Going vegan? Considerations for EC services

Published on Tuesday, 19 May 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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With growing interest in plant based diets, this week we spoke to Nicole Dynan, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Media Spokesperson for the Dietitian’s Association of Australia, to learn what early childhood services should consider when transitioning to a plant based or more plant based menu.

There’s so much in the media about the growing popularity of veganism for both ethical and environmental reasons, but do we know whether the number of vegans is actually increasing?

Plant-based diets are on the increase and according to findings from Roy Morgan Research, the proportion of Kiwis who say the food they eat is all, or almost all vegetarian, has grown 27 per cent since 2011.

In addition a recent article in the NZ Herald, claims NZ ranks third in the world for veganism, with more people wanting to learn about how to lead a vegan lifestyle. While the trend is firmly established with female Millennials, the general increase in interest in veganism could be for any number of reasons including concerns for animal welfare, health improvements, weight management or the desire for a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Is there evidence to support the suitability of a vegan diet for children under five years old? 

A well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet can supply all the nutrients that children need for their growth and energy needs. However, without adequate planning this can fall short in a number of areas.

As a vegan diet excludes all meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy foods – eating a varied diet is important to gain a source of Vitamins B12 and vitamin D. Eating foods with calcium, iron and zinc is also important.  

Choosing this diet type is usually a choice made by the parent/s – and for those parents seeking this option, it is recommended that they see a health professional, such as an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD), to assist with diet planning.

For infants on a diet that restricts certain foods (such as a vegan diet) it is important to ensure that parents are attending regular check-ups with their doctor or dietitian, so they can monitor the child’s growth and progress. They can flag any nutritional issues as they start rather than after they become harmful.    

Is a vegan diet appropriate for children in early childhood services?

Providing an option of a vegan diet in early childhood services may be necessary for cultural or family preference reasons. With careful planning with the help of an APD, meals offered can be nutritionally adequate for children.

What are the most important considerations for early childhood services to keep in mind if they wish to offer a vegan menu? 

Children could be at risk of malnutrition if any diet is not planned well. This is true for a vegan diet as it can be hard to get calories in. Energy, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 intakes can be at risk of being below the recommended amounts.

Also, most plant-based food are high in fibre, and too much fibre can lead to poor absorption of important nutrients like iron, zinc and calcium.

What are the main advantages for early childhood settings wanting to offer a vegan menu? 

Meeting parent dietary preference needs and being able to cater to a wider range of cultural groups.

It is a plant-based meal in their day - it is not their entire daily intake and it can help expose children to a wider variety of plants. A vegan diet may also provide more learning opportunities, for example around gardening, growing own veggies, identifying plants and so on.

Can you think of any disadvantages for early childhood services wanting to offer a vegan menu? 

As described above, if the menu is poorly planned or kids are fussy, it can be difficult to ensure they are meeting their nutrient needs.

What information should be communicated to parents?

Do a survey to gain their interest and openness to this idea before making the change.  Ensure that parents understand that vegan meals are available and optional and that they have been planned appropriately with the help of an APD.

Communicate the wide range of benefits emphasising that it will increase kids’ exposure to a greater variety of plants and that early childhood services can use this as an opportunity to reduce fussy eating and expose kids to more variety.

Early childhood services could consider implementing a vegan menu for a trial period if parents are concerned, with the opportunity for feedback and review following the trial. In addition services can offer a question and answer section in the newsletter to clarify any concerns that are regularly raised.

What would a daily menu look like for a vegan early childhood service?

As a general guide for menu planning, vegetarian and vegan meals should include a good source of protein (such as legumes, soy products – such as tofu, or nuts (if allowed under the centre policy)), a food rich in iron (such as spinach, legumes, baked beans, tofu or broccoli) and a fruit or vegetable high in vitamin C (this could include foods such as capsicum, kiwifruit, pawpaw, cauliflower, orange, mandarin, berries, cabbage, frozen mixed vegetables, broad beans, pineapple or tomato) Vitamin C is important as it helps to boost absorption of iron from plant foods.

Tips on planning for a vegan diet include:

  • Aim to include a range of protein sources throughout the day. Examples can include scrambled tofu, bean burrito bowls, hummus (with veggies sticks/ crackers as a snack), vegan burgers, soy milk etc.
  • Add sources of vitamin C to your meals and snacks. Vitamin C helps to boost absorption of iron from plant foods. You can find vitamin C in foods like citrus fruits, tomato, capsicum, and strawberries.
  • Include a serve of healthy fats – examples include a quarter of an avocado, 30g of nuts/ seeds, or olive oil/ flax seed oil
  • Some nutrients can be challenging to gain on a plant-based diet, one example is Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood cells and neurological function, however it is found naturally in animal products. Therefore, it is recommended to include vitamin B12 fortified foods (e.g. soy products, meat substitutes etc.)

Include wholegrain and white carbs in kids diets as a diet too high in fibre can fill them up too much, preventing them from getting all the nutrients they need.

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