What should plant-based preschoolers eat? While universal guidelines stay the same, some nutrition needs for kids change between infancy and toddlerhood. Here are some dietary considerations for a preschool child.
We often focus on plant-based nutrition for pregnancy and infants. But today, we’re shifting the focus to nutrition for preschoolers. After all, we’re mamas too, and our babes are growing up right alongside yours!
As your child gets older, you can include them more in meal planning and prep, encourage more autonomy in food choices, and model healthy behaviors.
And while many universal nutrition guidelines stay the same throughout the life stages, there are a few things to keep in mind as your baby enters toddlerhood.
Nutrition for Preschoolers
By 3-4 years old, most kids will be solid food champs. We like to say that nutrition is a long game that’s developed over time through consistency, modeling, and patience. This includes continuing to practice healthy habits as much as possible as your babes get older.
Below are some of the key nutrition basics to remember for preschoolers.
Offer a variety of whole plant foods.
Fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are full of nutrients that support growth and development, as well as reduce risk for chronic disease and obesity.
Regardless of what the details of your family’s eating pattern look like, we will always encourage a high proportion of whole plant foods.
Plants are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. A well-planned plant-based diet will provide an optimal mix of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein your preschooler needs.
This doesn’t mean your preschooler will always eat what you serve, but it’s important to continue offering these healthy foods regardless.
Minimize added sugar.
We talk about avoiding added sugar until at least age 2, but that doesn’t mean it becomes a free-for-all after that.
Added sugar is a source of empty calories, meaning it provides calories without much nutritional benefit. Diets high in added sugar also tend to set kids up for cavities.
That being said, it’s a delicate balance as we also don’t want to demonize less healthy foods. Drawing a lot of attention to sweets can actually backfire, increasing your child’s desire for them or attaching shame to eating them. We say, let them eat cookies and sweets once in a while – it’s okay!
And remember that added sugar is not the same as sugar found in fruit. Fruit offers numerous health benefits for kids and we encourage providing a variety of whole fruits regularly.
Sodium is an essential electrolyte, but getting too much of it can lead to fluid retention, dehydration, high blood pressure, and an increased risk for kidney and heart diseases over time.
According to the Institute of Medicine, kids 1-3 should get no more than 1.5 grams of sodium per day, and kids 4-6 should cap it at 1.9 grams per day.
The main ways kids get too much sodium is 1) by adding salt to home-cooked food and 2) relying on packaged or canned foods (e.g., processed veggie meats, canned soup, boxed pasta mixes and sauces).
While the first one is a bit easier to control, the second can be best managed by reading labels on things like canned goods, sauces, and snacks marketed to kids. You may opt to make some of your own sauces and snacks, or drain and rinse canned beans before prepping them to eat.
Incorporate lysine-containing protein foods.
We’ve never been concerned about meeting protein needs on a plant-based diet. Plus, all plant foods contain all of the essential amino acids.
However, plant proteins are often limited in the amino acid lysine, so this does require a little more attention for your preschooler.
Good plant sources of lysine include soy, seitan, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, beans, legumes, and pistachios. Offer these foods to your child regularly to help make sure she gets enough of this amino acid.
Include healthy fat sources.
Fat needs increase slightly for 1-3 year old kids, with general recommendations of 30-40 grams per day (and 25-35 grams per day for 4-8 year olds).
Help your child get enough healthy unsaturated fats by regularly offering foods like nut and seed butters, avocado, tofu, and fortified soy or pea milk.
We sometimes use extra virgin olive oil when cooking or roasting vegetables, as this is an easy way to add fats to a child’s diet in small amounts.
Encouraging Food Acceptance for Preschoolers
Wish as we might, we’re not going to get our kids to eat – or even try – every single food we offer. Building a nutritious palate and helping your child set up healthy eating habits takes patience, and a lot of trial and error.
Supporting your preschooler’s independence at the table is key.
We’re advocates for Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility at meals, which says it’s your job to provide healthy foods for your child, and it’s his job to decide what and how much of them to eat.
You can practice encouraging food acceptance by:
- Offering new foods alongside foods you know she already likes
- Giving him a choice (“would you like broccoli or peas with dinner tonight?”) instead of asking open-ended questions around what he wants to eat
- Presenting a variety of foods in smaller portions, as this can be less overwhelming
- Leading by example, by eating a variety of foods in her presence and modeling healthy eating behaviors
- Engaging him in conversations at the table around the aesthetics around the food, rather than the nutritional value or assigning food a “good” or “bad” label
If your child is new to plant-based eating, see this post on introducing this type of diet pattern to older kids.
Supplements for Preschoolers
It’s not nutrition unless it’s eaten. There’s no shame in continuing a supplement to help your preschooler meet their nutrition needs.
Needs differ between kids, but we generally recommend considering the following:
- Iron (we don’t generally recommend this, but may consider it depending on your child’s dietary sources and intake)
- Vitamin D (we recommend a daily supplement)
- Iodine (easy to get through a multivitamin with minerals)
- Vitamin B12 (non-negotiable on a totally plant-based diet)
Some parents choose to supplement these individually. Others prefer a multivitamin with minerals.
As for omega-3 fats, current research doesn’t show an added benefit for continuing DHA supplementation after 2 years. In this case, it’s up to you to decide whether to continue giving it for your preschooler. We don’t think it can hurt especially for kids who don’t eat fish or eggs, but we also know it’s a fairly expensive supplement.
In any case, continue offering foods rich in ALA, a precursor to DHA and EPA. Plant-based sources of ALA include ground flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, tofu, and extra virgin olive oil.
For more guidance around supplements for kids, grab our free supplement guide. We recommend speaking with a registered dietitian for individualized supplement recommendations for your child.
What should plant-based preschoolers eat? Many of the same things as you! Nutrition for preschoolers changes slightly from infancy to toddlerhood, but the basics are limiting added salt and sugar, eating lysine- and ALA-rich foods, and helping encourage acceptance of more whole plant foods.
Chime In: What other questions do you have around nutrition for preschoolers on a plant-based diet? Do you use supplements with your toddler?
If you found this post helpful, we think you should give these a read, too: