FAQ: Meatless Monday and Plant-Based Meals for Kids and Families
Parents and caregivers often have a lot of questions when it comes to plant-based eating and Meatless Monday. To address these concerns, we created an FAQ in collaboration with our academic partners at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The information was provided by their team of registered dietitians and covers many common questions regarding plant-based eating and child health.
- Meatless meals are safe for children and can provide long-term health benefits, such as reduced risk of some chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
- Childrens’ nutritional needs can be met through meatless or plant-based meals, but careful planning is needed to ensure proper nutrition.
- Plant-based protein can meet the protein needs of children and can be healthier than diets rich in red or processed meat.
- Children who eat more plant-based meals typically consume more vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, which are often lacking in their diets.
Plant-based/Vegan: A diet or meal that does not include meat, dairy, or eggs.
Meatless/Vegetarian: A diet or meal that does not include meat, but could include dairy and eggs.
Whole Foods: Food in its natural state and minimally processed.
Is it healthy and safe for kids to do Meatless Monday?
Yes. Choosing plant-based options one day a week, instead of meat, is beneficial to kids’ health and can help them develop good dietary habits to reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Eating healthy plant-based meals, starting with Meatless Monday, is a great way to help kids and families learn about healthy and sustainable foods. Starting kids on a healthier dietary pattern at a young age, hopefully, can lead to healthy sustainable habits as adults.
Is a meatless diet automatically healthier?
No, not necessarily. Cutting out meat doesn’t automatically make your diet healthier. It’s still important to eat whole foods and limit the intake of foods high in sugar and refined flours and heavily processed foods. A healthy meatless diet includes plenty of vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and healthy plant-based proteins, such as beans, tofu, nuts and seeds.
What about protein? Aren’t meat and fish the best sources of protein?
There are many ways for kids to meet the recommended amount of daily protein. Meat and fish are common and good sources of protein, along with eggs and dairy; however, there are plenty of fresh, flavorful ways to get your recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein from plant-based sources. Beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are especially high in protein, as well as other important vitamins and minerals.
Most Americans eat 1.5 times more protein than they need each day, mostly from animal products. Additionally, protein deficiency is very rare, even in full-time vegetarians.
According to the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 10 to 20% of daily calories should come from protein. Children 4-8 years old need about 19 grams of protein, kids 9-13 years old need 34 grams of protein, and adolescent boys need 52 grams of protein and 46 grams for adolescent girls.
Example of plant-based protein:
Both animals and plants provide quality protein, but there are differences. They have different combinations of vitamins and minerals, plus different types of fat. What’s more, plant proteins contain fiber, while animal proteins do not. Eating a lot of processed and red meat carries risks you won’t find with plant-based protein. These include an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. That’s why Meatless Monday encourages people to eat meatless at least one day a week.
Do I have to eat a particular combination of plant-based foods at each meal to ensure I’m eating complete proteins?
No. Your body combines the plant-based protein sources for you naturally over time. In other words, your body “completes” the protein for you. The key is to eat a balanced diet that includes all the food groups throughout the day/week. For example, peanut butter on whole wheat bread gives you complete plant-based protein, so do corn tortillas with beans.
What about other nutrients? How do kids get all of their nutrients from plant-based meals?
Kids can obtain the necessary nutrients from meatless foods, but it is important they eat a good variety of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and legumes to meet micronutrient requirements. A simple rule of thumb is if a child or adult is consuming enough calories from healthy whole foods to maintain a healthy weight they are probably eating enough protein and other nutrients.
B12: Going meatless for one day a week will not create a B12 deficiency. People who never consume animal products of any kind (i.e. vegans) need to supplement with B12, as it is the only vitamin available solely in animal foods.
Plant-based sources of vitamin B12 include: vitamin fortified cereals, breads, fortified plant-based milks, like soy milk, and nutritional yeast.
Iron: Iron is present in many vegetables, beans and grains, and even full-time vegetarians can get enough of these nutrients without eating meat. Animal proteins contain heme iron, which is more readily utilized by the body. Plant sources have non-heme iron, which is less available for use. However, eating foods that contain vitamin C or other heme-containing foods together with the plant protein enhances the iron’s availability. For example, a bowl of beans with chopped red peppers or tofu with broccoli.
Plant-based sources of iron include: chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, tofu, whole grains, kale, cabbage, broccoli, iron fortified breads and cereals.
Calcium: It’s important for growing children to get enough calcium to build strong bones and teeth, specifically ages 9-18. A deficiency in calcium can lead to various conditions, such as rickets, where the bones become soft and weak. If avoiding dairy, a child’s diet should include fortified dairy alternatives like soy or pea protein products.
Plant-based sources of calcium include: kale, broccoli, dried beans, calcium-fortified soy milk, and bok choy.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health by helping the body absorb calcium. When vitamin D is deficient, very little calcium is absorbed. Vitamin D comes from two places: 1) foods and supplements, and 2) our bodies produce it after sunlight exposure. Vitamin D is found naturally in only a few foods like fatty fish (cod liver oil, salmon, or tuna) and egg yolks. Because there are so few natural dietary sources, vitamin D is added to a wide variety of foods such as fortified soymilk, fortified juice, fortified breakfast cereals, and cow’s milk.
