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Should your kid be plant-based? Nutritionists share method to cut out meat and dairy

Two nutritionists aim to help parents create plant-based meals in a way that's both easy and nutritional.
Friends and nutritionists Alexandra Caspero and Whitney English with two of their children, who were the inspiration for the creation of Plant Based Juniors.
Friends and nutritionists Alexandra Caspero and Whitney English with two of their children, who were the inspiration for the creation of Plant Based Juniors. Lani Ohye

Eating more plants is certainly a good thing, but it's not always so easy to get kids on board — or to figure out if they're getting enough nutrition.

Enter "Plant Based Juniors," a resource from a pair of dietitians and close friends who were inspired to share their tips after struggling to feed their own children plant-based diets, come up with creative meals and make sure their kids were getting enough nutrients without animal products.

"I was like, well, I don't want to feed my baby meat — I haven't eaten meat myself in 15 years," Alexandra Caspero, a registered dietician and vegetarian cookbook author, told TODAY Health.

But all the books and resources she came across when she was introducing solid food to her first child three years ago said it would be hard for her daughter to get enough iron without eating meat.

When her friend and fellow dietician Whitney English had her first baby shortly after, she had a similar experience.

"At the time there was no one-stop shop for plant-based parents," English told TODAY. "There were a lot of different mommy bloggers out there who were sharing their own anecdotal reports and there were some experts talking about plant-based nutrition for kids, but there was nothing that was easily accessible and that also translated the nutrition information to the plate so that parents could actually apply it."

Together Caspero and English launched Plant Based Juniors, an online resource for people interested in plant-based diets for their children. And last month, they published their first book together: "The Plant-Based Baby and Toddler: Your Complete Feeding Guide for 6 months to 3 years."

While both Caspero and English describe themselves as "predominantly plant-based," meaning they stay away from animal-based products most of the time, they say the book isn't only for vegans; it can be helpful for anyone who wants their kids to eat more plants. The goal is to show people how to create plant-based meals in a way that's both easy and nutritional, since most food charts include dairy and meat. To help parents figure out how to create a properly balanced plant-based meal, they created what they call the PB3 Plate model. It's a pie chart with three sections: fruits and vegetables; nuts, seeds and legumes; and grains and starches.

Think of the PB3 Plate model as a modern food pyramid for babies and toddlers with plant-based diets. Plant Based Juniors

"It's a visual guide to meal planning," English said. "The idea is that by putting something from each of those categories on every plate, you're likely going to meet all of your children's nutrient needs."

The chart also breaks each category down further to show parents which nutrients kids will get from each food group — vitamin C from fruits and vegetables and calcium from beans and greens, for example.

Given all the benefits of swapping out meat for plants — weight loss, improved heart health, possibly living longer — experts say it's no surprise some parents want to feed their kids plant-based diets.

"I think we forget there are so many ways to get nutrients we need that don't necessarily have to come from meat," Dr. Jean Moorjani, a pediatrician at Orlando Health's Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Florida, told TODAY. "Calcium doesn't always have to come from cow's milk. We can get calcium from green leafy vegetables. Beans are also a big source of calcium."

"The big thing people think about is iron," she continued. "But you can get iron from lentils, beans, tofu, chickpeas. There are also iron-fortified breads and cereals. These are all options."

That said, some parents may find that ditching meat and dairy entirely is simply harder.

"Much of the protein and the calcium in a child's diet does come from dairy, and it's hard to get those from other foods," said Dr. Lauren Crosby, a pediatrician in Los Angeles. "You just have to really know what you're doing."

Whole milk, for example, is recommended for children because of its high fat content, she said, which many plant-based milks don't have. She tells parents to compare the nutritional labels of plant-based milks to the nutritional label on whole milk and to get the one that most closely matches the whole milk. Children with strict plant-based diets may also benefit from a nutritional supplement, she said. (The nutrients she worries about them not getting enough of are iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.)

"If you give them a daily multi-vitamin, you're just going to cover all the gaps in nutrition," Crosby said. "It's not as easy, and it can be tricky, but (an entirely plant-based diet) can be done."

Both Crosby and Moorjani recommend parents talk to their pediatricians or primary care physicians before cutting out meat and dairy from their kids' diets. And they said that parents may find it easier to take a less rigid approach and opt for a diet that has more plants, but still leaves some room for animal-based products on occasion.

"Flexibility is key," Moorjani said. "We just want to make sure kids are getting all these nutrients. Maybe they do have some meat, but it's a reduced amount. I think for any of us, if we're able to reduce the amount of meat in our meals, that can lead to a healthier diet overall."