Considering a vegetarian diet for your family, but unsure about taking the plunge? A flexitarian diet may be a happy middle ground. This mostly plant-based lifestyle allows for small portions of meat, fish and poultry. It's less restrictive than a vegetarian diet, but delivers many of the same health benefits.
Intrigued? Here's how to help your family flex in four simple steps.
Rethink Your Plate
A flexitarian plate looks a lot like the USDA's MyPlate. Vegetables and fruits take center stage, covering half of your plate. Then, divide the balance 50-50 between whole grains and lean protein. The protein can be meat, poultry or fish, but it also can be plant-based protein such as beans. Beans contain fiber, iron, potassium and heart-smart plant protein. That makes them a healthy stand-in for meat in tacos, burritos, pasta, chili or stir-fries. Drain and rinse canned beans thoroughly to remove up to 40 percent of the sodium. And then, simply trade ¼ cup of beans for every ounce of meat you'd usually use. While you're at it, experiment with other meat substitutes too. Instead of a hamburger, serve up a veggie burger or swap tofu cutlets for chicken cutlets.
Pump Up the Nutrition
When meat, poultry and fish move to the sidelines it's easy to reach for child-friendly favorites such as French fries, pizza and macaroni and cheese. Yet, these can be high in fat and calories and lack the nutritional punch of other plant-based foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. Try a new vegetarian recipe each week. Ask friends to share their kids' favorite vegetarian recipes.
Don't Forget the Calcium
Low-fat dairy products are an excellent source of the calcium your child needs for strong bones. They also supply plenty of high-quality protein to support growth. Children need two to three servings of a calcium-rich food or beverage each day - two servings for kids 2 to 3 years, two-and-a-half servings for those 4 to 8 years, and three servings for older kids and teens. If your family doesn't consume dairy, fortified soymilk or 100% fruit juice is a smart substitute. Cooked collard greens, calcium-fortified tofu and soybeans also are good choices.
Fill in the Gaps
Flexitarian diets can deliver all the nutrition your children need. However, ensuring adequate intake of iron requires extra attention. Without enough iron, your child may become tired, listless or have difficulty concentrating. Your body can't absorb the iron in plant foods as well as the kind found in beef, poultry or fish. So, offer your child iron-fortified whole-grain cereal for breakfast or a snack. Also, pair iron-rich plant foods such as beans, lentils and spinach with foods high in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, peppers and citrus fruits. This can help increase iron absorption.