Your vegetarian teenager

Has your teenager recently announced they are a vegetarian?

Mine has!  The rest of the family eat meat and I'm too busy to be cooking 2 meals every night so here's some ideas for how I cope.  I've also seen quite a few vegetarian clients recently with iron deficiency so I'll outline some common nutrient concerns with a vegetarian teenager and how to avoid them.

I'm also trying to avoid the common teen vegetarian trap of becoming a "carba-tarian" for example just having pasta with tomato sauce - this isn't a balanced meal as it is short on protein without much fat, fat soluble vitamins or much bio-available calcium or iron.

1.  Make Veggies the Focus

Most of us could benefit from incopororating more plants into our diets - I'm trying to change my family's meals so they are plant based with a little meat rather than meat based with a little plant!

By choosing a veggie focussed main - you can add grilled meat or fish for those that like and add in some vegetarian protein such as legumes, eggs, cheese or tofu as well.

Here's some examples that I've served recently:

Sicilian Caponata - serve with grilled lamb cutlets for us and cannellini beans for her

Lentil and Feta Salad - served with grilled sausages both meat and plant based

Rosemary chickens with pesto pasta - I used a pulse based pasta which is very high in protein and served the chicken separately.  Pesto has nuts and cheese so an additional source of protein. 

We have been on the #meatfreemonday bandwagon for a while so I on these nights I cook up extras for the next night.  Here's some ideas:

cypriot grain 2.png

Cypriot salad


2.  Avoiding nutrient deficiencies

The nutrients that are most often lacking in vegetarian diets are protein, iron and zinc.  Adding legumes, tofu or soy foods in will help supply these nutrients . Teens also need to eat enough dairy food or calcium-fortified soy or almond drinks to ensure a good calcium intake (aim for 1,300mg a day), vital for strong bones and teeth.

The iron contained in plant foods (non-haem iron) such as dried bean and lentils is not as well absorbed as the iron in animal foods.  For teenage boys age 14-18 the RDI of iron is 11mg per day, for girls it is 15mg.  However  vegetarians are advised to target 1.8 the RDI to allow for the low bio-availability typical of their diets so boys should aim for 20mg and girls should aim for 27mg.

Good vegetarian sources of non-haem iron include iron-fortified breakfast cereals, wholegrains, tofu and legumes.  To help absorb non-haem iron combine these foods with vitamin C rich foods such as citrus fruits, tomatoes and capsicum.  Try to avoid tea or coffee with your iron containing meals as these block absorption. 

Here's some good plant based iron sources:

  • Weetbix (2 bix) 3 mg of iron
  • Kidney beans/ lentils/ chickpeas 1 cup 3 mg of iron
  • Tofu 100g has 3mg of iron of iron
  • Burgen pumpkin seeds (2 slices) 1.9mg of iron
  • Marmite 5g serve (1 tsp) 1.8mg - spread it on Burgen Pumpkin Seeds for 3.7mg of iron total
  • Cooked wholemeal pasta 1 cup 2.3 mg of iron
  • Pumpkin seeds 28mg contain 4.2mg of iron
  • Cashews 30g (20 nuts) 1.5mg of iron
  • Dried apricots 30g (5 dried apricots) 1mg of iron
  • Milo 20g (4 teaspoons) 3.6mg (yes I know, loaded with sugar but for an active teen it's worth considering especially after a workout as part of their recovery nutrition)
image source: sanitarium

image source: sanitarium

Make sure you get your teen to have a blood test next time they are at the GP or if they are showing signs of iron deficiency (fatigue, lack of concentration, headaches, pale skin, continual infections).  Note that you should only take iron supplements if advised by your GP as too much iron can be harmful.  This resource from Nutrition Australia is a useful summary


3.  Get your teen in the kitchen

I think it's fair enough that if your teen is going to announce that they are vegetarian that they should contribute to helping cook some meals.  If they aren't a confident cook some ideas are:

- Marley Spoon/Hello Fresh have plenty of vegetarian options with simple to follow recipe cards

- Jamie Oliver has loads of vegetarian recipes with videos to help

- Minimalist Baker is very insta pretty as is Tasty Vegetarian .  I'd be pretty happy if someone cooked me one of their recipes!

image source:

image source:

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