Meatless/Vegetarian Protein Options for Growing Kids

I’ve seen the looks; the questionable tone in the voices of many mothers and friends. “You’re…vegetarians? As in, you don’t eat meat?” I never miss an opportunity to inform others of the many, many meatless yet delicious AND nutritious options offered to the world of herbivores and carnivores alike. Oftentimes there is a major concern for protein in a diet lacking poultry and meat, as well as the misconception of iron deficiency in vegetarians. To the surprise of many, each of my kids maintain boosted immune systems that rarely allow illness to take over their little bodies; all without an ounce of conventional go-to foods. Here’s how:

Before I begin my spiel of organics and nutrients, I must advise you to practice consistency. No matter what, always remain consistent with your child’s options. The first time I ever gave my kids kale, they were far from interested. The second time around, I added some roasted garlic, spices and an enthusiastic approach to serving them such nutrient dense foods. Before serving a new food to your miniature food critic, remind them of all the strong bones, healthy brains and happy tummies that result. Turns out…it works! My 4 year old asks for “cooked kale with garlic” for almost every meal.

Now, you may be wondering what it is we replace chicken, turkey and ground beef with to satisfy our body’s needs. My answer does not begin with tofu, as I truly am not the biggest fan. Plus, it’s important to look out for too much genetically modified soy in such products.

Tempeh, on the other hand, when bought organically, is the perfect alternative to meat. With its thicker-than-tofu yet soft enough for small teeth to chew texture, its soybean structure acts as chicken in many versatile dishes. Preparing Tempeh is simple, and can be paired with just about any side dish. Tempeh sloppy joes, stir fry and “hot wings” are family favorites. Not to mention, it contains about 19 grams of protein per cup…woah! Visit your local Whole Foods Market to find a wide variety of delicious Tempeh.

Beans/Legumes are a staple in our home, and can be eaten with and in replace of just about anything. From black bean burgers and quesadillas to white bean soup and red bean chili, the recipes are endless. My family drools over split peas, lentil soup and my lentil and rice no-meatloaf. High in fiber, iron and folate, beans are a necessary and tasty addition to all meals, but especially the vegetarian diet. Little fingers and hands love to pick up and pop in these colorful legumes!

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Hummus or Chickpeas make for a nutritious and fun dip for all ages. My littles enjoy dunking carrots, homemade pita chips, cucumbers or just their fingers into a smooth and tasty bowl of hummus. You can make your own at home or buy it fresh and local from your nearest produce stand, such as Bearss Grove or the Ybor City Saturday Market.

Quinoa is another kid favorite. This ancient grain is packed full of essential amino acids, making it a complete protein! It can be transformed from breakfast to dinner, and added into just about any combination of foods, with one cup equaling nearly 15% of your daily iron. Top it off with beans, veggies, or one of your favorite meat substitutes, and you’ve got yourself an all around fulfilling dish. PS: It’s gluten free!

Toddlers and kids alike, when given the chance, will eat Peanut/Almond Butter directly from the tub. Protein, calcium and zinc are to be found in any nut butter. You may also want to introduce sunflower seeds, cashews and/or almonds to your toddlers who are old enough to chew and swallow the nuts properly, of course. Avocados are also a must-have; they are even said to be one of the healthiest foods in the world!

It is vital for children (and adults!) lacking animal meat in their diets to maintain their B12 Vitamins; which can be found in an array of leafy greens, fermented soy products, organic dairy, and my favorite secret, Nutritional Yeast. Usually found on the shelves of health food stores, Nutritional Yeast has quite frankly been my saving grace. With a cheese-like flavor, this complete blend of B vitamins comes in a shakable container and can be added to pizza, potatoes, macaroni, smoothies, etc. The best part? The kids have no idea.

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Of course, there are many ways to deliver bountiful nutrients to your precious children’s bodies. In addition to lots of organic and local vegetables, the above foods offer well-rounded immune systems and full, happy bellies.

What are your family’s favorite vegetarian dishes? 

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