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Protein Foods for Your Vegetarian Child

Contributors: Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN, Cordialis Msora-Kasago, MA, RD, Grace Derocha, MBA, RD, CDCES, Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD, Su-Nui Escobar, DCN, RDN, FAND and Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE

Published: February 14, 2018

Reviewed: June 25, 2021

Protein Foods for Your Vegetarian Child
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Kids don't need to eat meat to get the necessary protein to keep their bodies healthy and growing. Vegetarian children develop normally and are able to meet nutritional needs when their diets are planned appropriately. Nearly all foods — including vegetables — contain a small amount of protein. Build meals around these plant-based foods that contain protein and are rich in nutrients.

Tofu and Tempeh

Tofu and tempeh pack protein and antioxidants. And some are fortified with calcium. Use the texture of tofu as a guide to help you incorporate it into dishes. Add smooth silken tofu to smoothies, soups, puddings and dips. Soft tofu resembles ricotta cheese or scrambled eggs and is best incorporated into rice, pastas or in sandwiches. Bake nuggets from extra-firm tofu or cube it and sauté with stir-fry vegetables. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans, and its texture resembles extra-firm tofu and can be used in a similar way. For extra flavor, marinate tofu and tempeh in a flavorful sauce in the refrigerator a few hours before cooking.

Beans, Peas and Lentils

Beans, peas and lentils offer protein, fiber, folate, potassium and magnesium, and preparation is simple. Lentils cook in 20 to 30 minutes, while soaking dried beans for 4 hours, or overnight, is recommended. Discard the soaking water and simmer beans in fresh water for 60 to 90 minutes. Alternatively, you can cook up dried lentils and beans in a pressure cooked to save time. Refrigerate cooked beans and use within four days or freeze for three months. Canned beans and lentils are convenient, and if  “no salt added” cans are unavailable, drain and rinse beans thoroughly to remove almost half the sodium.

Beans, peas and lentils come in many types and colors, making it fun to experiment. Create a chart with your child and cook a new variety each week, and have them draw a smiley face next to their favorites. There are so many types of beans, peas and lentils to choose from! Some varieties include moong beans, black-eyed peas, red lentils or split red lentils, adzuki beans, kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, fava beans, chickpeas, cowpeas and butter beans.

Add beans to soups, salsa, rice and salads. Make bean enchiladas or quesadillas or use refried beans to make burritos, tostadas or molletes. Add to grilled cheese sandwiches, scoop with corn chips, or puree into dips or baked goods including cookies or brownies. Use peas to make samosa; fava beans to make ful mudammas; soybeans to make natto; mashed peas to make mukimo; and red beans to make red beans and rice. Roast chickpeas in the oven for a crunchy snack!

Nuts and Nut Butters

Parents often ask what nuts are healthiest, but, in reality, they all are — providing protein, healthy fats, selenium and vitamin E. Try raw unsalted nuts and natural nut butters without salt, sugar or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Combining nuts with foods your child already eats also is a good option to get the benefits of nuts. Offer with fruit for a balanced snack, or pack a handful with your child's favorite crackers or dried fruit to go. Pistachios are fun to shell, while walnuts, cashews and pine nuts are soft; almonds and pecans are naturally sweet. For breakfast, add chopped nuts to muffins, bread and pancake batters, or sprinkle on oatmeal or low-sugar breakfast cereal. Add to salads, rice and quinoa. Nut butters also taste good when added to oatmeal and smoothies.

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