As parents and grandparents, we all want to provide healthy, nutritious foods to help our kids grow, learn and thrive.

Yet it’s difficult as a caregiver to know what’s the healthiest way to feed our children, especially with so much conflicting information from the media, celebrities, family and other parents.

“Kids have nutrient needs that must be met in very small portions, because they can’t eat a lot,” explains Ruth Litchfield, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University. “So you’ve got to make sure that every bite counts to make sure they are getting some nutrients in there.”

One of the latest nutrition fads — vegetarian or “plant-based” diets for kids — earns many “likes” on social media (because, let’s be honest, a rainbow assortment of vegetables looks fantastic on Instagram photos).

However, nutrition experts caution that young children who eat a vegetarian diet may be missing out on important nutrients for growth, immunity and brain development — nutrients that they can only get from real meat and dairy foods.

“Plant-based doesn’t have to mean solely plants,” Litchfield says. “It means that you have more emphasis on plants on your plate. … It’s not saying ‘no animal sources.’”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) earlier this year released its first-ever Dietary Guidelines for children under the age of 2.

The new guidelines recommend that children shouldn’t be introduced to a vegetarian diet before the age of 12 months. (Most vegetarian diets are lacto-ovo, meaning that dairy foods and eggs are still allowed.)

And vegan diets — those with absolutely no animal-based foods — aren’t recommended to kids under the age of 2, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

That’s because animal-based foods, including meat, dairy and poultry, are excellent sources of essential nutrients, including iron and zinc, for kids’ growth, Litchfield says.

“The iron you need for neurological development, and also you need it for immunity,” Litchfield says. “The zinc, again, is needed for growth and immunity.”

For kids who are fed a vegetarian diet, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that they take supplements to ensure that they are getting the iron and vitamin B12 needed for growth and development. B12 is an essential nutrient for energy and red blood cell development that you can only get from real meat, dairy and eggs.

“If you choose to raise plant-based or vegetarian kids, then you have to be really, really careful,” Litchfield says. “You’re going to need those other supplemental nutrients because it’s going to be even harder to meet (the kids’) nutrition needs.

While parents today may be concerned about the health of their child’s diet and weight management, Litchfield stressed that the healthiest diets are those that include a wide range of nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains and real meat and dairy.

“Cutting out specific food groups is not what we’re looking for,” Litchfield says. “It’s not about eliminating foods. Let’s eat everything in moderation.”

For more information about the nutritional benefits of real meat, visit

Return to The Iowa Dish