· By Julia Boase
Vegan Lunch Box Ideas that Tick All the Nutrition Boxes
Without a doubt the “vegan diet” (avoidance of all animal based foods) seems to be one of the more popular of our time. Whilst some follow this diet out of concerns for animal welfare or the environment, many people follow it for its nutritional benefits. A vegan diet has been shown to reduce the risk of ischaemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain types of cancer. In 2016 the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics updated their statement on Vegetarian and Vegan diets, stating that they are safe to follow at all stages of the life cycle when appropriately planned (including in infants, children and pregnant and lactating women).
A good vegan diet requires more effort than just pasta and sauce, especially for children, who have very particular nutritional needs. If you are going to embark on a vegan diet, having a thorough understanding of the nutrients that are at risk and having a plan for how you will meet them, is key. Below is a summary of the key nutrients you need to consider for children following a vegan diet and some lunch box ideas to help you achieve them.
Energy (calories) - The vegan diet can be lower in energy because of the large number of vegetables consumed. Whilst this might be a good thing for adults looking to lose a bit of weight, for children who are growing rapidly it can be a problem. Balancing the vegetables in a meal with good quality wholegrain carbohydrates (eg rice, pearl barley, quinoa, wholemeal pasta) and a protein source, will help ensure each meal has adequate energy.
Protein - If a wide variety of plant food is eaten and energy intake is adequate, then it is generally agreed that protein intake will meet your child’s needs. Without adequate amounts of protein and energy, children can fall behind with their growth. The key here is eating from a wide range of plant based foods. Unlike animal foods, not all plant based foods contain the “complete” range of amino acids required by our bodies. By eating a wide variety of different plant based foods, a complete range of amino acids will be consumed.
Lunch Box Ideas: Tofu, Soy milk used to make a chia pudding, soy yoghurt, beans & legumes (eg chickpeas- tinned or roasted, hummus or white bean dip), add seeds to your baked items
Ideally these higher protein foods should be consumed at every meal.
Iron - Iron from plant foods (called non-haem iron) is not as well absorbed as animal sources. Phytates and polyphenols (naturally occurring compounds in vegetables) inhibit the absorption of iron, whilst the presence of vitamin C (naturally present in many fruits and vegetables) can help improve absorption. Over time the human body is able to adapt to a diet with low iron bioavailability ( a measure of how well iron can be absorbed from foods).
Lunch Box Ideas: Fortified foods such as weetbix bites or cheerios, iron fortified bread, add seeds to your baked goods, include beans and legumes as suggested above. Serve these foods with fruits like strawberries, citrus or rockmelon which are all high in vitamin C.
Calcium - Calcium absorption from plant foods high in oxalate is generally poor (eg spinach). White beans, tahini, chia, calcium set tofu and almonds are all reasonable sources of calcium.
For children their most reliable source of calcium will be from a calcium fortified plant milk such as soy milk.
Lunch Box Ideas: Soy yoghurts fortified with calcium, use calcium fortified soy milk to make a chia pudding.
Iodine - Good sources of iodine for Vegan’s include sea vegetables (eg nori sheets) and iodised salt. diet. In Australia all commercial bread products that are not labelled as “artisan or organic” must be fortified with iodine. For most children using these fortified products together with iodised salt in cooking should be sufficient to meet their needs.
Lunch Box Ideas: Roasted Nori Sheets, Bread that contains iodised salt
Vitamin B -12 - B12 is not found in plant foods. B12 fortified foods in Australia include soy milk, soy burgers and alike, as well as some yeast spreads. Checking the ingredient list of these products will tell you whether they are fortified or not. The nutrition information panel will tell you how much B12 is present in the food. Discuss with you Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) or general practitioner whether your child is getting enough from their diet or needs a supplement.
Lunch Box Ideas: Use B12 fortified soy milk for smoothies (use our range of insulated bottles to keep them cold for the whole school day) or chia puddings.
Vitamin D - as most vitamin D is obtained from sunlight, vegan infants and children will generally receive sufficient amounts so long as their skin is exposed to sunlight each day.
Fatty acids - EPA and DHA are n-3 fatty acids that are important for brain, eye and heart health.
Seafoods such as oily fish (eg salmon) are some of the best sources, whilst meat and eggs provide lesser amounts. ALA is a plant based n-3 fatty acid that our body can convert into EPA and DHA. ALA is found in nuts and seeds, with flaxseed, chia, avocado and walnuts all being good sources. Olive oil is also a good source.
Lunch Box Ideas: Try guacamole dip and crackers, add avocado to sandwiches or serve a 1/2 avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice and sprinkle of salt. Add seeds to baked goods. Try a chia pudding.
Choosing the right plant based milk for your child is critical to ensuring they are getting enough energy, protein and calcium in their diet. A calcium fortified milk soy milk is the best choice for vegan children. Ideally chose a soy milk that contains at least 100mg of calcium per 100ml and preferably one that is also fortified with vitamin B12. Depending on how much of this milk your child drinks, they may not need additional B12 supplements. Soy milks have some of the highest protein contents of plant based milks and are therefore ideal for growing children. Other plant based milks include almond, rice and coconut. These milks however, tend to be lower in energy and protein and therefore are not the first choice for vegan children. If your child has an allergy to soy products speak with an accredited practising dietitian about the best choice of alternative milk that will tick all of their dietary needs.
Paediatric Dietitian, APD