Sources of vitamin D include: fortified cereals, fortified milk substitutes, some mushrooms, and multivitamin supplements.
Omega 3: Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids or the “building blocks of fats” and need to be consumed regularly. Omega-3s usually come from fish, dairy, and eggs; omega-3s from plant-based foods are more limited as they contain only one type of omega-3. However, there are good plant-based choices: chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, Brussels sprouts, and ground flax seed. If a child does not consume foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, speak to their healthcare provider about supplements.
Plant-based sources of omega-3s include: chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, Brussels sprouts, and ground flax seed.
For more on nutritional considerations of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, visit the Vegetarian Resource Group.
Is it healthy for kids to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Yes, it is safe for children to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet as long as meals are planned to ensure their nutritional needs are met. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
Using the Plate Method is an easy guide to create healthy and nutritious plant-based or vegetarian meals for the entire family. Kids who eat meatless meals also tend to consume more fruit and vegetables.
Is it okay for kids to drink plant-based milks and dairy products?
According to the Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids guidelines, children 12 months to 5 years old should drink cow’s milk vs plant-based milks, with the exception of soy or pea milk, as most plant-based milks are not nutritionally comparable to dairy milk. Children under the age of one should not consume plant-based or dairy milk, formula or breast milk are necessary to meet infants’ nutritional needs. For those with health concerns, allergies, or dietary preferences, discuss dairy alternatives with your healthcare provider.
Additional information and benefits about Meatless Monday, plant-based eating, and family mealtime
What do we eat for Meatless Monday?
Thankfully there are many healthy and delicious plant-based swaps for meat and easy recipes that can help any family reduce their meat consumption. Check out our Meatless Monday recipes for weekly meal ideas.
- Meatless Monday meal plan and shopping lists
- Meatless Recipes to Help Your Children Eat More Vegetables
- 10 Healthy Meals and Snacks for Back-to-School Lunches
- 12 Kid-Friendly Recipes That Will Have the Whole Family Eating Their Vegetables
- New Meatless Monday Family Cookbook is a Hit with Picky Eaters
- Family Dinner Date: The Kids Cook Monday Recipes
How do I go Meatless Monday on a budget?
Meatless meals are often less expensive than meat and many plant-based staples are less affected by price increases.
- 9 Inexpensive Plant Proteins Everyone Should Know
- Inexpensive Plant-Based Ingredients That Won’t Go Bad
- The Inexpensive Pantry Staple That Makes Everything Taste Better
- Here’s How You Can Save Money by Going Meatless on Monday
- How to Prepare a Vegetarian Thanksgiving Meal on a Budget
What are the benefits of eating healthy family meals?
Healthy habits start early. Even if kids don’t eat everything on their plates, children who are exposed to healthy eating routines and a variety of foods are more willing to try new foods and adopt healthy eating habits later in life.
- Research shows that kids “who share family meals 3 or more times per week are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier dietary and eating patterns.”
- Parents that involve their kids in meal preparation can increase their consumption of vegetables.
- National surveys of parents and teens, as reported by the Center on Addiction, suggest that kids who eat family dinners have better relationships with their parents and have a decreased risk of smoking, drinking or using other drugs.
- A meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that frequency of family meals is significantly related to nutritional health in children and adolescents. Some benefits include a reduction in the odds of children becoming overweight and a reduction in eating unhealthy foods.
- Findings from a study in the journal Preventive Medicine found that family meals can contribute to the social and emotional wellbeing of parents.
What are the environmental impacts of Meatless Monday?
- Meatless Monday is an important first step to encourage families to adopt a more sustainable diet. Going Meatless Monday and having family meals together is an opportunity to discuss how the food we eat impacts the environment and a more sustainable future.
- Nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of meat, dairy, and eggs. Shifting towards plant-based diets for your family would contribute to helping reduce emissions associated with meat production.
- The water used to produce animal products primarily comes from growing feed crops, raising the animals, and waste treatment. Eating a more plant-based diet has the potential to decrease agricultural water use by 50 percent. Plant-based family meals can help to contribute to this possibility.
- Livestock production uses 75 percent of the earth’s agricultural land, primarily for beef and dairy cattle grazing and growing crops for animal feed. Plant-based family meals can contribute to reducing the pressures on land resources.
- Plant-based eating can help influence the global consumption of sustainable plant-based proteins, such as beans and legumes. Producing these crops can actually improve soil health and productivity.
 Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium; Ross AC, Taylor CL, Yaktine AL, et al., editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011.
 Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood: Recommendations from Key National Health and Nutrition Organizations. Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids. Healthy Eating Research, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. September 2019. https://healthydrinkshealthykids.org/app/uploads/2019/09/HER-HealthyBeverageTechnicalReport.pdf