Here’s some good news for vegetarian parents!

In 2019, Canada updated its national dietary guidelines to encourage people to eat more plant-based protein, like beans, tofu and quinoa, instead of meat. While there's plenty of research around how healthy a vegetarian diet can be for adults—including how it impacts heart health and cancer risk—there's not much research around how healthy a meatless eating pattern is for kids. But a new study published in Pediatrics is sharing insights into that exact topic.

The study, led by Canadian pediatrician Jonathon Maguire, M.D., found that vegetarian and meat-eating kids between the ages of 6 months and 8 years had similar mean body mass index (BMI), height and levels of iron, vitamin D and cholesterol. Both iron and vitamin D are critical for overall healthy growth and development, and some vegan folks (or selective eaters) may struggle to get enough of them, due to the fact they're predominantly found in animal products. The study did not take into account the quality of the food each child ate.

The study did have one caveat—vegetarian children were twice as likely to be underweight than children who ate meat. Per a media release from Unity Health Toronto, researchers feel that connecting parents with health care providers and extra nutrition guidance could help make up for the undernourishment that could be causing the weight discrepancy. It's especially important for kids to get the fuel they need for healthy growth and development.

"This study demonstrates that Canadian children following vegetarian diets had similar growth and biochemical measures of nutrition compared to children consuming non-vegetarian diets," Maguire said in the release. "Vegetarian diet was associated with higher odds of underweight weight status, underscoring the need for careful dietary planning for children with underweight when considering vegetarian diets."

Two brown paper lunch bags, onne with a drawing of meat, and the other with vegetables on a designed background
Credit: Getty Images / t_kimura / Mirifada / SpicyTruffel

It is possible to build a healthy, well-rounded vegetarian diet, even when you're on a budget. Leaning on affordable protein sources like lentils and beans can help you cut costs and incorporate more meatless meals into your routine, like our Cheesy Marinara Beans or Black Bean Fajita Skillet. On nights when a quick pasta dinner sounds delicious, you can use chickpea- or lentil-based pasta to boost the protein and fiber content of your meal. 

And when everyone's in the mood for some chicken nuggets or fish sticks, it's perfectly reasonable to be flexible about your routine. The flexitarian diet is a simple way to try eating less meat without cutting it out entirely, making it a great method for dipping your toe into plant-based eating. (This flexitarian meal plan for families could be just the thing to spark your culinary imagination.)

Of course, all kids are different. While Maguire said in the media release that "vegetarian diets appear to be appropriate for most children," it's certainly possible to eat healthy family meals that include meat. Recipes like our Chile-Lime Cauliflower Quesadillas and Tater Tot Casserole with Beef, Corn & Zucchini are surefire proof that family dinners can be delicious and nutritious.

Bottom Line:

A new study in Pediatrics found that vegetarian kids were basically just as healthy as their peers, though they were more likely to be underweight. Experts say it's possible for children to eat vegetarian meals and stay at a healthy weight, especially if parents have the proper guidance on nutrition and weight. Test-drive a family-friendly vegetarian dinner tonight with one of these simple recipes.