#1) Know the appropriate health requirements: Realize that a vegan diet can meet all of your baby and child’s nutritional needs, but only if it is done correctly. All newborn babies get the greatest benefit by nursing from their mothers. When that isn’t a possibility, soy formulas work for many infants. You may have to contact individual companies if you have questions about whether a soy formula is completely vegan. Make sure to note that there’s a big difference between soy formula and soy milk. Feeding an infant soy milk or rice milk as a substitute for breast milk or infant formula does NOT meet all of a newborn’s nutritional requirement, and has even led to some tragic deaths.
Older children often thrive on fortified rice or soy milks. Silk soy milk, for instance, contains 50% of the RDA of vitamin B12 per serving (which can be challenging to incorporate into a vegan diet). It’s also a good source of calcium and protein*. Then of course, make sure your kids are getting enough protein through nuts, beans, and meat substitutes, and don’t forget the whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and veggies!
#2) Find the right pediatrician: All pediatricians are not created equal. Before your child is born, speak with several pediatricians to find someone you feel comfortable with and trust, and make sure to ask them how they feel about a vegan diet. Doctors who are open-minded and have up-to-date knowledge about nutrition will recognize that vegan diets can be nutritionally sound, and often healthier than diets including Happy Meals. They can also be a great source of information for how to keep your child healthy if you have specific questions about vegan nutritional guidelines.
#3) Enlist supportive caregivers: If you’re a working parent, you may have to search for an understanding daycare provider who will make a valiant effort to stick with your child’s vegan diet. Most often, it works best for everyone involved if the parents of the vegan child provide all meals and snacks. Usually, daycare providers are more willing to work with parents who make it easy, and don’t demand that they learn all of the ins and outs of veganism. Mistakes may be inadvertently made (for example, my two-year-old once grabbed a meatball from another child’s plate and took a bite), but if your daycare provider recognizes that this kind of thing is a problem, and tries vigilantly to avoid it, things usually work out fairly well.
#4) Substitute treats: When your child is going to a birthday party or encountering classroom treats, bring a vegan substitute. Your child will probably want to feel included, and being a vegan most definitely doesn’t have to mean being left out of the fun! Each quarter, I give my son’s kindergarten teacher a bag full of Alternative Baking Company cookies, Fruit Leather, and crackers. Around Halloween, or other “candy-heavy” holidays, I give her some extra treats (such as Mambas) and let her know how I’d like my son to deal with getting non-vegan candy. (If his teacher is unsure about whether a treat is vegan, she usually sends it home in my son’s backpack and lets us decide.) Work with your child’s teacher to find a system that works for you. Most teachers will be willing to work with you. Also, when you’re going to family parties, bring fun snacks and treats that your child will be excited about. This doesn’t always work out perfectly, but with a little extra planning and effort, eating socially with non-vegans doesn’t have to be awkward, and it doesn’t have to make your child feel deprived.
#5: Complain with composure, and know your facts: If teachers or grandparents give your child a non-vegan treat, your first reaction can be anger. I’ve been in that position before, and it’s a natural reaction; however, explaining to the person how important veganism is to you and your family can be helpful. For many people, being vegan is about more than a diet. It often encompasses spiritual beliefs and personal ethics, and these things deserve respect in any situation. In the case that you’ve explained that, and a teacher has been repeatedly unwilling to work with you, take your complaint to the principal. Most problems can be resolved with more understanding. Keep in mind that veganism isn’t well understood by everyone, and some people will even think you are harming your child by feeding them a vegan diet. In this case, information is your best asset. The more evidence you are able to provide skeptical grandparents or teachers on the benefits of vegan living, the better.
*Some people have concerns about phytoestrogens in soy mimicking estrogen and causing hormonal imbalances. If you have those concerns, speak with your pediatrician, or simply cut back on the soy.