Topic 4 Make a healthy vegetarian/vegan menu

You are attending to a teenager who has decided to move from an omnivorous to a vegan diet and asks us for help in developing a balanced menu. What general recommendations would you give him/her?

Think about this before moving forward.

Some ideas to include in a vegan breakfast are:

  • Fruit or dried fruit.
  • Vegetable drink enriched in calcium or soy yogurt without added sugar.
  • Wholemeal bread toast with: tomato, hummus, tahín, nut cream, avocado…
  • Oatmeal flakes or other cereals without added sugar.

There are 3 basic rules:

  • 50% of the intake (250-300 g) should be composed of vegetables. It is recommended that, at least once a day, they are raw.
  • A serving of protein (see below).
  • A healthy fat: extra virgin olive oil for cooking and dressing. Fats from avocado, nuts and seeds are also healthy.

And three optional rules:

  • If we add cereals, let them be whole grains. They can also be potatoes or sweet potatoes, preferably roasted or cooked.
  • Seek accompaniments with nutritional value: nuts, seeds or brewer’s yeast.
  • Dessert is not mandatory. In case of dessert, the fresh fruit should be prioritized. Other options include sugar-free soy yogurt or a piece of chocolate with more than 85% cocoa.

Snacks should complement the main meals, so they should adapt and vary depending on what the child had for breakfast or ate before.

Some ideas for vegan snacks:

  • A serving of fruit or dried fruit.
  • Sugar-free soy yogurt.
  • A handful of natural or toasted nuts.
  • A small sandwich of wholemeal bread with: tomato, hummus, tahín, nut cream, avocado…

Although protein intake recommendations depend on age, sex and level of physical activity, it is recommended to add at least one serving of protein to each main meal. A simple way to calculate the size of protein servings is as follows:

A) Animal proteins (for ovolactovegetarians):

  • Eggs: 1 or 2.
  • Dairy products: 2 yogurts, or 80 g of fresh cheese, or 35 g of semi-cured cheese, or 1 glass of milk.

B) Proteins of vegetable origin:

  • Legumes: A full plate, or half a plate if accompanied by cereal or potato, or 2 homemade burgers the size of the palm of the hand, or a cup (150 ml) of hummus.
  • Quinoa: Half a plate.
  • Tofu, tempeh and seitan: a portion the size of the palm of each one’s hand.
  • Textured soy: Half a glass of the hydrated product.
  • Vegetable drink or yogurt: 2 yogurts, or 1 glass of vegetable drink. The protein content of vegan cheese is variable, but generally low. Many types of vegan cheese are considered ultraprocessed products and, therefore, not recommended.
  • Nuts and seeds: they complement the serving of protein since, due to the little amount of protein they contain, it is difficult that they reach the recommended intake amounts on their own.

As in any other healthy and balanced diet, it is important to limit the consumption of bakery and avoid ultra-processed products such as chips, soft-drink… Remember that pre-cocked meals that are marketed as substitutes for meat (vegan burgers, vegan nuggets…) are ultraprocessed products as well.

In addition, we must recommend vitamin B12 supplements at the appropriate dose for patient’s age.

And what recommendations would you give to a vegan family who want to instill vegetarianism in their newborn child?

Exclusive breastfeeding is the best form of feeding for all infants in the first six months of life. In case the nursing mother is vegan/vegetarian, itis important that she takes vitamin B12 supplements and consults with her doctor about the need to take other supplements such as iodine and omega-3 fatty acids. If breastfeeding is not possible, the child shall take infant or follow-on formulae based on soy protein asylees or hydrolyzed rice (lactovegetarians may take derivatives from cow’s milk). Vegetable drinks are not a substitute for infant or follow-on formulae and should not be introduced before the year of age.

Complementary feeding will be introduced, as in omnivorous infants, from the 4th or 6th month. The basis of the complementary diet of a vegan/vegetarian child are fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, cereals and, in the case of ovolactovegetarians, also eggs and yogurts. The sources of vegetable protein in a vegan/vegetarian diet to replace those from meat, fish and eggs are legumes, nuts and soy derivatives such as tofu, which can be introduced from 6 months. Natural yogurts can be replaced by sugar-free soy yogurts.

As in children with omnivorous diet, in the case of vegan/vegetarian children it is recommended to introduce new foods one at a time and with a temporary window between them to be able to detect any intolerance or adverse reaction.

In relation to nuts, it should be noted that they should be offered in the form of cream, since the consumption of whole nuts is not recommended until 6 years of age due to the risk of choking.

It is important to remember that vegan/vegetarian infants should also take vitamin B12 supplements at the dosages indicated for their age.

Other recommendations to consider are the same as those followed with omnivorous infants:

  • Extra virgin olive oil will be recommended as the main source fat. Alternatively, flax oil can be used.
  • The introduction of green leafy vegetables such as spinach, chard, borage and arugula will be postponed until 12 months due to their high nitrate content.
  • From the 12th month, iodized salt will be introduced in small quantities.
  • The introduction of sweets and soft drinks (including juices) should be postponed as much as possible because of their high sugar content. Never before the age of 2.
  • The introduction of ultra-processed products should be postponed as much as possible because of their high salt content and unhealthy fats. Never before the age of 2.