Meat & Dairy-free Diets for Children – Right or Wrong?

While on holiday this year with my niece – who still dines from the children’s menu – we became aware of something quite startling. There wasn’t a vegetarian or vegan option in any of the restaurants we visited! It was something we found everywhere in Spain; the children’s dishes were processed and disappointingly fatty. Back home in England there’s usually a vegetarian dish, but it’s often a Margherita Pizza or Tomato Pasta. How boring and uninspiring! Surely thought should be put into the meals we serve up to our children in the same way we do for adults meals?

imageA person once commented on a blog I wrote that they were disappointed to see eateries serving up processed foods such Chicken Nuggets and Chips or Fish Fingers, rather than encouraging Dinky Diners to eat freshly prepared, smaller versions of the adult meals available. It was something Mr. Canny and I discussed at length afterwards;  in relation to our Dinky and what we will feed her once she’s weaned and we dine out.

With Mr. Canny’s veganism we’ve decided Dinky will be raised in the same manner. This has caused consternation from some we know, especially when there’s sensationalist newspaper articles about children being taken into care suffering from malnutrition who have been raised on a vegan diet. There are many children fed on junk food by their parents who escape criticism because of how ubiquitous Maccie D’s and chicken dippers are. Nothing substitutes a healthy, balanced diet. I’m loathe to use the word ‘diet’ because of its connotations, we are not doing this to restrict calories or lose weight. Being a vegetarian or vegan should not be compared following Paleo or ‘clean-eating’ food trends, it is very much an ethical lifestyle choice. People do so because of the meat and dairy production industry, not to feel healthier. It happens to be a by-product of the switch, but only if done correctly. I know plenty of unhealthy vegetarians who think it’s ok to live in a diet of cheese and chips so long as they don’t have a ‘dirty burger’.

imageMeat and dairy are absolutely not necessary to raise a healthy child. Soya milks are often fortified with calcium and other nutrients, protein can be gained from other sources such beans and pulses. There are meat substitute products of course, which we eat on occasion. This is not because we fancy a sausage, because these items are often nothing like ‘the real deal’. Mr. Canny would argue about the semantics and origins of sausages, but I’m not going there!

The World Health Organisation classed the humble banger last year – alongside bacon and other processed meats – as carcinogenic as cigarettes (see Q&A relating to this on their website here). Why, therefore, should there be raised eyebrows at the suggestion we feed Dinky legumes instead?! There’s a raft of research available suggesting that a vegan diet is the healthiest around, and it isn’t just mung bean munchers who are espousing this. A simple Google search will turn up links to scientific journals which also support this. Not only is going vegan healthy, in terms of the planet & sustainability it is the most sensible option too.

imageMany children who have a lactose intolerance avoid dairy. Does this mean they have to go without ice cream or milk on their cereal? Not at all. Are people accepting of the fact they don’t drink milk? Yep. You wouldn’t criticise a parent for not giving something they believe, or know, to be detrimental to their health. There are so many fantastic alternatives out there that these children won’t develop rickets, or worse. As a child my parents were told to avoid giving me milk as doctors believed it triggered my skin complaints. In the late 70s it was certainly a lot harder to follow what is perceived as a ‘restrictive diet’ than it is now, although it must be hard to dine out with children if they have severe allergies because of the trust you must place in restaurants. If Mr. Canny has been served up dairy without apology even when we’ve requested it, how scary must it be if you know your child could be hospitalised because of an error?

Being a vegan is easy if you’re just going to eat salad and fruit, but there’s such a diverse wealth of ingredients out there it’s simply not necessary. This is why I get frustrated when I see limited vegan or vegetarian options on menus in restaurants. Surely chefs should embrace the challenge of cooking with fresh, seasonal produce rather than opening packers from catering companies? Some of the tastiest dishes I’ve enjoyed have been meat-free. It shows more skill than whacking a lump of meat on the grill, in all honesty.

