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A plant-based & sustainable diet for kids, but where do they get their protein?

plant based sustainable kids
Real food that’s colourful, fun and good for our bodies and the planet

It is likely that you have heard that children and babies need meat, fish, eggs and dairy to sustain optimal development and growth. However, despite some alarming media headlines, the Australian Dietary Guidelines state “Australians following a vegetarian diet can still meet nutrient requirements if energy needs are met and the appropriate number and variety of serves from the Five Food Groups are eaten throughout the day.”

Furthermore, Dietitians Australia say “With planning, those following a vegan diet can cover all their nutrient bases, but there are some extra things to consider.” As well as, The American Dietetic Association also stating;

“appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

Morgan Mitchell vegan athlete
Morgan Mitchell, plant-based Olympian runner from Carlton, Victoria

Lastly, not only are animal products deemed unnecessary to meet our nutritional requirements, there is an overwhelming (and growing) body of research and healthcare practitioners suggesting the correlation of animal based foods and an increase risk in major lifestyle diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer).  To learn more of these risks check out The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

Read on below to find out what to consider when planning you or your child’s plant-based meals!

So with all that said and done, what does it mean to have an “appropriately planned” or “well managed” vegetarian/vegan/plant-based diet? and how do we ensure our preschoolers are being offered meals and snacks that meet the requirements of their growing brains and bodies?

plant based nutrition protein
Sushi bowls for lunch

An “appropriately planned” or “well managed” plant-based diet

Our preschool cook (and mother of two young plant-based children) consulted with a paediatrician and paediatric dietitian. The menu was then created in alignment with the findings of research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  The journal article entitled ‘Health Effects of Vegan Diets‘ explores the possible benefits and deficiencies associated with a plant-based diet in children.

This paper concludes “the micronutrients of special concern include vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, and long-chain n-3 (omega-3) fatty acids. Unless vegans regularly consume foods that are fortified with these nutrients, appropriate supplements should be consumed. In some cases, iron and zinc status of vegans may also be of concern because of the limited bioavailability of these minerals.”

Therefore our menu was designed with special attention to these nutrients.  We began by following the Australian Dietary guidelines relevant to Early Childhood and Care Services and the Munch & Move program and built the menu following the “food group” methodology which includes a variety of plant based options under each category.

plant based protein menu
Week 1: Autumn and Winter Menu
As an additional measure, we had our menu reviewed and approved by an Accredited Practising Dietitian (ADP) who assessed the menu based on the following criteria:
  • The NSW Ministry of Health Caring for Children Birth to 5 years nutrition standards requirement to receive at least one main meal and two mid-meals that provide a minimum of 50% of the RDIs (Recommended Dietary Intake) for all nutrients.
  • NRVs (Nutrient Reference Values), including RDIs, AIs (Adequate Intakes, which are targets set in the absence of an RDI), and UL (Upper Level of intake). These NRVs are recommendations for nutritional intakes for Australia and New Zealand. The relevant NRV age categories for this review are 1-3 years and 4-6 years.
  • For energy, the menu was assessed against the NRV for boys (which is slightly higher than for girls), using reference heights and weights for the upper age in the age category, and a moderate activity level (PAL 1.8).
We were then provided reports to demonstrate that our menu met the preschoolers nutrition needs for every nutrient within the lower and upper values.

“In conclusion, both parents and staff of Sustainable Play Preschool can be confident that this Autumn Winter 2021 menu will provide children with healthy nutritionally appropriate plant-based meals.” – Rebecca Phillips, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Botanic Nutrition

Rebecca Phillips, Dietitian, Botanic Nutrition
plant based protein week 2 menu
Week 2: Autumn and Winter Menu

Key nutrients to consider

Protein doesn’t even make the cut when it comes to nutrition experts’ recommendations to consider. This is because protein deficiencies are actually quite rare for individuals in developed countries who are eating any diet – protein is found in almost all foods. So, let’s look at the real question that should be posed to those choosing to live or eat more “plant-based”. Which is “Where do you get your B12, calcium, vitamin D, long chain omega 3’s and how do you boost your absorption of iron and zinc?”.  Although it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily now, does it? 

