Whether your toddler is allergic or has a specific diet for lifestyle or religious reasons, it is perfectly possible to present healthy, balanced meals. As long as you know where the potential nutritional shortfalls may be, you’ll have the knowledge you need to substitute from a cornucopia of goodies.
Q: Are there any meat substitutes that I can buy?
A: You can buy textured vegetable protein (TVP), which is soy flour that’s been processed and dried. It’s available ground into granules that resemble minced beef and is prepared by mixing with vegetable stock and then leaving it to stand for a few minutes. It is great for making bolognese or burgers. As well as being a good source of protein, it is fortified with vitamin B12, which vegetarian or vegan diets sometimes lack.
Q: How can I make my toddler’s vegetarian menu a little more exciting?
A: Vegetarian diets vary dramatically, with some vegetarians eating fish, eggs, and milk, and some cutting them out alongside meat and poultry. As long as you take care to ensure that your toddler gets the nutrients she’d normally get from eating these foods—iron, vitamin B12, protein, and zinc—anything goes.

Consider adding dairy products, ground seeds and nuts, as well as plenty of pulses, such as chickpeas, lentils, and beans, to ensure she has adequate protein in her diet. Tofu (made from soy bean curd) doesn’t have much taste, but if you marinate it, you can use it to make tasty stir fries. With children under the age of five, you should stick to nut butters and ground or finely chopped nuts due to the choking risk. Ground almonds make a tasty addition to cakes and crumbles. Eggs will add protein and some iron, as will fortified breakfast cereals, whole wheat bread, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, and lentils. Most of these supply zinc, too. Vitamin B12 is adequately represented in dairy products, fortified breakfast cereals, and eggs. You can then experiment with different herbs, spices, and other flavors .

Q: What grains are a good addition to a vegan diet?
A: The key is to provide variety, so the greater the number of grains you manage to include in your toddler’s diet, the more nutrients he will be getting.

Good choices are quinoa, buckwheat (which can replace flour in most recipes), oats, corn (on its own, or in a tortilla, pasta, or even bread), wheat, wild rice, rye, brown rice, and amaranth are all worth trying, either in baking or as an addition to a healthy meal.

Q: What can I use instead of eggs in my allergic toddler’s diet?
A: Eggs are a good source of protein, and contain mainly vitamins A, D, and E. While eggs are not essential, you will need to ensure that your toddler gets protein from other sources, such as pulses, whole grains, meat and fish, seeds, soy, and dairy products.

Although nuts are a good source of protein, around 20–30 percent of egg allergics have nut allergies. Multiple allergies do often rule many of these foods out, so you will need the help of a dietitian to make sure your toddler’s needs are met. A diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables will supply adequate vitamins and minerals, and making sure that your toddler gets plenty of whole grains (see Culinary adventures) will keep her B vitamin levels topped off.

If you are baking, there are some good “egg replacements” on the market, although these will not have the same nutritional benefits as real eggs. If you are stumped for breakfast ideas, consider tofu scramble, which is a good, healthy alternative that I like to make.

Q: How can I incorporate pulses into my toddler’s vegetarian diet?
A: On their own, most pulses are fairly bland, which makes them ideal for adding to almost any dish. A handful of cooked lentils, chickpeas, butter beans, kidney beans, or soy beans can be added to pasta dishes, vegetables bakes, and casseroles. They can often form the basis of meals, too, as in the Vegetarian shepherd’s pie recipe, which uses lentils instead of meat. Chickpeas can be added to couscous for a cold or hot main meal, along with chopped onions, feta cheese, and some diced tomatoes. Purée chickpeas or even butter beans with some tahini, lemon juice, and garlic to make a healthy hummus to spread on toast. Try mashing butter beans with a little vegetarian stock as an alternative to mashed potatoes.

Quinoa quota

One of the very best foods you can offer a vegan toddler is quinoa. This looks like a grain but is, in fact, a seed. It is rich in essential fatty acids, protein, iron, fiber, and antioxidants. It can be used in much the same way as couscous, or can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, pasta dishes, and risottos.

Culinary adventures

Having a child with special dietary needs may force you to become a little more creative in your cooking, and to experiment with foods with which you may not be familiar. However, in the long run, your whole family will benefit from the wealth of new ingredients you explore, and will undoubtedly become more adventurous eaters, as a result.

Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie

Lentils are a good source of protein and iron for vegetarians, and green lentils in a tomato sauce makes a savory and satisfying filling for these little potato-topped pies.

10 minutes

1 hour 35 minutes


4–6 small pies

  • 1 tbsp olive oil

  • 1 red onion, finely chopped

  • 1 carrot, peeled and grated

  • 1 garlic clove, crushed

  • 3/4 cup green lentils, rinsed

  • 14oz can crushed tomatoes

  • 21/2 cups vegetable stock

  • 2/3 cup water

  • 2 tbsp tomato paste

  • 1 tbsp soy sauce

  • 1 tbsp light brown sugar

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/3 cup frozen green peas (optional)

  • Topping

    • 2lb potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks

    • 11/2 tbsp butter

    • 1/4 cup milk

    • Beaten egg or shredded Cheddar cheese

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onions and carrots until softened and lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the lentils, tomatoes, stock, water, tomato paste, soy sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 1 hour.

  2. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in lightly salted boiling water until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, then mash well with the butter and milk.

  3. Season the lentils to taste with pepper and stir in the peas, if using. Divide among four to six ramekins or other small baking dishes. Spread the mashed potatoes over the lentils and mark ridges with a fork. Cool, then refrigerate. Or, cover with plastic wrap and freeze; thaw overnight in the refrigerator when needed.

  4. To cook, preheat the oven to 400°F. Put the pies on a baking sheet, brush the tops with beaten egg (or sprinkle with cheese), and bake until golden and piping hot, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly and check the temperature before serving.

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