So, back onto the issue of kid’s menus. Many of my vegetarian friends say they discovered they didn’t like or want to eat meat as a child, but were ‘forced’ to by their parents. One person I know regaled me of a time he had to eat liver and resorted to hiding it under the pile of mashed potatoes. I believe we shape the palates of our children at a young age by what we feed them during their developmental stage, but for some there isn’t the cognitive dissonance from the cows and chickens they hear about in Old McDonald and the ones on their plate.

I’ve been advised while weaning Dinky to stick to fruit and vegetables, and to avoid jars of processed food which include dairy. Why? In case of allergies and to promote healthy eating from a young age. She loves sweet potato, cucumber, melon and avocado so far, and dislikes broccoli. I breastfeed her and will continue to do so for as long as it is wanted and practical. We know when I return to work it will be more difficult, but there are soy-based formulas available that contain the same nutrients as others on the market. Our health visitor said we could see a dietician if we wished, but said she felt it was unnecessary as we had properly researched all the options and was happy Dinky is thriving. In fact, no one could say she’s fading away with her chubby cheeks and legs 🙂

imageChildren’s nutrition is something that is very important, and I hope restaurants start thinking about what they serve up. Rather than chucking some processed meat in the oven, why not create a fun and interesting dish that’s packed with nutrients instead. My niece is known to be fussy, but while away on holiday with us has eaten all manner of new foods. Some she’s liked, others not so much. What we’ve said to her, though, is we’re happy she’s tried. Maybe Dinky will eat meat when she’s older, but that will be her choice. She’ll do so knowing, at the very least, how animals arrive on her fork. We aren’t going to hide the truth about food production from her, however gruesome some may find that. We feel that, as parents, we are responsible for her education and growth both culturally and physically. While others point the finger of blame at schools for not providing healthy meals to kids as a reason behind the obesity crisis in this country, ask why they serve up pizza and chips now in the first place. Kids will happily avoid eating fruit and veg when offered chips and nuggets, so shouldn’t everyone be promoting a healthier diet, not shaming in the way some are when parents decide to make a stand? There are those who don’t feed their kids properly in both camps, so don’t judge all vegetarians and vegans in the same way. We have the right to follow whichever path we chose, just so long as it doesn’t detrimentally affect others. Vegans believe animals have those rights too. Just remember, 20 years ago vegetarians were seen as ‘kooks’ and, apart from a few exceptions, find veggie options everywhere on the menu. Let’s hope perceived wisdom moves forward enough to allow vegans the same privilege in the future.

Thanks for reading,

Pip x


  1. samantha rickelton

    When we were in Spain only two of the restaurants we visited had children’s menus (and one was the fanciest). Everywhere else just served half portions of adult meals which was good – Harry dined on a lot of seafood and the two little ones had lots of pasta.

    In terms of making your children eat meat it’s a tough one and something I struggle with with Heidi – sometimes kids are just fussy for fussy sake and if you ‘give into them’ and say it’s ok you don’t need to eat that, where does it end? If I tell Heidi she can leave her chicken does that mean Harry can leave his Broccoli? It’s tough.

    Heidi does eat a mostly vegetarian diet now as I think over time you do get to realise when your children are being fussy and when they genuinely don’t want to eat something and you need to consider this. Weirdly though she still will eat sausages and hot dogs! Two of the most processed types of meat!! Weird!

    1. Emma Phillips (Post author)

      I agree – as a fussy eater – that it is difficult. My mother never forced me to eat certain things. With Lucas I’ve been very conscious of this and from a young age fed him things I didn’t like, such as fish, peas and beans. Funnily enough though, he also doesn’t like eggs like me! You should try Heidi with Quorn hot dogs. If she’s going to eat processed, why not a meat substitute? Seriously, they taste exactly the same!