Protein

Our bodies need protein to grow and repair cells. Protein is found in a wide range of food. It’s important to get enough daily – how much you need varies depending on your activity level, weight, gender, age and health. Meeting your protein needs is easily achieved from eating a variety of plant-based whole foods. Even bread, potatoes and broccoli contain protein!

Proteins are made up of approximately 20 different amino acids that link together in different combinations when eating and pairing a wide range of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. We use them to make new muscle, bone, enzymes, hormones and as an energy source. Our clever bodies make 11 of our own amino acids which we call non-essential amino acids, however there are 9 amino acids our bodies cannot make which we need to include in our diets, these are known as essential amino acids. 

Examples of protein-rich plant-based foods:
  • Beans, chickpeas and lentils
  • Seitan (an ancient meat substitute made from wheat gluten)
  • Bean sprouts
  • Tofu, tempeh and edamame
  • Soy milk
  • Whole grains including oats and oatmeal
  • Seeds (sesame, chia, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower, flax)
  • Nuts and nut butters (almond, peanut, brazil nut, cashew, macadamia)
  • Hummus
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Green peas
  • Spirulina
  • Amaranth and quinoa
  • Vegetables (those with the most protein include broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts)
  • Fruits (the highest protein fruits include guava, figs, cherimoyas aka ‘custard apple’, mulberries, blackberries, nectarines and bananas)

    plant based protein sources
    Source: Tris Alexandra Nutrition and Wellness

Iron

Iron is a mineral used to produce red blood cells and transport oxygen from the lungs throughout our body. Iron deficiency is common in Australia in children, women and adolescents and should be considered for all lifestyles and diets.

Heme iron is found in animal based food. Non-heme iron is found in plant based sources. Non-heme iron isn’t as readily absorbed as heme-iron.

The recommendation is for those following a plant based diet is to meet 180% of the daily recommended target for iron to ensure adequate intake and absorption.
protein rich plant based food for kids
Lunch: Kale and pumpkin seed pesto pasta with baked tofu nuggets and steamed broccoli

It’s tasty and easy to do this with our preschool menu – we double and often triple iron sources in our meals. For example, we add tofu and chickpeas to our peanut butter curry with a side of broccoli and peas. Each of these foods is beautifully rich in iron and adds flavour to the meal.

We follow the recommendation to always include a source of vitamin C with iron rich foods to increase with absorption.

To do this we often add lemon to a recipe, such as steaming broccoli in lemon juice (try it, its yum!) or offering orange slices as a side to a meal. Currently, our preschoolers have been routinely harvesting the garden’s parsley and bringing it to our cook for the reward of parsley lemon tea to sip for warmth and an added vitamin C boost.

Examples of iron-rich plant-based foods:
  • Green leafy vegetables eg kale, cabbage
  • Beans and lentils
  • Tofu
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Millet
  • Figs
  • Dried apricots
  • Dates
plant based protein and calcium
From our Autumn/Winter menu

Calcium

We need calcium for our healthy teeth, bones, muscles, hormones and blood clotting. Calcium is also necessary for our nerves to carry messages from our brains throughout our bodies. Plant sources of calcium come with the added benefit of many other vitamins and minerals. Multiple studies suggest that individuals consuming dairy foods have an increased risk factor for osteoporosis and fractures.

Examples of plant-based calcium-rich foods:
  • Almonds
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, watercress, collard greens)
  • English muffins
  • Broccoli
  • Swede, pumpkin, sweet potatoes
  • Oranges
  • Raisins & figs
  • Tofu (fortified)
  • Soy milk (fortified)
  • Tahini (sesame seeds)

plant based protein and calcium

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is used in nerve development and cell production and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. B12 deficiencies can lead to anemia and can impact memory and thinking.

If B12 fortified foods are not consumed regularly then it is recommended for plant-based eating adults and children to supplement with a B12 oral spray.

Examples of plant-based sources of fortified B12 (check your labels):
  • Soy milk (and other plant milks)
  • Cereals
  • Margarine
  • Meat substitutes
  • Nutritional yeast (aka savoury yeast)
  • Yeast extract (marmite)

Nutritional yeast is a popular product in the plant-based world – its savoury, nutty, cheesy flavour adds depth to dishes and works deliciously as a seasoning or even as a parmesan substitute. It is made from a toasted inactive yeast and fortified with vitamin B complex, protein and other nutrients. A little bit goes a long way!

