Nutrients for vegetarian babies

What you need to know about essential nutrients and meat substitute products.

Baby eating

Iron

Although iron is less easily absorbed from non-animal sources, there are many good vegetable sources. From around 6 months these include: puréed apricots, cereals, well pureed lentils, well puréed beans and green vegetables. Vitamin C aids absorption of iron from plant sources and so it helps to give sources of these nutrients together. Give foods or a drink high in vitamin C with each meal, e.g. tomato or well-diluted orange juice.

Protein

Breast or formula milk provides the main source of protein for your baby's first seven to eight months. From this time you should be offering your child two portions of protein foods daily, such as pulses, lentils, beans, chickpeas, yoghurt or fromage frais. The protein in vegetable proteins may not contain all the amino acids your baby needs, but if you give a mixture of vegetable proteins together, all the necessary amino acids will be supplied. For example, for babies, puréed lentils with rice cereal, puréed broad beans with wheat based cereal; for toddlers hummus with rice cakes or peanut butter with bread. These combinations of foods would provide the full range of amino acids.

Calcium

Good sources of calcium for the later stages of weaning include cow's and fortified soya milk, green vegetables, cheese, wholegrain bread, beans, lentils, ground almonds, sesame paste and tofu.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates provide energy. They are made up of starches and sugars. They are found in cereals, flour, bread, rice, pasta and potatoes, fruits, vegetables and lactose (the sugar in milk and yoghurt). If you start weaning at 6 months by about 7 months there should be some carbohydrate foods offered at each meal.

Vitamin B12

Very young babies receive all the vitamin B12 they need from breast or formula milk, and later, from dairy products and eggs.

Vitamin D

Sunlight on the skin produces vitamin D naturally in the body, although it is important to protect your baby from over exposure to the sun's rays. Vegetarian foods rich in vitamin D include dairy products, eggs, fortified vegetable margarines, some soya milks and soya products, and other fortified foods, like baby cereals and breakfast cereals.

Milk

From 6 months you can use small amounts of pasteurized cow's milk in weaning solids.
At 12 months old (if a varied weaning diet is being taken) pasteurized cow's milk can be given to drink. Use whole milk as it has more vitamins and calories. Semi skimmed milk can be introduced at around 2 years old (again, if your child is taking a good variety of foods and growing well).

Meat substitute products

There are many meat substitute products available from supermarkets and specialist health food stores that may be useful additions to the diets of young children. Textured vegetable proteins are common, but as they are relatively low in calories and high in fibre while still bulky, they should not be relied on as the sole or major source of protein and may satisfy the child's appetite before they have taken in enough energy. It is important to check the ingredients on such products to ensure that they contain only the ingredients you want your vegetarian baby to eat. In addition, young babies may find textured vegetable proteins hard to digest and you need to check that the ones you are using are low in salt. Alternatives include soy-based foods (such as soya mince), tofu and Tempah.