Tips for planning a vegetarian menu
Children can obtain all the essential nutrients they need for normal growth and development from a carefully planned and varied vegetarian or vegan diet.
Vegetarian diets include a variety of vegetarian eating patterns depending on what animal-based foods they may choose to include.
Types of vegetarians include:
• semi-vegetarians: eat fish and/or chicken but not red meat
• lacto-ovo vegetarians: eat milk/milk products and eggs
• lacto-vegetarians: eat milk/milk products
• vegan: do not eat any food that comes from an animal.
Why is careful menu planning so important?
Menu planning will help control the cost and quality of food served and make it easier for staff to order and buy the food required. A rotating or cycle menu (e.g. 2 - 4 week rotation) is one of the easiest to use. It can help ensure nutritional needs are met and offer a variety of sensory qualities, such as taste, texture, flavours, colours and temperature, to keep kids interested. Some vegetarian food (with a high fibre content) can be bulky for little stomachs. Younger children may prefer smaller meals served often.
Vegetarian children may be at risk of inadequate intakes of energy, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids if the diet is not carefully planned and closely monitored. It is important to pay close attention to key nutrients, offer a wide variety of meat alternatives (e.g. eggs, legumes, tofu, tempeh or hummus) and include food from all four food groups.
Some key nutrients to consider when planning a vegetarian menu:
- Iron: Vegetarian children may need more iron than non-vegetarians, because our bodies are better at absorbing iron from animal-based foods than plant foods. Plant sources of iron include whole grains and fortified cereals (e.g. rice cereal or Weet-Bix), dark-green leafy vegetables and legumes. To enhance iron absorption, serve these foods with fruit and vegetables high in vitamin C, such as oranges, kiwifruit or tomatoes (try this tomato bean salad).
- Zinc: Important for normal growth and development, as well as the immune system and cognitive function. Vegetarian sources include whole grains and fortified cereals, milk, cheese, nuts/nut butters and soy products.
- Omega-3 fats: Include Omega-3 fats as part of a vegetarian menu as certain fats cannot be made by the body and must be provided through the diet. Vegetarian sources of Omega-3 fats include plant oils (canola, flaxseed, soybean), plant-based spreads, nuts and seeds. These monkey rolls or oaty carrot bites are a fun snack for kids and contain healthy fats.
- Vitamin B12: Animal products are the only natural sources of vitamin B12, so having an adequate intake of B12 can be a challenge for vegetarians, especially vegans. Sources of vitamin B12 include: eggs, milk and milk products. Some milk alternatives (i.e. soy milk) are fortified with vitamin B12 – check the label.
Are you planning a vegetarian menu for an early learning centre?
The Heart Foundation has released a menu checklist to support centres in achieving the Healthy Heart Award whilst catering for vegetarian eating patterns. The checklist provides more information on key foods and food groups, recommended number of serves, snack ideas and healthy cooking methods to assist with planning a balanced menu.
The vegetarian menu checklist is available to all centres participating in the Healthy Heart Award. Register your early learning service here.
Looking for more menu planning inspiration? Take a look at our Fuelled4life vegetarian sample menu for early learning services or browse our recipe collection for healthy vegetarian meal and snack ideas.
Thank you for your feedback.
The Fuelled4life team.