child wants to be a vegetarian holding a broccoli

My 5-year-old asked to go plant-based: This is what we learned

Motherly Collective

Our household is no stranger to plant-based eating. My spouse and I eat “flexitarian” diets, meaning we consume mostly plant-sourced foods but make exceptions depending on environmental sustainability and health needs. However, we wanted our children to make their own decisions about whether they would eat animal products or not.

Recently, on a trip to the pet store, my 5-year-old daughter initiated a conversation about the meat industry. She saw cow hooves as a treat in the aisle and asked how the pet store got the hooves. I explained that when cows were killed for meat, the feet are sometimes used for pet products. My daughter was horrified.

“Wait, what do you mean ‘when the cows get killed?’” Even though my children knew meat came from animals, I realized then that we had never spoken about how animals get from farm to table—or in this case, the pet store.

“People who eat meat want it to come from a young, healthy animal, so they don’t get sick. For that to happen, they can’t wait for cows to die on their own.” I gently explained.

“But… you mean somebody kills them?” I nodded, and my daughter’s eyes filled with tears. I then explained that was one of the reasons I chose to avoid meat. My daughter then asked if she could stop eating meat, too. I reassured her that she could if she wanted to and would still grow up big and strong if she ate a varied and balanced diet.

I’ve experienced the benefits of eating plant-sourced foods and knew how sustainable farming could improve the environment for future generations. Still, I worried that helping my child make her own choices without a full understanding of pediatric nutrition could negatively impact her growth and wellness. I knew I would have to do more research to help support her moral decision for all of us to feel confident in this avenue.

Related: 15 vegetarian school lunch ideas kids will gobble up

If your child would like to make a similar choice, here are tips and takeaways from our experience as we support our daughter on her meat-free journey.

My child wants to be a vegetarian: 3 things I learned

1. Diversity is key

If a child is not eating meat or dairy products, they might be unable to digest minerals, vitamins and proteins from plant-sourced foods without a combination of foods.

“Variety is important because the chemical and physical properties of individual food components interact to alter our ability to digest, absorb, and release nutrients from foods. For example, vitamin C in fruits and vegetables enhances the absorption of nonheme iron from plant-sourced foods,” write the authors of one study.

In our house, we eat lots of curries and lentil stews with tomato bases and vegetables to combine acidity, protein, and mineral content. We prefer lentils over other grains and proteins because they are also one of the more sustainable meat alternatives. We try to make sure our children have plenty of options they like so they can make their own food choices and still meet their nutritional needs. Admittedly, this can be tricky with a picky eater or a child with sensory needs. Encouraging our children to at least ‘try’ a food before rejecting it—without judgment or insisting they eat all of it—has been crucial for our success.

Related: Can food influence your child’s mood? Yes, says a pediatric dietitian

2. Consult with your child’s pediatrician

My youngest daughter had a check-up not too long after she decided she would not be eating meat any longer. I told the pediatrician my daughter did not eat dairy or meat, so her pediatrician recommended we test my daughter’s iron. Sure enough, my daughter was iron deficient. We set her up with an iron supplement and upped our intake of cruciferous vegetables. A month later, my daughter’s iron levels were back to normal.

Since vitamin deficiencies can inhibit growth in children, experts recommend that vegan children and teens be regularly tested for iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids and take vitamin B12 and vitamin D supplements.

Keeping an open dialogue with your child’s doctor can help you find the support to keep your plant-based child healthy without compromising their dietary decisions. And remember, while ethical consumption and your child’s autonomy are important, consult your pediatrician to determine if it’s necessary to make adjustments according to your child’s needs.

Related: Not all protein is created equally. Here’s what to look for.

3. Trust their gut

High fiber intakes may produce greater satiety between meals, the researchers write, but it is still common to consume larger portions of vegetables in order to feel full on a plant-based diet. We have incorporated plant-based fats foods such as coconut cream and avocado to help promote satiety in our household meals.

However, my spouse and I also recognize that our daughter is still a child with limited stomach capacity. If she says she is complete, we believe her. By listening to her hunger and fullness cues rather than enforcing a strict measurement of portions, we hope she learns to care for her body and give it as much (or as little) as it needs to feel well. My daughter is thriving—physically and emotionally—and is proud of her decision to try to make the planet a better place for all living things. As a father, I am proud of her, too.


Moreno Luis A, et al. Perspective: Striking a Balance between Planetary and Human Health: Is There a Path Forward? Advances in Nutrition, vol. 13, no. 2, March. 2022, p. 355–75. EBSCOhost. doi:10.1093/advances/nmab139

Sabaté J, Wien M. Vegetarian Diets and Childhood Obesity Prevention. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 91, no. 5, May 2010, p. 1525S–9S. EBSCOhost, doi:10.3945/ajcn.2010.28701F

Warne T, et al. Sustainability Dimensions of a North American Lentil System in a Changing World. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, vol. 3, 2019, doi:10.3389/fsufs.2019.00088

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