddlers to eat regularly. We work on three meals a day plus at least two snacks and breast milk on top.
Please note that I am not a healthcare professional, but a mum who has done a lot of research. If you are considering changing your child's diet I recommend going to the sources direct yourself to be sure of what you are doing.
I find these sources really useful:
'Feeding your vegan infant - with confidence' by Sandra Hood (The Vegan Society - their website is great too)
'Becoming Vegan' by Brenda Davis & Vesanto Melina (American, so the recommended daily amounts can vary and tend to be higher than UK)
www.homemade-baby-food-recipes.com (loads of nutritional info)