We use fortified nutritional yeast from our supplier Honest to Goodness. Our dietitian confirms that a tablespoon of fortified nutritional yeast a day meets the children’s daily RDI for B12. Many of the preschoolers find it so yummy, that we easily reach that amount. They love to stack their “nooch” on their meals. One of our beloved preschool children, Atlas, is known for his “nooch on toast” creations 🙂 (see photo below).

nutritional yeast nooch

B12 supplementation is still recommended to ensure adequate intake.plant based protein and b12

From our Autumn/Winter menu

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, healthy bones and teeth. Your vitamin D status depends on your sunlight exposure and your intake of foods containing vitamin D or supplements. In Australia we are blessed with long sunny days, even in winter. It is recommended that children spend 15 minutes outdoors in sunlight daily for adequate vitamin D intake. If this cannot be achieved because children are unable to play outside or you live in a country with less sunlight than Australia, then a vegetarian vitamin D supplement is recommended.

*D2 supplement is an animal-free source of vitamin D where most other sources derive from animal fat.

Examples of Vitamin D plant-based fortified foods (check your labels):
  • Cereals
  • Soy milk
  • Margarine
plant based vitamin D
Responsible exposure to the sun daily gives us adequate vitamin D

Zinc

Zinc is important for a strong immune system, healing wounds and making proteins and DNA. Zinc is plentiful when consuming a varied whole food plant-based diet however zinc is less absorbable from plants.

Our menu includes the recommended 150% of RDI of zinc for those eating a plant-based diet.
Examples of zinc-containing foods:
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Baked beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Whole grains
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Sesame seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Mushrooms

Our preschool menu is rich with foods containing zinc.

plant based zinc and protein
From our Autumn/Winter menu

Long Chain Omega n-3 (omega 3) polyunsaturated fatty acids

Vegetarian diets that exclude fish cannot meet the requirements for omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids unless vegetarian docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) supplements (derived from microalgae) are consumed. Although there is no official recommendation for omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for vegetarians, research suggests that vegetarians that exclude fish from their diet should double the current recommended adequate intake (AI) of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) if they do not consume a direct source of DHA/EPA, as ALA is converted to DHA and EPA in our bodies.

To address this recommendation we include 200% of the daily recommended intake of Omega 3 in our meal planning to assist in the conversion process.
Examples of plant-based foods that are rich in Omega 3:
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds/oil/flour
  • Flax seed/meal/oil
  • Algae oil
  • Walnuts
  • Edamame
Adding a tablespoon of chia/flax or hemp seeds once a day ensures you will meet this requirement.
plant based protein week 3 menu
Week 3: Autumn and Winter Menu

Why is a plant-based diet part of our ethos on sustainability?

We believe a plant based diet is an important part of living more sustainably. Check out our previous blog, “Why plant-based? Launching our Sustainable Autumn Winter menu” to learn more about why eating plant-based is better for the environment.

plant based protein and sustainability
The “why” behind our sustainable plant-based menu

Family and Staff Eating Habits

Families and preschool staff are NOT required to be plant-based eaters in order to enrol in or work at Sustainable Play Preschool. We simply ask our preschoolers to eat plant-based while at school.

Allergy Note

Our menu is safe for those with common allergies to dairy, shellfish and eggs, however the menu currently contains nuts. When we receive enrolment of a child with anaphylaxis to nuts, a deep sanitisation of the preschool and kitchen will be conducted to remove risk of cross-contamination and the menus will be updated to reflect a preschool-wide, ‘allergen free’ policy. We have dietitian approved substitutes ready to replace nuts on the menu. All non-anaphylactic allergies and intolerances will be accommodated for on a case-by-case basis. Our preschool cook will work with families to manage any dietary concerns and individual child needs.

 

plant based protein week 4 menu
Week 4: Autumn and Winter Menu

plant based high protein morning snack
Apple, pear and cinnamon oat bars and a hot cocoa

Written by Brooke Ravenscroft, Preschool Cook, Sustainable Play Preschool

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