  2. Nyomi

    Some salient points here! As you know my son is allergic to cow and goats milk products so I empathise with a lot of this. Eating out can be scary and so often you speak to staff in restaurants who clearly don’t get it, sometimes we have to walk out as it’s just not worth the risk and there have been a number of times the staff have messed up. Twice after making sure a sandwich was dairy free we’ve checked on arrival and it’s been slathered in butter. Just as well we checked! I’m sure dinky will be fine as you guys have good knowledge and understanding of nutrition, like you say, much more than some people who’ follow conventional diets. The milk industry must have done the best marketing campaign since, well, the formula industry! I’ll never understand why stuff like extended breastfeeding is judged but it seems acceptable for kids to drink fizzy drinks out of baby bottles!

    1. Emma Phillips (Post author)

      It is beggars belief what I see when out and about. It’s ok to give a baby a Greggs sausage roll, but not to feed one on a vegan diet? Seriously?! I appreciate some vegan parents may not properly research their diet in the way that we have, and it could cause issues, but with the prevalence of junk food some parents are slowly causing issues like diabetes and heart problems with the food they feed them too. Balance is needed.

  3. The Crumby Vegan

    Such a great article! I’m currently on the path to being 100% vegan myself but fortunately I live in Dénia, Spain where lovely vegan-friendly restaurants are popping up everywhere.

    A big issue at the moment is whether to raise your children as vegan and I myself worry about the decision I will have to make if I ever become a mother. I want to be able to explain to children the link between animal and food before I prepare it for them. It will be their choice and most definitely needs to be a healthy one. Thank you for this article as we need positive news about vegan children as well as the extreme articles being thrown at us these days 🙂

    1. Emma Phillips (Post author)

      We stayed in Javea, but visited Sunshine Eatery in Denia while there! I was surprised at how many places we could eat in that had vegan options, but it was sad that the kids menus were stuck in the 80s still. We ate at Sofia’s and all that was offered was chips & processed meat or fish. Such a lovely restaurant, and yet nothing inspiring for kids.

      1. The Crumby Vegan

        It is a genuinely good point. Not being a mother (yet) I guess it doesn’t come up on my radar, but definitely a point I can make to the restaurants in the future.

        I have created a page on my blog: to list all the vegan-friendly restaurants in Dénia. Hopefully it will be helpful if you do decide to stay again. I will consider looking into the children’s menus at some point in the future as they should (even more importantly than adults) have a healthy variety in the food and not the processed muck.

  4. Leanne J

    As I turned vegetarian at age 14 (my own choice) I was very upset at having those prior years eating meat – a few of those years were before my parents told me honestly what meat even was! When you’re 8 you don’t usually know that gammon comes from a pig whose life is taken to make your meal, and it’s not getting taught properly in schools. The first thing I refused to eat was ‘anything from a pig’ so thankfully my mother supported me. She knew I adored pigs.

    Honestly, having thought of all that, I was truly gutted that I had ever eaten meat at all. My mother turned vegetarian around the time I did, having both decided we couldn’t be part of this any more. Now I’m 37, I don’t beat myself up about not being a veggie kid any more, but grateful that my mother supported my choices and enabled me to eat properly and healthily. As we both learned about the darker side of the food industry, we were happy with our choices and I fully support any child or person being told the truth – we can improve animal welfare and improve standards at the very least if people still want to eat meat. Be aware, be conscious of how this happens and don’t just turn a blind eye.

    As you say, it’s perfectly possible to get a full and balanced diet being vegan or vegetarian (and I even did so with high protein intake for my weight training, before anyone gives the usual protein comment). I know for a fact that I pay more attention to my nutrition than the majority of my meat-eating friends, and they acknowledge that they generally don’t know what goes into their meals. If Dinky grows up and decides she wants something else, I know you’ll support her regardless, so I hate when people make this decision into something controversial when they have little idea about actual nutrition and micronutrients.

    I’m glad that now – and this is in part due to my personal trainer (a vegetarian) and friend – I have more information on how food is grown, to hopefully grow some of my own food (when I get a garden!) and about protein, fitness and health. It all leads to being healthier and more aware of what goes into food 🙂


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