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 may deliver 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 what remains between whole grains and lean protein foods. The protein can be meat, poultry or fish, but it also can be plant-based protein such as beans, lentils, tofu, or tempeh.
Beans are a popular and nutritious choice. They contain dietary fiber, iron, potassium and plant-based protein. Their nutrient-rich, which makes them a healthy stand-in for meat in tacos, burritos, pasta, and chili. They also work well in stews, soups, curries or dals and countless other dishes. Drain and rinse canned beans thoroughly to remove up to 40% of the sodium. And then, simply trade ¼ cup of cooked 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 saturated fat and calories and lack the nutritional punch of other plant-based choices. Instead, try menu items that focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans, more often. For variety, 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 to two-and-a-half cups for kids 2 to 3 years, two-and-a-half cups for those 4 to 8 years, and three cups for older kids and teens. If your family doesn't consume dairy, fortified soymilk is a smart substitute. Cooked collard greens, calcium-fortified tofu and soybeans also are sources of calcium, but the amount absorbed by the body can vary.
Fill in the Gaps
Flexitarian diets can deliver all the nutrition your children need. However, ensuring an adequate intake of certain nutrients may require extra attention. Without enough iron, your child may become tired, listless or have difficulty concentrating. Many plant-based foods are sources of iron, but your body doesn’t absorb the iron in these foods as well as the iron found in beef, poultry or fish. Include a variety of plant foods such as beans, lentils and spinach and pair them with foods high in vitamin C, such as tomatoes, peppers and citrus fruits. This can help increase iron absorption.
Zinc is another nutrient that may require a little more attention for families following vegetarian eating styles. Plant-based sources include beans, nuts and seeds, oatmeal and fortified whole-grain cereals which may provide both iron and zinc.